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Bhoomi: Online Delivery of Land Titles in Karnataka, India


Abstract

The Department of Revenue in Karnataka has computerized 20 million records of land ownership of 6.7 million farmers in the state. Previously, farmers had to seek out the Village Accountant to get a copy of the Record of Rights, Tenancy and Crops (RTC) -- a document needed for many tasks such as obtaining bank loans. There were delays and harassment. Bribes had to be paid. Today, for a fee of Rs.15, a printed copy of the RTC can be obtained online at computerized land record kiosks (Bhoomi centers) in 140 taluk offices. The remaining 37 taluks are expected to have a Bhoomi center by March 2002. In the next phase, all the taluk databases are to be uploaded to a web-enabled central database. RTCs would then be available online at Internet kiosks, which are likely to be set up in rural areas.

Application Context

In the manual system, land records were maintained by 9,000 Village Accountants, each serving a cluster of 3-4 villages. Two types of records were maintained: 1) Registers, which indicated the current ownership of each parcel of land, its area and cropping pattern, and 2) village maps that reflected the boundaries of each parcel. Requests to alter land records (upon sale or inheritance of a land parcel) had to be filed with the Village Accountant. However, for various reasons the Village Accountant could afford to ignore these "mutation" requests. Upon receiving a request, the Village Accountant is required to issue notices to the interested parties and also paste the notice at the village office. Often neither of these actions was carried out, and no record of the notices was maintained. Notices were rarely sent through post.

An update to the land records was to be carried out by a Revenue Inspector, if no objections were received within a 30-day period. In practice, however, it could take 1-2 years for the records to be updated.

Land owners find it difficult to access the Village Accountant, as his duties entail traveling. The time taken by Village Accountants to provide RTCs has ranged from 3 to 30 days depending upon the importance of the record for the farmer and the size of the bribe. A typical bribe for a certificate could range from Rs.100 to Rs.2000. If some details were to be written in an ambiguous fashion, out of selfish motives, the bribe could go up to Rs.10,000. Land records in the custody of Village Accountant were not open for public scrutiny.

Over time, several inaccuracies crept into the old system through improper manipulation by the Village Accountant, particularly with respect to government land. Even where accountants were law-abiding, village maps could not remain accurate as land was parceled into very small lots over generations. The system of physical verification of records by deputy tehsildars (supervisors of Village Accountants) became weak as the number of records multiplied and these functionaries were burdened with a host of other regulatory and developmental work.

The central and state governments have long been aware of the need to reform the land record system. The beginning of computerization of land records in Karnataka goes back to 1991 when the first pilot was initiated through a centrally sponsored scheme of Computerization of Land Records, fully funded by the Government of India. By 1996, projects for computerization of land records were sanctioned for all districts in the state of Karnataka. However, no provision was made to install computers at taluk level where manual records were actually updated. The project fizzled out without achieving its objective of creating a clean, up-to-date database.

A New Approach

Today, a computerized land record kiosk (Bhoomi centre) is operational in 140 of the 177 taluks in Karnataka. At these taluk offices a farmer can obtain a copy of an RTC online by paying a Rs.15 fee. A second computer screen faces the clients to enable them to see the transaction being performed. Copies can be obtained for any land parcel in the taluk by providing the name of the owner or the plot number. A Village Accountant is available full-time at these kiosks.

When a change of ownership takes place through sale or inheritance, farmers can file for a mutation of the land record at the Bhoomi center. Each request is assigned a number by the computer. The number can be used to check the status of the application on a Touch Screen provided on a pilot basis in three of the computerized kiosks. The computer automatically generates notices, which are then handed over to the Village Accountants. Most Village Accountants are not stationed at taluk offices, but they visit the central taluk office every 2-3 days to pick these papers.

The process of issuing notices by Village Accountants to the interested parties remains the same. And as before, the Revenue Inspector who is stationed in the field approves changes to the land record 30 days after the notices are served, provided that there are no objections. It takes a few days for the approval to reach the Bhoomi kiosk, where it is scanned on the day of its arrival. An inward and outward register is maintained. The updated RTC is printed at the Bhoomi kiosk and handed over to the Village Accountant for her record. The new owner receives a copy on demand. Bhoomi kiosks create scanned copies of the original mutation orders and notices to avoid unnecessary litigation due to claims that the notices were not served.

With the computerized system, administrators can quickly determine the number of approved and overdue mutation orders. Information collected from one urban taluk indicates that earlier 3,000 mutations were handled annually. After computerization, there is a 50% jump in the number of mutation requests. This change would seem to indicate a level of approval of the new system by the population, and willingness to update changes in land ownership that were previously left undocumented.

The Bhoomi software incorporates the bio-logon metrics system from Compaq, which authenticates all users of the software using their fingerprint. A log is maintained of all transactions in a session. This makes an officer accountable for his decisions and actions. The government also has plans to web-enable the database to make available to the farmer a copy of the land record locally through an Internet kiosk -- although without signature such a copy will only have an informative value.

Implementation Challenges

Roll-out of the application to 177 locations has been a challenge due to the poor quality of manual records and the enormity of the data entry task. In the first phase, the project was implemented on a pilot basis in a controlled environment at four taluks. After gaining experience in data entry operations and implementation of the software, the scheme was extended to one pilot taluk in each of the 27 districts. In the third phase the project is being rolled out simultaneously to all the remaining 177 taluks.

Records in the field were not up-to-date due to poor work culture and lack of training amongst the Revenue Staff. Also farmers often do not report transactions within the family, either because they are discouraged by the attitude of the Revenue staff or due to internal family problems. The maintenance of land records is not uniform across districts.

As Revenue officials were not interested in data entry, private data entry agencies tackled the 20,000 man-months of work in an off-line mode at the taluk level. A comprehensive software that accommodated all variations in manual records across districts was used. After the initial data entry, prints were validated against the original record books by the Village Accountants.

Many problems were encountered in off-line data entry. The process was slow and error prone due to poor work quality by data entry agencies. Technical guidance from officers of the district informatics center was not easily available as they were overloaded with other work. And data entry agencies were unwilling to recruit more manpower as it required investment in training on a specialized data entry software, which would not be useful to them for other projects. Moreover, interruptions in electrical power in taluk headquarters and delay in maintenance of computers at taluk level by vendors are a problem.

Every district was provided with a consultant to act as a bridge between the data entry agency and the district administration. After the system is operational, the consultant trains the taluk staff and helps the district administration in day to day work at the Bhoomi kiosk.

Operators have been provided for one year to handle online data entry at the Bhoomi kiosks. Village Accountants will take over the work from these operators after a year. A comprehensive training module was designed jointly by the department and NIC (software development agency) to train the Accountants. Training lasts 7 days, 11 hours each day, followed by a paperless test on the last day.

The Village Accountants who would be in charge of the new kiosks were chosen very carefully. Young persons fresh out of college were recruited and trained at the headquarters. These officials had not experienced the power that a Village Accountant could exercise over rural farmers. The project leader (additional secretary of the department) personally participated in the training given to every batch of Accountants to ensure that they felt complete ownership and a sense of importance in being assigned to this new initiative. Accountants were encouraged to talk to the project leader either at his home or at his office. Nearly 500 officials, including all Deputy Tahsildars, were trained in the state headquarters, and more than 1,000 officials were trained by the Bhoomi consultants at the district level.

Challenge of Getting the Staff On Board

To allay the fears of field officials that their job descriptions will change in a major way, twelve state level information seminars were organized for 1,200 senior and mid-level officers. And four division level workshops were organized to train 800 officials. These seminars emphasized that maintenance of land records was only one of their many functions and that computerization will remove the drudgery of maintaining these records manually. Revenue officials would continue to be responsible for field enquiry. Reducing corruption was not a key message at these gatherings.

The political executive was completely involved in the computerization project. The State Chief Minister and Revenue Minister highlighted the importance of the project in many public fora. The Chief Minister wrote regularly to all District Deputy Commissioners, exhorting them to get fully involved in the computerization. He inaugurated a large number of land record kiosks. Meanwhile, the Revenue Minister regularly reviewed the computerization process and also inaugurated large number of kiosks. A committee of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) visited the kiosks and Deputy Commissioners invited MLAs of their districts to witness the functioning of kiosks. All this helped demonstrate that there was a strong political will for computerization.

Selected field level personnel were invited to participate in the software development process for various Bhoomi modules through a formal state level Bhoomi committee. Meetings were held with participation from various levels in the Department to elicit suggestions for improvement; and decisions taken at these meetings were incorporated into the software design. Nearly 125 man-months were spent on software development. A further effort of 30 man-months will be needed to upgrade to the next version.

Field supervision is critical to roll-out any new system. The project leader in-charge preferred to appoint four independent consultants who could tour sites randomly in each division and report problems and progress of Bhoomi. Appointing consultants turned out to be problematic, as the central government project did not permit such a line item of expenditure. The expected cost was Rs.1.5 million.

Benefits and Costs

The expenditure on data entry operations for about 2 million RTCs in 27 districts was Rs.80 million. The unit cost of providing hardware, construction of computer rooms and kiosks was of the order of Rs.0.64 million for each taluk. Thus, the total out-of-pocket expenditure on the project was Rs.185 million. This does not include the cost of software development done gratis by the National Informatics Centre, a department of the central government.

The cost of processing an RTC has been roughly estimated at Rs.13, assuming a life of 5 years for the hardware and an activity level of 2 million RTCs issued from all the kiosks (10% of all holdings). This cost includes an assumed operational expenditure of Rs.2 for stationery, cartridges and electricity. The current user fee of Rs.15 seems sufficient to cover these costs. However, if the scheme is extended to 700 sub taluk offices, then there would be an additional expenditure of Rs.0.25 million per kiosk on hardware (1 PC - Rs.45, 000, Printer -- Rs.20, 000, UPS -- Rs.5, 000, Generator -- Rs.30, 000) and site preparation, raising the unit cost of processing to Rs.15 per record.

The user charge for an RTC is Rs.15. By end November 2001, Rs.5.0 million had been collected through user fees for the distribution of 330,000 RTCs through 140 kiosks operational for periods varying from 3-12 months. An additional 12,000 RTCs have been issued for official purposes.

Farmers can now get an RTC for any parcel of land and Khata extract (statement of total land holdings of an individual) in 5-30 minutes from an RTC information kiosk at the taluk headquarters. In principle, these records had already been available directly from the Village Accountant; but in practice it meant a lot of inconvenience, harassment and bribes. Village Accountants have travel duty and are generally not easily accessible. Now the Land records are in the public domain. Any record can be viewed through a touch screen at the kiosk. On an experimental basis, scanned maps of plots are being printed on the opposite side of the RTC printout in some of the taluks.

Farmers can apply for mutation and expedite the process by reviewing the status of their request online, presenting documentary evidence to supervisors in the event that their request is not processed within the stipulated time period.

Potential Future Benefits

There are plans to use the Bhoomi kiosk for disseminating other information, like lists of destitute and handicapped pensioners, families living below the poverty line, concessional food grain card holders, mandi rates and weather information. Such information is already available at one taluk on a pilot basis.

The system generates various types of reports on land ownership by size, type of soil, crops, owner's sex, etc., which would be useful for planning poverty alleviation programs, and supplying agricultural inputs. Banks and other lending institutions could be provided electronic access to the database for processing requests for crop loans, and conduct some advance planning on the quantum of lending required. Similarly, high court, district and taluk courts could access the database for resolving legal disputes surrounding land. The system could also lead to better administration of Land Reforms Act, such as enforcing a ceiling on land holdings, etc.

Key Lessons        

Implementation of Land record computerization has been difficult in India. Bhoomi succeeded because there was a champion who worked a 15-hour day for over 12 months, devoting 80% of his time to the project. Minimizing resistance from staff by harnessing political support was an important contributory factor. Extensive training coupled with a participatory style also helped to diminish resistance.

Project managers need to balance the potential benefits against the risk of implementation failure in deciding how much reform (re-engineering) to tackle at any one time. In Bhoomi significant benefits are delivered in issuing RTCs, but much of the old mutation process remains unaltered. As there is no change in the role of Revenue Inspector in passing the mutation order, corruption in the mutation process may not necessarily reduce. Bhoomi has reduced the discretion of public officials by introducing provisions for recording a mutation request online. Farmers can now access the database and are empowered to follow up. Reports on overdue mutations can point to errant behavior. Still, supervisors must examine the reports and take appropriate action. In remote areas, operators may turn away citizens by telling that the system offering online service is down. Strict field supervision is needed (through empowered citizens committees and NGOs) to curb such behavior. Ultimately, the only recourse that a citizen has against such practices is to lodge a complaint. The process for lodging a complaint should be facilitated through the Web. The backend has to be geared up to handle complaints received electronically.

As an implementation strategy, manually written RTCs were declared illegal from the day on which the computerized system became operational in a taluka. The notification was issued on a taluk-by-taluk basis as and when the scheme became operational there. This forced the department and the farmers to completely rely on the new system. The strategy worked because the application design was robust and did not falter.

There was some concern in Karnataka about raising the user fee to Rs.15 from Rs.2 in the manual system. Often these fears about user fees are exaggerated, particularly if services have genuinely been improved. The response of the people at taluk level has been overwhelming. Queues can be seen at the kiosks in 140 taluk centers, and 330,000 people have paid the fee without grumbling.

Elected representatives, district officials and farmers are requesting that Bhoomi be extended to sub-taluk level. Presumably, the project is considered an unqualified success. However, this expansion will increase the costs without necessarily increasing the number of RTCs that are issued. The department would also find it difficult to monitor and support a geographically spread out operation. Perhaps an independent audit is required to measure the improvements and collect feedback from all stakeholders-something that is not done for most projects. In any case, the system should be allowed to stabilize and prove its sustainability over a 2-year period before attempting its replication. Many years ago, a DRDA computerization project called CRISP was replicated in 500 districts in a hurried manner. The expansion turned out to be a failure.

There are other possibilities, short of direct expansion, that could make RTCs available at sub-taluk level. For example, an unsigned copy can be made available from an Internet kiosk with some official seal. If such copies can be accepted by Banks and verified by accessing the departmental database, the need for signed copies will be reduced. A solution may emerge through wider consultations with the ultimate consumers of these documents.

Case study authors: Rajeev Chawla, Addional Secretary Department of Revenue, Karnataka (Project champion) and Subhash Bhatnagar (World Bank)
Date submitted: December 20, 2001