HYDERABAD, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When the Indian state of Telangana announced a three-week window for free registration of land that had exchanged hands via handwritten notes on plain paper, the offer triggered more than a million applications.
All over the southern Indian state the sale of land on notes known as "sada bainamas" has been customary because of widespread inability to pay the registration fees, illiteracy or ignorance of the law.
Around a million farmers in Telangana lack secure title to land bought this way, according to a 2014 survey carried out in the state by Landesa, a U.S. based charity .
Guram Muttaya is a beneficiary of the registration drive and one of many farmers who occupy land they have been cultivating for 30 to 40 years on the strength of informal documents.
"Registering the land will bring me government agriculture loans, compensation for crop damages and crop insurance too," Muttaya told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, holding up a torn piece of paper bearing a signature.
The piece of paper is his only proof of ownership of a fifth of a hectare of land he bought in Kannayapally village 27 years ago for $67 and whose market value has risen to $3,000.
Studies have shown that broadly distributed secure land rights for farmers can help to pull families out of poverty and boost sustainable economic development.
As many as 70-85 percent of those who own land purchased on plain paper are poor farmers who rely on the land for their livelihoods, according to a government-commissioned report in 2006, the latest data available.
Absent from government land records and lacking a document proving legal title, the farmers are never recognized as legal owners and are deprived of institutional benefits over decades.
More than a third of Telangana's 35 million people depend on land cultivation for their livelihood.
High labor costs, low mechanization and reliance on rain for irrigation in more than half of cultivated land in the semi-arid state have left many farmers struggling to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, the property sector has boomed and the price of land - like Muttaya's plot - has risen steeply, prompting some descendants of those who sold their land on plain papers to refuse to honor "sada bainamas".
Almost a million land-related complaints have been filed at the state's revenue offices over the two previous years, according to the Landesa survey.
Since last year, in a bid to clean up its land records, the state has been digitizing and storing individual records using the Telangana Land Records Management System.
E. Venkatachary, a land and revenue official in Nalgonda district, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the new online application process would help poor farmers.
"This time the scheme is wholly targeted at the disadvantaged and tribal farmers," he said.
"To ensure transparent land records for them in future and eliminate graft that illiterate farmers may be victims of, we introduced an online applications process at dedicated customer service centers."
Electronic applications include biometric authentication linked to the unique identification number(IUD)created for all Indian citizens.
"At each stage, as we scrutinize applications, upload notices to be served to applicants, and finally generate titling certificates, we can only log in with our IUD authentication," said Chandra Vadana, a tax inspector in the village of Parthy.
Venkatachary said "sada bainama" transactions constitute 5 to 10 percent of agricultural land in most villages.
"It (sada bainama) is the backbone of the land administrative system as it pertains to poorest of farmers and regularizing their right is important," Venkatachary said.
Previous offers by the government to register informal land sales had attracted far fewer applicants than the one launched in June, with the one prior to that, in 2009, garnering just 70,000 applications.
This time an awareness campaign spread the message, said Venkatachary.
Landesa produced a book about "sada bainama" that explained the process of registration in the local language and the scheme was publicized by the media, he said.
There are still hurdles to be overcome though as many of the applications are likely to be found ineligible, or could lead to legal disputes.
Tax inspector Vadana said in at least 20 percent of applications, descendants of the sellers were disputing that their relative ever sold the land, alleging the signature was false or demanding the market price for land occupied for up to 20 years.
Reporting by Manipadma Jena, Editing by Jo Griffin and Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org