SOON after their arrival in the subcontinent the British began to show an interest in matters pertaining to the survey, record and administration of land.

The Survey of India was established in 1767. The earliest survey operation undertaken by the British was carried out between 1811 and 1820 in the Broach Collectorate under Col Monier Williams. In 1847, a joint report was prepared based on experiences from across the country. More surveys were conducted between 1860 and 1880. At the advent of the 20th century, a proper system of survey, settlement, demarcation, assessment, measurement and land records was in place. This system, with slight modifications, remains in Pakistan.

Each patch of land was allocated a number. A certain number of such patches formed a revenue deh / mauza / estate. Each such estate had a separate record of ownership and a map, which, if viewed on Google Earth, would appear as it was a century ago. For each such estate or group of estates, a revenue official was posted to look after the administration. This revenue official was called patwari or tapedar .

This revenue official gained importance over time. Besides keeping records of ownership, he provided all sorts of information to the government and performed tasks assigned to him by the government from time to time. Over the years, he became the eyes and ears of the colonial masters.

I want to share with readers some information from a gazetteer of Sindh, Nawabshah district, published by the Government Central Press in 1920. An interesting example pertains to the human and animal losses incurred because of snakebites from 1912 to 1918. In 1918, for humans the toll was 52 and for cattle 38. Who was providing this essential, detailed bit of information to the colonial masters? It was the tapedar . No statistics in this modern time can be presented of snakebite cases all over Pakistan. If these have to be presented, the assignment may once more be entrusted to the tapedar .

After partition in 1947, no steps were taken to reform the agency of the tapedar , and this revenue official continued to perform the same functions and thus enjoyed the same importance in Pakistan's rural hinterland. This official has remained a major source of information for the government and has continued to perform various duties, despite his limitations, relating to rescue, relief and rehabilitation in cases of natural disasters.

However, this official has also faced allegations of corruption, malpractice, misconduct and irregularities. So much is the level and intensity of propaganda against the tapedar that it seems he is the root cause of all the country's problems.

After the recent floods, the distribution of Watan Cards was announced as a rehabilitation measure. The National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) was given the task of providing Watan Cards to flood victims. Computer equipment and related machinery worth million of rupees were unleashed on the illiterate victims of the affected areas.

In a mechanised way, without doing any homework, the names of the affected revenue estates were uploaded and the distribution of Watan Cards begun. After two months, realisation dawned that half the victims may not have received the cards owing to problems relating to the non-identification of the head of family, change of address, non-availability of identity cards, etc.

Software prepared by Nadra cannot take into consideration various factors concerning the eligibility of the victims. Eyebrows were raised. Meetings were held to decide who would bell the cat. All eyes are on the tapedar again. This also proves the effectiveness and usefulness of the centuries-old system of local administration.

Now the tapedars will help prepare lists of all flood victims who did not receive Watan Cards. This revenue official will have to contribute towards this prime task and can do so. He has close links with the local people, knows each and everyone and has earlier managed such assignments amicably. He has the aptitude, potential and the capability to deliver in such circumstances.

It would have been more productive if the Population Census Organisation had been engaged in this assignment from the start, with the active collaboration of the revenue and education departments. This organisation has the expertise to count homes and persons.

Charges of corruption in the revenue department, particularly at the lower levels, especially against tapedars cannot be denied. Most of the complications originate because of the fraudulent mindset of some among them. There are points to be kept in mind.

Firstly, a tapedar cannot do anything unless someone from the general public approaches him. So it is always a two-way process.

Secondly, we have entrusted our revenue record worth billions of rupees to a person who is an official in the BPS-5 category, with a salary of Rs5000. The official is still getting horse allowance amounting to Rs40 and washing allowance of Rs3 per month. In British India, when there was no road network/ infrastructure: riding on camels/horses was a normal way of life; but in today's world, this is not the case.

Thirdly, political interference and pressure is also a constant headache. The devolution of 2001 has further made the patwari a personal slave of the district nazim, further politicising this agency.

Unless and until we have some suitable modern institutional arrangement with proper networks in every nook and corner of the country, the services of this official should be utilised as he is indispensable. Political and other pressures (including financial) should be reduced for him. If society is not in a position to appreciate this useful official, it should at least spare him until it is.

The writer is district officer, revenue, Nawabshah.



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