Chaman Lal’s 1997 English novel The Boy and the Mountain chronicles
life and power relations in a mountain village from the viewpoint of a boy. In
an early scene, the protagonist, who is walking along on a road, encounters the
patwari, a village official, and enters into a confrontation with him.
‘Pick them up for me, boy, will you?’
A wave of anger ran over the boy and his hands began to shake. He watched the patwari, who was for him the limits of coarseness. He eventually went ahead, picked up the keys, and placed them on the extended palm of the patwari.
‘Good boy,’ he said.
And forthwith, he tossed the keys over the ravine near the road where they came to rest close to a stream that ran at the bottom.
‘Go get them for me, will you?’
In villages across India, the patwari was the man that villagers approached to solve their problems in the absence of a stretched police force. A conflict with the patwari had consequences.
There stood the patwari and his peon, demanding a servile surrender from him. There was something called dignity. There was something called self-respect. But there stood in the distance—and he could see him—his father, working in the field … Even at this distance, he could see the tired muscles of his father as he worked the spade, digging the earth with his withered arms. Where would that old man be if he didn’t please this monster? Where would they all be?
The patwari’s power stemmed from his role as the custodian of land records in a village. You had to approach him in matters regarding revenue collection, land demarcation, registration, and mutation of property. Called by various names across the country — adhikari in Tamil Nadu, shanbagaru in south Karnataka, or kulkarni in Maharashtra and north Karnataka—the role has been redefined since Independence as village accountant in many states.
The most important document the village accountant holds is the Record of Rights (RoR) for a piece of land—known variously as khata, pahani, patta, etc., across the country. The RoR documents the survey number of a land parcel, extent, ownership, tenancy and other details such as cropping pattern, irrigation facilities, and mortgages. If a farmer wants a loan, he needs to present the document at the bank to prove ownership. If he wants to buy or sell land, the records need to be updated. To get subsidies and avail of government schemes, the khata has to be produced. For all these reasons, the village accountant becomes the most important official.
In 1998, the state announced “Project Bhoomi” to computerise land records to capture the 20 million records with village accountants across the state.
Getting a copy of the khata meant chasing village
accountants and bribing them to perform these transactions. These records were
illegible as he would over-write on them to record mutations. Worse still,
since the RoRs were essentially handwritten records, corruption was rife in
land transactions as all that needed to be done was to bribe the accountant to
over-write the record.
The accountant could hold up a sale by holding up requests
to alter land records, with the result that they were updated only one to two
years after the sale or, in many cases, not at all. These machinations also
extended to government land, which saw the government lose a lot of land over
No wonder Chaman Lal’s protagonist bears his humiliation
without protest and goes down the ravine to fetch the keys.
he stranglehold of village accountants couldn’t be broken as long as they had charge of the records. In 1985, the Union government announced a plan to computerise land records, but it needed the arrival of IAS officer Rajeev Chawla to the Karnataka revenue department to record the first success.
In 1998, the state announced “Project Bhoomi” to computerise land records. Chawla, an IIT-trained engineer, began by designing software for data entry to capture the existing 20 million records with village accountants across the state. After that was done, more than 9,000 village accountants, revenue inspectors, assistant commissioners, tehsildars and deputy commissioners were trained to use it.
To ensure accurate copying, the land records were verified at each level with manual records along with the official’s seal and signature. Once digitisation was complete, manual records were banned. The government issues only computer-generated records.
The record used to be in the village accountant’s custody. As a farmer you need it for crop loan or for selling land. You have to approach this man. You are at his mercy and he can extract money before he issues the record.
The immediate effect on landowners has been three-fold. The
first is that clean records are available for the first time.
“Instead of the illegible, confusing manual records, we now
issue neat and legible records,” says Dr Rajendra Prasad M. N. As assistant
commissioner, he monitors the Bhoomi project from the white Victorian building
housing the Department of Survey Settlement and Land Records in Bangalore.
The second impact of Bhoomi concerns the services across the
kiosk that the department can provide for landowners. There are 203 kiosks at
the taluk level across the state where farmers can get computer-generated
records signed by government officials for just ₹15.
“We have collected around ₹200 crore in the last 10 to 12 years. Recently we reduced charges to ₹10. The revenue is used solely for redevelopment of the project. We don’t depend on the government for funds,” says Prasad.
But perhaps the greatest benefit is that computerised land records are virtually tamper-proof. Earlier, you just needed to approach the village accountant to make manual changes in the records, even though he had no authority to make them.
V. Ponnuraj, commissioner of the Survey Settlement and Land Records department, says officials with that kind of power are bound to be tempted and corruption follows. “The record used to be in the village accountant’s custody. As a farmer you need it for crop loan or for selling land. You have to approach this man. If he wills, he will give. You are at his mercy and he can extract money before he issues the record,” he says.
Under Bhoomi, the scope of powers at each level—from accountant to deputy commissioner—is constrained by the system. “At each level, some power is given, and we have a three-tier security system,” says Prasad. Bhoomi is protected by passwords, thumb biometrics, and digital signatures. A village accountant cannot exercise the powers of a tehsildar even if he wants to. Moreover, a log maintained at the backend tracks each transaction on the system.
“Without following the process defined in the Act, they
cannot make an entry, or any change whatsoever. If I don’t have the discretion
to change, who will come and pay me,” says Ponnuraj.
Prasad says secure land records have helped prevent much
bloodshed in the state, especially with real estate prices shooting through the
roof. “We have indirectly helped maintain law and order by preventing land
record manipulation,” he says.
While the Bhoomi model has been replicated in many states,
Karnataka maintains that it has one of the most secure systems for a simple
reason—banning manual records completely. “When you run a parallel system,
there is always a tendency to revert to the original. We never ever get to the
new one,” he says.
Joint Legislative Committee report of the Karnataka Assembly in 2007 on encroachment of government land extensively documents the limitations of the Indian property regime to show how the registration process can be manipulated to perpetuate fraud.
In one case in 2003, nearly 90 years after a philanthropist
donated property in Bangalore to the government, a government official
registered a deed to sell the property, claiming it as his. The updated records
followed the same fraudulent sale deed and the property was legally taken out
of the government’s hands.
How did it happen? Sale of land is registered by the
Department of Stamps and Registration, while property records are maintained
separately by the Department of Survey Settlement and Land Records.
Registration of sale does not involve checks on whether the seller actually
owns the land. This is fraud made easy.
The system checks for the existence of the land parcel in question. It does that irrespective of whether the owner’s name tallies with that of the seller or whether the size of plot mentioned in the deed is available.
In many cases, the same land has been sold to multiple
people, or more land than is available has been sold to the buyer. The manual
records system gave birth to different kinds of malpractices, each hard to
detect as the regime was so opaque. Bhoomi has helped the state to rein in the
In 2008, the stamps and registration software was integrated
with Bhoomi, making manipulation more difficult. Before a sale is registered,
the Bhoomi database is queried to verify the claims of buyer and seller.
“The system checks for the existence of the land parcel in
question,” Prasad says. “It does that irrespective of whether the owner’s name
tallies with that of the seller or whether the size of plot mentioned in the
deed is available. But if the size of land parcel mentioned is not available,
the sub-registrar cannot register a sale.”
In the case of government lands, the system does not allow the sub-registrar to do any registration whatsoever.
“Even if they try, the system will not allow. We have marked in the system all the survey numbers in Karnataka which belong to government. Registration is stopped. Now they cannot access the data. We have been able to protect government land to our maximum capability,” he says.
Bhoomi integration goes further once checks are completed
and registration proceeds. Earlier, the registration department sent hard
copies of sale deeds to the land records section to update the RoRs. “That took
a long time. Some of them used to come, some of them would not, misplaced in
transport,” says Prasad. In many cases, records were not updated for 30 years
as papers vanished in transit.
Bhoomi automatically initiates updates of the RoR after
receiving a software trigger from the registration department’s software.
Intimations are generated on the fly and the statutory 30-day notices issued
automatically. “What took a couple of weeks is now down to minutes,” Prasad
Once the notice with acknowledgement of interested parties
is received, the mutation order is scanned into the system. The entries are
digitally verified by revenue inspectors and the deputy tehsildar to ensure
that everything is as per physical mutation records. The records are then
automatically updated in the system, while the physical records are filed in
the record room.
he RoR is one of the key documents for farm loans, indispensable for purchasing seeds and fertilisers, and employment of farm labour. In the manual era, persuading the village accountant to get your khata to apply for a bank loan was a chore.
G. N. Kanthanura knows this only too well from experience.
In 1998, he spent nearly a year shuttling between the village accountant and
the bank to get a loan for his silk farm at Gaddadanagehalli village in
Devanahalli taluk, about 50 kilometres from Bangalore. Finally he gave up,
sowing nothing that year.
Now, the RoR is available across a kiosk. But it’s still a
time-consuming process. There are eight steps before a farmer gets a bank loan.
First, the farmer has to go to the taluk office and get a recent copy of his
RoR to give to the bank. The bank then creates a contract. Any loan taken on
land has to be recorded in the RoR. So next the farmer has to take the bank
documents to the taluk office and apply for a mutation. Once that is completed,
he has to visit the taluk office again to collect the modified ROR and then
produce it before the bank.
The bank verifies the RoR and, once satisfied, disburses the
At a minimum, you need three visits to the taluk office and
four to the bank. It takes between two and three months if things move quickly.
Four years ago, Bhoomi provided a platform for banks to
integrate. Under this, land records data is exposed to banks for direct verification.
The banks look at the RoR directly on the Internet, send a software request to
modify the RoR to record the loan charge, and, once updated, disburse the loan.
“After integration, it has come down to two steps. The
farmer visits the bank twice: first to submit the application, and second visit
to collect the loan,” says Prasad. What took two or three months can now be
completed in two to three days, he adds.
Kanthanura says now it takes a little less than a month
after application for a loan to be disbursed. “Bhoomi has benefited us in
getting access to loans more than anything else,” he says. “I know this better
than anyone else.”
This integration has been one of Bhoomi’s most successful components. Of the nearly 12 lakh mutations performed annually, nearly 70 per cent involve bank loans. A World Bank study in 2013 found that time taken for initiating mutations had gone from 33 days in 2010-11 to one day in 2012-13.
The department also feels the relief. Outsourcing the work
to the bank has led to a drastic fall in the workload of officials. Banks, too,
can closely monitor the RoRs against which loans have been issued.
“Banks would complain to us (under the manual system) that
two to three loans had been disbursed on the same land. That has been stopped
now,” Prasad says. Integration has been good for banks, the government, and for
farmers, he adds.
Rajeev Chawla, who spearheaded the project, is the first recipient
of the Prime Minister’s Prize for excellence in public administration for his
role. Bhoomi has won awards from the World Bank and has been chosen as a model
project for land record computerisation in other parts of Asia. The programme
also won the United Nations public service award in 2006.
Despite the accolades and awards, some important questions
remain. Most of them centre on the accuracy of records. After Bhoomi was
recognised by the UN, Union minister Jairam Ramesh is reported to have said,
“Projects like Bhoomi are garbage in and garbage out. Unless your land records
are up-to-date, including surveys, what is the point?”
Ramesh was referring to the fact that Bhoomi did not attempt
to cleanse the data in the manual system, which had been poorly maintained
since Independence. During computerisation, the project copied manual records
Ponnuraj agrees that the data are flawed to begin with. “But
it was a conscious decision. If I had started correcting all the records and
then attempted computerisation, it would have taken 10 years.”
Bhoomi is attempting course correction. The revenue
department is sending officials at the sub-taluk and panchayat levels and
holding gram sabhas to enquire about the veracity of data. “We are going to
farmers and asking if they have any problem with the land records in all 20
million cases. It’ll take about a year,” he says.
Ponnuraj says there are a couple of issues here. One, land
granted to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes has not been recorded
properly. Another issue is that land acquired by government from private
parties has not been entered into the record. “These are problems created by
the disconnect in the system. This garbage is not a problem of computerisation
but of the manual system which was disconnected,” he adds.
Ponnuraj also dispels any notion that Ramesh is not
appreciative of the project. He points to a letter by the minister to all state
governments where he places the state’s progress on land records on a pyramid.
Karnataka is top of that pyramid.
While there is much anecdotal evidence on reduction of
corruption through Bhoomi, there is much more to do. Ponnuraj says there is still scope for
corruption. For instance, during registration, once notices are issued,
department officials must sign off on the mutation after verifying that no
provision concerning sale of agricultural land has been violated. Officials
often reject the application without giving any proper reason. They can also
sit on applications. “We have tried to tackle this in the existing system, but
changes in the law need to be made,” says Ponnuraj.
Twelve years after Bhoomi was launched, it has been much
feted. But the government, taking to heart some of the criticisms, has begun
work on overhauling the project.
To be called “Namma Bhoomi” (Our Bhoomi), the new project will move away from being a land records database to a land administration tool. “If there is anything to do with land, it will be done on our system,” says Ponnuraj. The agriculture and horticulture departments will also function on Namma Bhoomi.
For example, if the agriculture department is giving
subsidies to farmers for tractors, it will be able to identify which farmers
are eligible based on the size of land holding, and then make an entry against
the land holding for the subsidy. If the farmer has previously availed of the
same scheme, he will not be eligible for the subsidy again.
The new system will also track other processes such as
conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes, and partition or
leasing of land. All will be captured by Namma Bhoomi and made available to
While Bhoomi largely focused on computerisation of existing
processes, Namma Bhoomi will be re-engineering these processes to make them
shorter and simpler. For example, automatic approvals will be made part of the
system to prevent officials from sitting on land registration. Also, pendency
of cases against each officer will be monitored vigorously under the new
For farmers, additional benefits include services such as
opening of bank accounts, and the issuance of income certificates and small and
marginal farmer certificates, which are currently provided manually. Ponnuraj
estimates that the new system will computerise nearly 50 per cent of the
working of the department.
However, many complaints have been received on how the
project emphasises centralisation of power at the taluk level. Earlier, RoRs
were available at the village level through the village accountant. In the
Bhoomi system, farmers have to travel to taluk headquarters, and this means the
loss of an entire working day. It could cost up to `50 on travel alone to
access a record that costs just `10.
In the last year, the government has embarked on providing
the same services at the sub-taluk level through the Nada Kacheri programme.
Under this, nearly 1,000 centres will replace the taluk kiosks across the
Some of these offices are already open. At Vijipura, a
sub-taluk in Devanahalli, RoRs have been issued for the last one year. G. N.
Manjunatha Gowda, a 45-year-old farmer, says the manual system required two
months and bribes of nearly `200 to chase the village accountant for a copy of
the RoR. “Now, I take a bus for `5 from my village, arrive at the kiosk, pay `10,
and get a copy of my land record in five minutes.”
Does he have any complaints?
He thinks for a minute, and then says, “Maybe they can open
one more kiosk to reduce the waiting period.”
From being resigned to wait for two months, farmers are now impatient to wait even 10 minutes in a line. That’s progress.