Geographies in Depth

India is unlocking rural prosperity with the world's largest drone-led property rights initiative

Bada Bagh, Big Garden, with wind turbines in the background in early morning near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, India.

Rural India is using technology to put itself on the map. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Ankit Mehta
CEO & Co Founder, IdeaForge
Vignesh Santhanam
India Lead, Drones and Tomorrow's Airspace, World Economic Forum
Purushottam Kaushik
Head, Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum, C4IR India
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  • In 2020, the Government of India announced the SVAMITVA Scheme to establish clear ownership of property in rural inhabited ('Abadi') areas.
  • To accomplish this ambitious mission, the mapping of land parcels of 660,000 villages in India using innovative drone technology was undertaken.
  • The programme has engaged a host of agile drone start-ups to ensure that rural populations have secured land titles and greater access to finance.

The early 19th century witnessed one of the world’s greatest cartographic projects – the analogue generation of revenue maps of the British Indian Dominion. The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India was initiated in 1802. This grand survey was an arduous effort requiring half-ton theodolite precision instruments mounted on hilltops for angular measurements. The polar star was observed for accurate latitude estimations, with survey towers being erected at strategic vantage points.

It is estimated that hundreds or even thousands of people may have been involved in the survey work. What was expected to be a five-year project took approximately seven decades to complete. Colonel Lambton remarked that to accomplish this vast and complex effort, he was “…free from restriction and permitted to act under the most liberal conditions.”

Close to a century and a half later, Lambton’s statement resonates vividly, although in a different realm, as India has closed in on 75 years of independence. Further, outputs from bricks and mortar survey towers, half-ton theodolites, paper-based triangulations and hundred-plus-person field staff, among others, are now undertaken by unmanned aerial vehicles or drones.


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India embarks on its largest property survey

While the information collected from the surveys helps in proper governance, there are far more impactful benefits that can be derived through surveys for the economic development of a nation. As per the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, a nation must have a strong information network with property ownership records and other economic information to have a strong market economy. With proper ownership records, access to credit becomes transparent and easy. Through this, the large portion of the economy that has been informal can be brought into the mainstream.

This formalization of the economy through legal property rights also allows the government to collect taxes more efficiently and deploy funds for public welfare, while legal ownership helps to settle claims and conflicts in court.

In 2020, the Government of India announced the SVAMITVA Scheme to establish clear ownership of property in rural inhabited ('Abadi') areas and to provide a ‘Record of Rights’ to village household owners with the issuance of legal ownership cards (property cards/title deeds) to the property owners. To accomplish this ambitious mission, the mapping of land parcels of 660,000 villages in India using innovative drone technology was undertaken. The five-year project maps out areas that were either never surveyed earlier or were being done by traditional methods. The drone-based scheme was announced to ‘promote a socio-economically empowered and self-reliant rural India.’

Drone reforms

Less than a year later, India announced a one-of-a-kind, pathbreaking drone reform that renders over 80% of the landmass a ‘green zone’ where no special clearances would be required to fly and operate drones up to 500kgs of take-off weight. This policy reform paved the way for what would be the greatest drone survey in history – this time using emerging technologies and drones mounted with high-precision optical and LIDAR sensors.

The perceived benefits of this initiative are clear – rural populations can unlock financial opportunities once their land ownership records are clear. Registered property and supporting deeds would now make their land a fiscal asset and give them access to loans and other financial instruments. The state may further use these records for revenue, planning and agrarian purposes. Property taxes can be calculated, multi-purpose drone-enabled GIS maps can even be used for planning the installation of irrigation assets.

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A huge undertaking

However, pertinent queries arise once the bigger purpose is established – how will the government procure these drones? While colloquially the drone surveys are perceived as a simple fly-by operation, how do ground teams plan their operations and deconflict from all uninvolved parties? Most importantly, how will rural populations perceive flying objects that would later determine the contours of land they have lived on for generations?

The Ministry of Panchayati Raj, the initiator of the SVAMITVA, appointed Survey of India (SoI) – The National Survey and Mapping Organization of the country under the Department of Science & Technology – as a nodal agency for the execution of the Scheme. The SoI leveraged the network of mapping service providers to accomplish this humongous task. The interested service providers got empanelled to the Scheme, procured the drones and other equipment and deployed the workforce on the ground.

Through this model, the government was able to distribute the workload and risks over a large base, rather than a single point of execution, and it was also able to generate employment opportunities in the emerging drone industry. Also, the drones fly 120 metres high above the ground with minimal noise signature, making them acceptable among the rural population. The successful execution of this scheme is a testament to how a large public project can be accomplished with innovative technology and can be adopted globally.

Solving land disputes

Within one year of the scheme, over 400,000 property cards were distributed in over 5,000 villages. Currently, nearly 84 million property parcels have been digitalized, through 272,000+ drone surveys. The participating states have received 232,000+ GIS maps for planning and record keeping.

Among several beneficiary testimonials, one that particularly stands out is of Arvind Patidar of Madhya Pradesh. He mentioned the following: “Disputes between me and my brothers over our property were plenty” highlighting how blurred delineation in land led to disputes in his family and neighbourhood. “SVAMITVA has solved all of this” he adds, signifying the entry of drones as the principal tool in land record keeping.

The scheme is expected to close by 2025 and the projected outcomes are accurate land records and reduction of property disputes, accurate determination of property tax in Gram Panchayats (GPs) and preparation of better-quality Gram Panchayat Development Plans, using GIS maps. Ultimately, it will provide financial stability to the citizens of rural areas.

The great expanse of the Indian sub-continent is now secure with comprehensive physical and digital records of property ownership. The programme has engaged a host of agile drone start-ups to ensure that rural populations have secured land titles and greater access to finance. The acceptance of drones in rural India signifies a tectonic shift in what used to be perceived as resistance to ambiguous tech. 270,000+ flight hours have further built confidence in the regulator and the end user, endorsing India’s liberalized drone regime. Two-thirds of civil cases in India’s courts are land and property disputes. Approximately 7.7 million people are impacted in India alone, with over 2.5 million hectares of land, threatening investments worth $200 billion. Drones can be presented as a tool for arbitration that can reduce caseloads in India’s courts.

The initiative provides an excellent case study for other countries in both the developing and developed world, where land and border disputes are plenty. Digital technology has powered up the analogue.

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