Can computerisation alter our ‘patwari’ culture?

Policymakers must ensure they include measures for checking authenticity of existing records.

Syed Mohammad Ali June 27, 2013
The writer is a development consultant and a PhD student at the University of Melbourne [email protected]

The need for computerising land records is being endorsed by several prominent politicians as a vital component to curb widespread corruption, particularly to rein in the infamous “patwari culture” which causes misery, especially to those whose livelihoods depend on land cultivation. Not only politicians but the Supreme Court also took a leap of faith, last year, by directing all provinces to expedite land record computerisation, which is assumed to bring the added benefit of reducing the backlog of legal cases across the country, the majority of which pertain to land-related disputes.

There is no doubt that the manual system of maintaining land records is both outdated and badly distorted. It is also true that relying on lowly-paid patwaris to undertake the Herculean tasks leads to major problems. The ability of those who can afford to bribe patwaris enables them to alter land records and usurp the rights of others and also evade paying their due share of taxes. Women often get cheated out of their fair share of inherited land by their brothers with the connivance of patwaris. Often, in the case of poor sharecroppers, names are not even mentioned in patwari records at the behest of the landowners, as a result of which, these sharecroppers cannot claim tenancy rights and have no recourse to legal action in case of a dispute with the landowners.

But these issues cannot be effectively addressed by simply digitising land records. Yet, the major thrust of such programmes — which are now in fairly advanced stages of implementation in Punjab, and to lesser degrees, in other provinces — is primarily to computerise existing land records, rather than trying to verify or address any of the rampant inaccuracies within these records.

It is simplistic to believe that the establishment of computerised service centres will automatically enable greater transparency and enable existing discrepancies to be corrected in favour of poorer segments of society. Experiences of land record computerisation from the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka indicate that automating the manual land registration processes does not necessarily simplify or deliver more equitable outcomes for the ordinary citizens. Instead, digitisation has led to increased corruption and further inaccessibility of records for poor farmers due to problems like illiteracy, lack of awareness and the need to travel to service centres located far away from their villages. Due to these reasons, digitisation attempts have been criticised for offering a narrow techno-administrative approach, which does not take into account social constraints on the ground.

Conversely, automating land registration can facilitate larger players who have the resources and know-how to undertake expedient land transactions and capture vast quantities of land for agri-business purposes.

Instead of assuming that computerisation of existing land records will deliver a range of positive benefits for the marginalised, policymakers must compel the ongoing computerisation programmes to ensure that they include measures for checking the authenticity of existing land records to ensure that marginalised segments of society, such as poor tenants and women, can no longer be cheated. What would be a significant step would be to use computerisation of records to tax large landholders more effectively or use landholding records to undertake effective land redistribution, which is hardly the intention of the current schemes.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 28th, 2013.

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Rakesh | 9 years ago | Reply

Completely agree with the points presented by the author. Computerization/Digitization of records is only the first step. It is just another representation of record (which is presumably and hopefully more efficient less space consuming and faster to access), it is how these records are used and what kind of digital policies that are applied on top of them that matters.

p r sharma | 9 years ago | Reply

computerization means conversion of manual records into digitization. If device of the check and balance in the conversation process is put in place it will work wonders. This is a change which is inevitable. Just because there may be some corruption in converting the records it must not be stopped as the corrupt practices still exists . All future records will be fast and transparent which will help stop corruption. it will facilitate every body. Not only land records but every other records will be digitized. Every one wants to move forward and not backward.

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