LONDON: About a quarter of homeowners in India, and nearly one in five rural landowners, fear losing their property, in most cases because they do not have documents to prove ownership, according to a new poll. The survey, launched by US polling firm Gallup in London yesterday, set out to test how secure people feel about their homes and land. Conducted over the past six months, the Indian survey is the first of a worldwide, two-year research project looking at perceptions of property ownership and security between different societies.

The poll found six in 10 said they owned their home, while a third said they lived in a home owned by a family member. Despite the high incidence of ownership, the Indian survey showed that insecurity of property rights is widespread, with about one in four owners and nearly half of all renters expressing worry about losing their home. Matters related to land and property make up about two-thirds of all civil cases in India, where tussles over ownership can delay property deals and lead to lengthy court battles.

Insecure land rights leave the urban poor particularly vulnerable as they are often unaware of the rights they do have, cannot afford lawyers and live in fear of being evicted. The study revealed that those who were worried about ownership also reported a higher incidence of health problems, including saying they sometimes did not have enough food. Respondents said the main reason for their insecurity was the lack of documentation, including land titles, followed by disagreements with family members over property ownership.

Insecure rights

India is in the throes of dramatic demographic and cultural change with the urban population expected to grow from 377 million in 2016 to nearly 600 million by 2030. Insecure property rights, say analysts, can threaten to undermine the benefits of India's rapid urbanization. A lack of formal documentation proving ownership can block access to basic services such as sanitation, water and electricity and limit access to financial services such as raising credit against a home or farm for investment, the report said.

In the developing world, it can also limit access to state help such as food or fertilizer subsidies and services provided by municipal governments such as sanitation and water. In India, more than 14,000 men and women, both owners and tenants in cities and villages, were interviewed face-to-face. The project covered 14 Indian states, including Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan and West Bengal. Nine other countries will be polled over the next year to build up a definitive picture of how different societies relate to - and feel about - land and property ownership.

Gender gap

The report showed a clear gender gap with women less likely than men to own their land or home. But men and women were equally likely to be worried about losing their home or land. Tenants were twice as likely as owners to worry about losing their homes, with landlords - often afraid of permanently losing possession of their homes - preferring short term contracts. And while about nine out of 10 respondents lived in a home owned by themselves or by a family member, those who owned their own property were more likely to express worry about losing the home than those who lived with other family members. Thirty percent of city residents expressed insecurity, compared to 26 percent of their rural counterparts.

Owners were more likely to visit government offices to update their records, although only half had done so in the past. Of these, owners of agricultural land were far more likely to update land records than those who owned residential land. If people are willing to engage with state authorities on ownership, there are potential resolutions to the problem of insecurity, said the report commissioned by Land Alliance, a Washington-based think tank. "...Government efforts to make it easier, and affordable, for people to register or update property documentation at local levels could have a large impact on reducing people's worry about their property rights," it said. "This would have benefits for private citizens and the economy as a whole."- Reuters