India On Path to Property Rights

Olivia Enos /

The right to own property is a given in much of the world. Although Indian citizens can own property, that right is limited and legally tenuous. In fact, the vast majority of the land is owned by the state. Barun Mitra of the Liberty Institute in India is doing everything he can to change this state of affairs. During a recent event at The Heritage Foundation, Senior Research Fellow Derek Scissors and Mitra discussed the vital importance of property rights in India.

India is a democratic country that does not recognize the right to personal property in its constitution. While the original constitution—formed after independence—included the right to personal property, a few years later parliament voted to amend the constitution, striking the right to property.

Through the Liberty Institute, Mitra has helped reintroduce the concept of personal property to hundreds of remote forest areas. The Liberty Institute chose to work first in these areas, home to 75 million to 80 million people, because they knew that the organization would be forced to fight major legal battles if they had started in major cities. The courts in India are backlogged with over 32 million cases, and getting caught in this mire would mean years and maybe even decades before reaching any resolution.

Referencing China, Scissors emphasized the vital importance of property rights in the developmental trajectory of a nation:

The change in property rights regime in China is what triggered the rise of China. Everything came from that. You had greater agricultural productivity because people had greater property rights. When you had greater agricultural productivity people didn’t need to work on the farm. They moved to the cities so they could manufacture things so that they could sell things overseas. The whole Chinese story starts with property rights…. All development starts with secure property rights to land…. The same thing can happen in India.

But, according to Scissors, few are talking about rights to land in India now, but we all should be.

Through organizations like the Liberty Institute, rural Indians are gaining exposure to private property rights. Mitra and his team have used satellite images to demarcate and zone over 20,000 plots of land in the past two years. By simply using GPS satellite images, individuals have been able to claim ownership over both their property and the process.

In the past few months, there have been two landmark court decisions that will positively impact the state of property rights in India. First, the court ruled that the villagers must consent to land mining projects before they begin. And the second case ruled that the state of Gujarat must review all land claims rejected within the past two years due to the kind of information generated by the Liberty Institute’s project.

While the state still owns most of the natural resources, including water, these two cases constitute a step forward. Future improvements should focus on bringing land claims to the local level. Once people own their land they will be the ones to decide to sell it or not, not just to the state or to individuals within the community, but to anyone. This choice can offer hope to even the poorest individuals in India.