ALTHOUGH computerisation of land records in Punjab has already begun, cases of fake mutations, in which patwaris play a central role, continue to emerge.
The latest scam to come to light occurred in Shahdara Patwar Circle a few months back. Over 200 mutations (land transfer deeds) of commercial and residential properties in that circle were registered, verified and passed on the basis of fake stamp papers and signatures of the sub-registrar. The fraud, which had been taking place for the last three years, caused millions of rupees in losses to the exchequer.
The Punjab Board of Revenue, after unearthing the scam, rectified the irregularities to a large extent, as it registered back over 80 of the 200 mutations in favour of the actual owners of the properties. It also terminated the services of a patwari, Mumtaz Ahmed, for his alleged involvement in the fraud. However, Ahmed was reinstated soon afterwards. Meanwhile, no punitive action was taken against six tehsildars and qanoongos, reportedly due to immense pressure exerted by local parliamentarians and other high-ups. These tehsildars and qanoongos had verified and passed the fake mutations.
In Pakistan, the system of maintaining land records, and the assessment and collection of land revenue, continues to stay outdated, distorted and obsolete. The centerpiece of this system is the British-era figure of patwari — a term used in Pakistan and India for a land record officer deployed at the sub-division or tehsil level. The official is responsible for assessing and collecting agricultural revenue, recording inheritance and selling and transferring land in areas under his jurisdiction.
The patwari maintains a total of 17 registers that contain various records, including the Register Haqdaran Zamindar, Register Khasra Gurdawri, Field Book and Register Inteqalat. The official also keeps records of rains, storms, as well as thefts, dacoities and epidemics in the area. Naturally, he also keeps tabs on who owns which part of the land, and who sows what on that particular piece of land.
Perhaps most importantly, the patwari is the only authority who can issue the fard, which is a certificate of possession of land. The fard serves as a guarantee for furnishing bail in court cases, as well as a proof of permanent residence for obtaining a domicile certificate, and securing loans from financial institutions.
A journalist who interviewed a patwari, Javed Hafeez, who has four villages under his jurisdiction near Wagah border, was amazed to find that the only map Hafeez had of the area dated backed to the British era. Perhaps more surprisingly, that map was traced on a piece of cloth one metre wide and two metres long. The map covered all 12,000 acres of land under his control. The cloth had holes in it, while most of the boundary markings of the map had faded. Yet, Hafeez exercises a larger-than-life influence in the local community, and is known for changing land records at will.
In fact, the patwari system was introduced by Sher Shah Suri, and was later strengthened by Mughal emperor Akbar. The British then made minor amendments to the system, and owned it. Since then, the patwari has been wielding immense power in his area of jurisdiction.
These officials had also colluded with feudal lords to derail the Land Reforms of 1973. In most cases, at the behest of landowners, these officials never informed tenants that the reforms had been brought forth, and their status had changed. As a result, peasants continued to work on fields as they did earlier, without knowing they had themselves become owners of their farms. Also, due to poor maintenance of land records, the government was never able to take action against feudal lords who had conspired to defeat the reforms with the help of these patwaris.
Meanwhile, in another recent case involving fraud, which took place in Mandi Bahauddin, the Anti-Corruption Establishment registered a case against 130 revenue officers, including 85 patwaris, in compliance with the orders of the Lahore High Court. The accused had not deposited mutation fees that they had collected on account of transferring land. And then in order to hide the fraud, they submitted fake deposit slips of the National Bank of Pakistan to the district account office. The practice had reportedly been going on for years. However, only three patwaris were put behind bars, while some others sold their properties and then reportedly fled abroad. Still others sought the support of political leaders and other influential people.
Last year, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, had taken up a suo motu case on corruption in provincial revenue departments. On June 30, the court had directed all the provinces to computerise their land revenue records within three months. The chief justice had also suggested that the computerisation process should be started from areas that were under the hold of landlords.
In Punjab, computerisation centres have started working in 12 districts. The director of the Land Record Management Information System recently told participants at a seminar that the land revenue department would complete the process by 2014.
However, the Sindh Revenue Board was slow in starting the computerisation of land records, and it only managed to connect a central database with 27 facilitation centres in the province. Apart from computerisation, some other measures it is adopting include laminating, plastic coating and film-making the land records.
On the other hand, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s revenue minister had informed the provincial assembly last year that mere computerisation of land records was not enough to contain the influence of patwaris. He cited the increase in litigation in Mardan district since the computerisation process had begun.
A 2010 report of the International Crisis Group, titled, Reforming Pakistan’s Civil Service, held provincial revenue departments responsible for the lack of effective checks on patwaris. It observed that the departments generally “lacked both the will and the resources to hold the patwari accountable”. It went on to say that, “The revenue departments themselves are corrupt to the core. There can be no improvement in the system of land revenue until and unless provincial revenue departments themselves are cleansed from top to bottom”.
The report, quoting a revenue officer, added that “there are major vested interests at work in preserving the existing system of land management. The land [holding] elite, many of whom are also politicians sitting in national and provincial legislatures, are in collusion with the patwaris, who grant them preferential access to land and other privileges in exchange for bribes and protection from prosecution”. —Ashfak Bokhari