Digitising Rural Land Records, One Drone At A Time

Drones are helping redraw ownership boundaries across rural areas as part of a government project. What’s the objective?

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Images of a drone survey being conducted. (Source: AUS)</p></div>
Images of a drone survey being conducted. (Source: AUS)

You have a home, but you can’t prove it's yours. You have a boundary marked by stones, but no documents to back it. That's how much of rural India lives.

What if this could be changed? Not with a herculean human effort which involves thousands of workers traversing the length and breadth of the country, but with the help of a few thousand drones.

The Svamitva scheme, being implemented by the government, is attempting exactly that.

The acronym, which stands for “Survey of Villages and Mapping with Improvised Technology in Village Areas” is surveying the abadi or inhabited areas of villages using drone technology. The idea is if villagers have a “record of rights” to their households, they can use it as an asset and also fight off property disputes.

If the project succeeds, boundaries currently defined by a tree or a stone, will stand transformed into something more tangible — a record on paper. And village topographies, like the one below, may finally be defined by clearer ownership confines.

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Aerial images of village areas taken from drone surveys. (Source: IdeaForge)

How It Started...

The idea for the scheme came from Maharashtra, where the panchayat levies and collects property tax from abadi areas, Alok Prem Nagar, joint secretary at the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, said. The state was looking to update its property register and got in touch with the Survey of India for help with the drone survey.

Seeing what was being attempted in the state, it was realised a similar nationwide exercise could prove useful.

With no clear demarcations, it’s chaotic for someone to assert ownership, Nagar said, adding informal rights could be crystallised into a “record of rights”, should the exercise work. Besides, substantial revenue could be collected and this could help fund the village panchayats, he said.

“Imagine that you have informal ownership of your home but no documents to show ownership,” Vinay Kumar Singh, economist and management consultant, said. “If someone asks, at best you could explain that your parents or your grandparents lived in the house and a part of it has been left to you. That is the reality in inhabited areas in villages in India. Someone could throw you out of your house and there may not be much you can do about it.”

“These areas have not been surveyed since independence and, if nothing else, laying down proper ownership boundaries can bring peace of mind for those who live in these areas,” he said.

How It’s Going...

Nagar and his team went on to study the idea and in April 2020 a pilot project was launched under the Ministry of Panchayati Raj in collaboration with state Panchayati Raj departments, state revenue departments and the Survey of India as technology partner.

The pilot operated in nine states—Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh—according to a statement by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj.

In April this year, it was rolled out for implementation across the country and is expected to cover about 6.62 lakh villages by 2024.

Hundreds of drone flights have already taken place, just like the one below, collecting aerial images across the country, ranging from the foothills of the Himalayas to the deserts of Rajasthan.

The process isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. Naturally, there are questions, concerns and, perhaps even a degree of suspicion. So the first step is to create awareness among villagers, said Singh. Then, lime stone powder or “chuna” is used to mark boundaries, with workers from the gram panchayat and revenue department overseeing the work.

It is a fascinating exercise, where the governments organise a “nukad natak” (neighbourhood play), collect people in one place and explain to them the purpose of the chuna marking and the drone surveys.
Vinay Kumar Singh, Economist & Management Consultant
Images of Limestone or Chuna markings ahead of drone surveys. (Source: AUS)
Images of Limestone or Chuna markings ahead of drone surveys. (Source: AUS)

Once this process of informal boundary marking is done, the drones take flight to collect high resolution images.

With the kind of utilisation of drones taking place, the kind of variable terrains and the impact that the drones deliver, this can be called the most impactful application of drones anywhere in the world even in it’s current phase, said Vipul Singh, co-founder and CEO at AUS, a company that delivers drone solutions to Svamitva.

A drone’s coverage depends on weather and the terrain.

For instance, in Uttarakhand, a drone can cover three to four villages per day on average, while it can cover five to seven villages in Uttar Pradesh, Singh said.

The images are then sent for processing to the Survey of India and finally take the shape of maps.

Once the maps are ready, villagers are given about 15 days to verify that their land is mapped properly, after which they receive their property cards.

So far, drone surveys have been completed for nearly 46,000 villages according to Nagar. Property cards have been distributed in more than 7,489 villages across more than 7.09 lakh beneficiaries, according to a press release by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj dated May 4, 2021.

Challenges Abound

For a scheme of its magnitude, challenges are inevitable.

Work gets hampered for all sorts of reasons.

For instance, when “chuna” marking is left undone or is done incorrectly, data has to be recollected.

There is also a back-log in processing data, said Vishal Saxena, vice president of surveillance and mapping at IdeaForge, a drone manufacturing company that supplies to the scheme.

The Survey of India isn’t able to process data quickly enough for a host of reasons, Saxena said. For the Survey of India to put in place the IT infrastructure needed to manage data of this magnitude will take time, he said.

An inadequate number of drones is another problem, as is the focus on picking the lowest bidders rather than the best technology.

According to people in the industry, an emergency procurement mandate has been passed for a foreign vendor without a tender and the price of procurement is at about 40% over than previous tenders.

Together, these concerns could hamper the goal of completing the project by 2024.

At the current pace and with the disruption to work because of the pandemic, the project is likely to overshoot its timeline, Vipul Singh of AUS said.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Image of a drone survey being conducted. (Source: AUS)</p></div>

Image of a drone survey being conducted. (Source: AUS)

End Goal Some Way Away But...

Beyond the logistical challenges and the experiment with drone technology, can the project achieve what it set out to do?

In villages where we have completed work, the project is already achieving its objectives, said Nagar. Along with its intended objectives such as ease of bank loans and reducing property disputes, there are other positive externalities. For instance, people now understand the issue of compensation in land acquisition better, he said.

But it is a step-by-step process.

“Every state will have to enact laws that ascertain the legality of the property cards being issued,” Nagar said. “And then states will need to engage with lenders and others to ensure acceptance of these property cards as collateral.”

While the end goal of the project of the project may be some distance away, the learnings from the process could prove to be valuable in themselves.

Once you have the ecosystem of drones in place and once you have the expertise available where you can interpret the drone photographs and create maps, then you can map and survey anything... The expertise is now available with the state governments and they can do whatever they wish to. For instance, nothing stops a certain state government from doing the same exercise for the farming land also.
Vinay Kumar Singh, Economist & Management Consultant

Saxena agreed.

“With the scheme underway and with the geospatial policy opening up, this technology can be used for anti-poaching by the forest department or electricity tower inspections, for instance,” Saxena said. Most of these tasks are mammoth and there is not enough manpower. “That’s where unmanned aerial vehicles and drones will come in.”