Agriculture has been one of the largest drivers of the Indian economy for over a hundred years. 70% of the Indian population depends upon land holdings (agriculture and commercial) for their livelihood. While urban plots are looked after and their records maintained, the same cannot be said for rural lands. Due to the lack of credible and verifiable land record data, a vast majority of landholdings end up in family or legal disputes. To solve this century-old land ownership crisis prevalent in rural India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the SVAMITVA scheme.
To fully understand the SVAMITVA scheme and how it works, we first need to shed some light on the concept of land record data. This is crucial for understanding why there’s a land ownership crisis in the first place. To get deeper insight, we contacted Vipul Singh, CEO, and co-founder of Aarav Unmanned Systems (AUS), the Indian drone company that is piloting this project.
Remnants of the Colonial Rule
The concept of land record data was introduced by the Britishers in order to collect taxes (lagaan). These records were maintained only for agricultural plots while residential and commercial lands were never recognized.
Postcolonial rule, there was a steep rise in India’s rural population. This meant that while families grew in size, so did each member’s claim to their land. However, the system for maintaining land records had not changed. Instead of using modern methods like global coordinate systems, this system relied on village officials (Tehsildars) to maintain physical registers containing local reference points that could be easily manipulated.
Since this system was largely susceptible to malpractices, land disputes became more common. The problem arose when a dispute was tried in court. Due to lack of credibility, the land record data was not recognized as proof of ownership by both the judiciary as well as banks. This resulted in families losing their ancestral lands and also their livelihood. Additionally, families had no access to financial services from banks for this same reason. Without any officially recognized proof of ownership, a farmer could not mortgage his land for loans.
This has been one of the largest impediments to the development of the rural population and the Indian economy. This outdated process has robbed families of their ancestral assets. This not only reduces the net worth of that particular family but if looked at collectively, this significantly impacts the country’s economic status.
The SVAMITVA Scheme
On April 24th, 2020, the SVAMITVA (Survey of Villages Abadi and Mapping with Improvised Technology In Village Area) was launched to create credible land record data using drone technology. SVAMITVA aims to give people non-disputable property rights by issuing a property card. This property card would hold the owner’s details along with the exact boundary coordinates of his/her land. Through this property card, landowners can not only settle land disputes legally but also avail of financial service by mortgaging their land.
Advantages of the scheme
The scheme affects the country on two levels: Micro and Macro.
Micro-Level Benefits: At its core, SVAMITVA will resolve the century-old property tussle. It will eliminate the need for Tehsildars and physical land record registers. Local reference points will be replaced by centimeter-accurate geographic coordinates which can be digitally verified within minutes. As landowners gain access to financial services, their children will be able to afford higher education and contribute to the service sector. This will liberalize the rural youth, improve the standard of living, and create a renewed workforce in the country. Additionally, this will aid in developing an enormous database that can be accessed by organizations to provide essential emergency services, e-commerce, and logistic services to the rural population for the first time.
Macro-Level Benefits: When the government starts recognizing the landowners and their assets through property cards, their net worth increases on paper. This suddenly increases the collective value of rural assets, thereby raising the wealth of the country as a whole. Increased wealth on paper has another cascading advantage for the country in the form of Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs). A better economy will draw large investments, especially into rural India.
How Does SVAMITVA Work?
As mentioned above, this scheme relies on the use of drone technology. Survey-grade drones are being used to map 6.2 lakh villages of India and create high-resolution orthographic digital maps of each village. Every land is demarcated using geographic coordinates that have centimeter accuracy. These coordinate markings are then registered and mentioned on a property card which is issued to the owner of the land.
The Survey of India (SOI) is leading the execution of SVAMITVA along with Aarav Unmanned Systems (AUS), a private drone manufacturing company. AUS is the only private organization that was selected to deploy its survey-grade drones for mapping. AUS is mapping thousands of villages in a single day. Vipul explained how the process of mapping a village takes place. It involves three steps:
- Establishing a CORS Network: Firstly, SOI establishes a CORS (Continuously Operating Reference Station) Network in the areas that will be mapped. A CORS network is a network of RTK base stations that broadcast coordinate corrections against the GNSS satellite to ensure the highest possible accuracy. Survey-grade drones fitted with PPK modules make use of the corrected data from these CORS networks to geotag every captured image with accurate global coordinates. SOI establishes these networks in multiple phases. Currently, in phase one, SOI has established CORS networks across Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Karnataka.
- Choona Markings: Once the CORS network is established across a village, state officials begin the marking process. Using choona or calcium hydroxide, the officials mark the boundary boundaries of every land with a visible ‘L’ or ‘T’. This serves as a GCP (Ground Control Point) for the drones. GCPs are used by aerial image processing software for accuracy.
- Drone Mapping: The following day a team of SOI and AUS drone pilots arrive at the site and fly the drones to capture aerial data. The drone flies autonomously based on a flight plan and captures several images. Two consecutive images have a vertical overlap of 70% and a horizontal overlap of 60%. This is essential for image processing and the creation of orthorectified images. The resolution of every orthorectified image is such that on zooming in you can clearly identify the choona markings on the land boundaries.
The collected aerial data is then sent to SOI for processing. SOI processes the aerial data to create orthorectified images. The land image along with the exact coordinates are printed on a property card. The property card is passed on to state officials who then provide it to the respective landowners.
What Type of Drones are Used for Mapping?
Survey-grade drones are used for mapping villages. These drones are quite different from the standard consumer drones. Apart from hosting several special sensors, these drones have precision navigation systems such as GNSS and PPK. Using the PPK-equipped drones, AUS can geotag images with an accuracy of up to 2cm. The Insight-PPK drone is used for this project. The Insight-PPK is an NPNT-compliant drone with a 3km range and 30 minutes of flight time.
“Each drone is flown at an altitude of 120 meters. At this altitude, a single drone can cover 100 hectares of area in a day. Since these drones are operated for prolonged periods of time in varied environmental conditions, they need to be able to withstand high amounts of stress. Drone operations in remote villages or high terrain regions such as Uttarakhand and Himalayas are quite demanding. That’s why survey-grade drones are built for robust and rugged environments.” Vipul stated. Adding on to it, “these drones are built with autonomy & intelligence at its core. Coupled with intuitive flight planning software, the drones basically fly themselves”
Currently, AUS has about 20 drones and 10 teams deployed in Uttrakhand, UP, and Karnataka. The teams have mapped 6000 villages so far. “A fleet of 60 drones will be added in October 2021. A total of 80 drones will carry out mapping operations across the phase one states”
Drone technology has taken the center stage in several sectors in India. From BVLOS drone delivery trials to the world’s largest drone mapping project. SVAMITVA is the first of its kind operation and has immense potential. The orthorectified images created from the aerial data have numerous applications apart from land records. The data can be used to develop infrastructure such as sewage pipelines, laying down fibernet lines, inspection of schools and hospitals, etc. Using machine learning to analyze these models can make infrastructure planning incredibly efficient.
Presently, SOI has outsourced only the data collection aspect to a private company like AUS. The entire project is expected to take 3-4 years to complete. However, in the future SOI may outsource both data collection and data processing to private companies which can speed things up. Through SVAMITVA we may finally be able to bridge the gap between urban and rural India.