Photo: Arabinda Mahapatra
Photo: Arabinda Mahapatra

Opinion | What the Odisha Land Rights Act can teach us

It is rooted in the mission of turning titled slums to liveable habitats, so beneficiaries have access to better sanitation and credit

On 16 October 2017, the Odisha state government ordained the Odisha Land Rights to Slum Dwellers Act, 2017. A historic legislation in many ways, the Act seeks to grant land rights to 200,000 slum households and enable them to access better healthcare, education and housing services. It is rooted in a broader mission of turning titled slums to liveable habitats, so beneficiaries have access to better sanitation and credit and are able to lead better lives. Well drafted and sensitive to the real needs of slum dwellers, the legislation is both a pioneer and a champion for the rights of those residing in informal settlements.

However, well-intentioned legislation is hardly newsworthy in India. Despite government support and political will, legislations fail to achieve impact because of implementation challenges. Implementation is trickier for programmes that involve multiple government stakeholders. Navigating complex procedures coupled with limited capacity are perhaps the biggest barriers to translating policy into impact. Given its political context, land sits at the apex of such complexity. Nevertheless, Odisha’s land rights legislation is taking on these challenges and is striving to meet the deadline of allocating the certificate of land rights to 200,000 households at the earliest.

Allocating land rights to eligible households is a complex process. It involves identifying eligible slums, mapping land, validating demographic details and finally granting titles. Further, the Act by design elevates the voice of the community by stipulating the formation of slum dweller associations (SDAs) in each slum, which comprise community members who actively participate in the process and compile the final list of eligible slum households. The state government has recognized that executing such a feat will require support from external stakeholders. The implementation of this Act has therefore been a multi-stakeholder effort that reflects a strong collaborative approach.

The state government’s department of housing and urban development, in partnership with Tata Trusts, has led the implementation process. While Tata Trusts are the project managers on the ground, different partners are responsible for activities within the realm of their expertise. Technical partners like the Spatial Planning and Analysis Research Centre, Transerve and Surbana Jurong deploy drone surveys to map land and create slum boundaries. They receive strategic direction and guidance from Omidyar Network. Twenty-four local non-governmental organization (NGO) partners carry out household surveys to capture demographic data to establish title eligibility. NGOs also create community awareness and formulate the SDAs. Local government stakeholders facilitate the convening of community members and add method and protocol to the process. They also facilitate access to physical maps from revenue departments for determination of land eligibility. Importantly, the Act advocates for the community as the most critical stakeholder and all partners work in tandem to uphold that tenet. Community awareness, buy-in and participation are accounted for all through the process to ensure that democracy is not lost in the midst of following legal processes.

This collaborative approach has brought together unique strengths and, in that sense, the implementation has been able to embody best practices from some of the most sophisticated land titling programmes globally. However, despite being the holy grail of the development sector, collaboration, especially with multiple stakeholders, comes with its own set of challenges. Learnings from the ground have reasserted the importance of three critical mechanisms. First, strong accountability frameworks. The legislation is unique in its determination to stick to a time frame. Accountability lies at the core of such commitments and establishing these frameworks that outline accountability and chain of command will ensure that issues can be resolved efficiently. Accountability frameworks also incorporate decision-making roles and empower stakeholders to effectively deal with crises.

Second, a critical need to invest upfront on alignment and on creating tighter management protocols. Given the novelty of the programme, there is no existing template to ensure success. However, clarity in laying out roles, management structures, and creating standard operating processes in parallel will not only ensure a smoother process but also serve as a credible public good to other states or programmes with similar aspirations. We have been witness to many successful multi-stakeholder programmes and absorbing the best practices that emerge here can help in creating a stronger guide.

Third, a mechanism to course correct and define change management protocols along the way. There is a need to both capture and utilize learnings that will arise from this exercise to further fine-tune the implementation process. By defining in-process measurement metrics, capturing progress, distilling learnings and adopting a strong feedback loop, the Act will be able to create a template that other states can learn from.

The Odisha government is on the cusp of a revolution with the potential to not only better the lives of one million slum dwellers but also the ability to set an example for other governments who believe that access to land and access to dignity are not that far apart.

This is the first of a two-part series.

Niloufer Memon and Soumitra Pandey are with the Bridgespan Group. Views expressed are personal.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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