In his Hindustan Times article “The city needs a land audit,” Shalisesh Gaikwad references the Adarsh Housing Society Scam, a recent scandal in which Mumbai government officials constructed an apartment building for themselves on government land in Colaba under the guise of providing housing to retired personnel of Indian defense services.
In his article Gaikwad explains the controversy that has arisen between government officials who claim that the land they used for the new building in Colaba belongs to the state government and India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) which calls the situation a “land grab” by the government. In response to this debacle, Gaikwad notes other instances of fraud and corruption in recent Mumbai property dealings and he explains that the people of Mumbai should be concerned about the outcome of precedent-setting Adarsh since Mumbai’s egregious real-estate prices hang in the balance. Gaikwad ends his article calling for an audit of public lands in Mumbai as a way to help formalize dealings of urban property and establish accurate records of land availability and ownership in the city.
Indeed Gaikwad is correct that the people of Mumbai should be concerned about the outcome of the Adarsh case, but the rationale for their concern should transcend simply curbing city real-estate prices. More importantly, the people of Mumbai should be concerned that dispossessing individuals of land for “public benefit” prolongs the cramped and unsanitary conditions of slums and informal housing sites and brings down the overall livability and economy of the city.
A land audit is certainly a must, and it must include assessments of land ownership, plot size, vacant lots, and spaces that are “informally” occupied. The past experience of the government’s Slum Rehabilitation Act (SRA) and Basic Services to the Urban Poor (BSUP) schemes has revealed that the identified lands that benefit the urban poor are often not correctly measured or the ownership of these lands is not defined. These omissions have not only lengthened the procedure for obtaining legal land clearances for relocation projects, but they have also resulted in forced evictions and fewer slum-dwellers able to stay in their homes because of inaccurate audit measurements.
The land audit to come should aim to produce a digitized database of survey findings in addition to standard paper records of the audit results. When records only exist in paper they quickly become outdated and remain accessible only in institutions like municipal corporations, land revenue departments, and tax revenue departments. These departments often do not coordinate with each other, meaning that obtaining accurate information on the state of land ownership can be nearly impossible. This in turn jeopardizes projects that are meant to benefit the urban poor.
The hopeful land audit to come has the potential to provide easily-available, accurate, and updated land records for the public. These records would be capable of serving myriad purposes: to identify ownership records, to locate vacant and available land for relocation and affordable housing projects, to feed into formulation of policies, schemes, and detailed project reports meant for the urban poor, among other benefits. Maintaining transparency in the audit process and the records that result from it will ensure fact-checked records for all concerned residents, civil society organizations, and the urban poor themselves.