Karnataka State has been dubbed the ‘Information Technology State’ of India. The state’s e-governance department has initiated a project of computerising all hand-written land documents, which has helped the state acquire its nickname. The so-called ‘Bhoomi Project’ was created to put an end to an outdated system of land records that was controlled by official Village Accountants, many of whom were corrupt. The system now helps farmers to gain faster access to secure and unadulterated legal records about their land.
Land Tenure in Karnataka
Land records have historically enabled the state to collect revenue on the basis of land tenure. The earliest efforts to prepare land records on systematic lines began with Sher Shah Suri, the Emperor of Northern India, during 1540-45. During his regime, land records were prepared for the holdings of every cultivator under his control. These records also showed the area cultivated under each crop in every season. The system established by Sher Shah Suri was continued and improved upon during the reign of Moghal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605). Under Emperor Akbar, Todar Mal established a system that balanced the demands of the state with the needs of the subjects.
During British rule, the land revenue sought by the state rocketed to new highs, causing particular hardship for the peasantry. The primary interest of the British rulers was the collection of revenue to support their colonial ventures and the system of land records was organised to serve that purpose. After independence, the government placed considerable importance upon reliable statistics related to crops, irrigation, land use etc. so that these could serve as the basis of land reforms across the country. This sequence of events helped develop the manual system of maintaining land records which was used until the early 1990s.
Problems with the Manual System
Ragu Karagowda is a typical rural farmer in India who has struggled with systems of land ownership and documentation. For generations, his ancestors have worked the soils of Taluk Muddeev, a rural sub-district in south India. It was only in the 1970s that his family eventually owned the land. Even then they had reason to fear the loss of their land to someone better placed to pay the necessary bribe to the village accountant who could, and often did, change the name on the deed at will. Stories like these demonstrate that the manual system of land records, which emerged from India’s turbulent history, had been long overdue for change. Six key drawbacks of the manual system can be identified:
- Opaque system Over 9,000 Village Accountants maintained the land records, each serving three or four villages. They maintained two types of records: registers, which indicated ownership of land; and village maps, which reflected the boundaries of land parcels. Requests to alter the land (‘mutation’ requests) had to be filed with the Village Accountants, who had the power to ignore them. The sub-district offices did not have updated copies of these records and no record of ‘mutation’ requests was kept. The Village Accountants, therefore, gained virtual monopoly control over the records. Records were not open to public scrutiny.
- Prone to manipulation Over time, several inaccuracies crept into the old system through improper manipulation by the Village Accountants, particularly regarding government land that was altered to show up as private land. In the Bangalore division, under the manual system, the equivalent US$25 billion worth of government land was manipulated and shown in the name of private elites. The system of physical verification of records by tehsildars (supervisors of Village Accountants) became weaker as the number of records multiplied and the tehsildars were burdened with a host of other regulatory jobs.”Before, the records were done by hand – hand-written. They would write in pencil and do the records. And at that time they could change whatever they want. Mohammed Suman Kumar, e-kiosk operator
- Extortion Farmers faced extortion regarding their requests to see land tenure records, and especially regarding their ‘mutation’ requests. A typical bribe for a certificate could vary from Rs.100 to Rs.2000. If some details were written in an ambiguous fashion, the bribe could reach Rs.10,000 (about US$ 220).
- Delay in delivery of land records The time taken by Village Accountants to provide land tenure records varied from 3 to 30 days. This may have been unintentional, as Village Accountants had to manage many villages and may not always have been available sooner. These delays, combined with the manipulation of documents, often meant that farmers would have trouble acquiring loans from banks and would be delayed in solving land tenure cases that had to go through the courts.
- Cumbersome ‘mutation’ process The process of ‘mutation’ relied on village officials who enjoyed discretion over whether to process the applications or not. Records were kept in a decentralised manner and there was no reporting system that referred to the time frame for processing the applications available at the sub-district level. The lack of a monitoring system made farmers susceptible to pressures from government hierarchy.
- Lack of data processing for planning purposes Land records contain useful data such as soil type, irrigation details, trees, and crops grown. Such data is useful for various administrative purposes, but while it was manually maintained it was prohibitively time consuming to collate and analyse the data.
A New Approach
Realising the importance of a well-maintained and updated land records database, the federal government launched the Computerisation of Land Records scheme in 1991. By 1996, the project for the Computerisation of Land Records was extended over all the districts of Karnataka State. While the funds for the project were sanctioned for capturing land records data in digital form, there was a lack of clarity about its validation and subsequent updating. This led to a lack of involvement by the Revenue Department officers and district administrators. The Village accountants were not trained and this, combined with a lack of funds provided for sub-district computers where the data could be updated, led to an inaccurate and defective database. The project ultimately ground to a halt without fulfilling its objective.
Appreciating the shortcomings of the pilot Computerisation of Land Records project, the Karnataka State Secretary for e-Governance, Rajeev Chawla, mandated that the Bhoomi (Hindi for ‘land’) project would have to be undertaken and completed in all sub-districts by March 2002. It was decided to fully support the development of a people-centred land records system, even if it meant investment from the federal government for the components not funded by the state government. The political mandate was backed by full administrative efforts at all levels. The result was the evolution of a transparent and effective land record delivery system for the people. It fully addresses the insecurities and concerns of the farmers and is now in operation in all sub-districts of Karnataka.
The Bhoomi Project
It took ten thousand officials 18 months to computerise 20 million land tenure records in a phased implementation. The state level Bhoomi team concentrated on five pilot sub-districts and administered the data-entry process through direct interventions. The implementation of these five sub-districts in a controlled environment provided useful experience for later expanding the scheme to 27 sub-districts during the second phase. In the third phase, all remaining 145 sub-districts were taken up simultaneously for implementation. The result was that 20 million land records for over 6.7 million land-owners in 176 sub-districts of Karnataka were fully operational on a computer database.
The National Informatics Centre (NIC) in Bangalore designed the Bhoomi software to maintain a user-friendly database of land records, available for printing on demand. The security of the system also surpasses the now illegal manual land tenure records system. It incorporates a ‘bio-logon’ system, which authenticates various users of the Bhoomi software by verifying their fingerprints. This helps prevent computer ‘hacking’ and the impersonation of other users. Original mutation orders signed by the revenue inspectors are scanned into the database to ensure that the officials take responsibility for their actions. The software also allows the administrators to generate various reports based on soil type, land-holding size, crop type, yield, and so on. This facilitates informed policy decisions.
Farmers are able to access information about their land tenure at the Land Records kiosk. Here, they can pay Rs.15 (less than 33 US cents) for a printed copy of their record and can log a request for the mutation of their land records. Farmers can also access their records in just two minutes using a touch screen interface at a kiosk in every sub-district office, allowing for full transparency and public scrutiny. The farmers now have fast and reliable access to their land records without the fear of harassment and extortion.
“Another good thing about this village kiosk is that the man offers computer lessons. This will be a good thing for my children to help them with their education. They will also be able to learn how to send e-mails and to use the computer to gain knowledge.”
Mr Shankara, Farmer
Computerisation of land records is no mean feat, and the project has been difficult in India. The Bhoomi project largely succeeded because the Secretary for e-Government, Rajeev Chawla, dedicated 15-hour days for over 12 months (80 per cent of his time) to the project. Other vital elements were the harnessing of political support, extensive training and making the project participatory by including farmers’ requests. Replicating this project also requires managers to balance the potential benefits with the costs of altering the existing system. The Bhoomi project brought significant benefits because the process of delivering land records was improved, while the established mutation process remained unchanged. This means that some corruption may still exist in the mutation process, but farmers are empowered to follow up their requests because they can access the database.
Potential Future Benefits
There are plans to use the Bhoomi kiosk system for disseminating other information, such as lists of destitute and handicapped pensioners, families living below the poverty line, concessional food cardholders, and even weather information. The system has already generated reports on land ownership, soil type, crops, and so on, which are useful for planning poverty alleviation programmes. Banks could be provided with electronic access to the database to facilitate the processing of crop loans, while legal courts could use the system to better solve legal disputes. The system could also lead to better administration of land reforms.
Lobo, A. and Balakrishnan, S. (2002). Report on Service of Bhoomi Kiosks: An Assessment of Benefits by Users of the Computerised Land Records System in Karnataka. Bangalore: Public Affairs Centre.
Electronic Governance Division meity.gov.in
The Bhoomi Project www.bhoomi.kar.nic.in
Donor and Funding Organisations
Department for International Development (DFID) www.dfid.gov.uk
World Bank www.worldbank.org
ITDG Technical Briefs answers.practicalaction.org