THE Planning Commission of Pakistan intends to computerise land records and other related data to make them easily available to their owners and also to break the patwari stranglehold on these records which has rendered them non-transparent and unreliable.

The commission, reports say, also wants to centralise the data collected from all over the country. But it will be possible only after the provinces complete computerisation of land records in areas falling under their domain.

Some provinces such as Punjab and Balochistan have already embarked on pilot projects of computerisation with the help of the World Bank but the pace of work is too slow. Besides, the project of computerisation itself will face several problems because of the non-implementation of the land reforms. India does not face such problems because of the success of land reforms there.

In Pakistan, the system of maintaining land records, assessment and collection of land revenue continues to be outdated, distorted and obsolete. The system is under the sway by the British-era figure of patwari, a term used in Pakistan and India for a land record officer at sub-division or Tehsil level, who is responsible for assessing and collecting agricultural revenue, recording inheritance, sale and transfer of land, and maintaining all land records in its area of jurisdiction.

In all, he controls 17 registers containing records like Register Haqdaran Zamindar, Register Khasra Gurdawri, Field Book, Register Inteqalat, and even maintains the record of rains, storms, thefts, dacoities and epidemics along with who owns which land and who sows what on a particular piece of land.

The most commonly required land-related document is a certificate of possession called the ‘fard’ which can only be granted by the patwari. The fard serves as a guarantee for furnishing bail in court cases; proof of permanent residence to obtain a domicile certificate and secure loans from financial institutions.

All information is noted manually in the registers. Osman Anwar-ul-Haq of Cobrapost website recently interviewed a patwari, Javed Hafeez, who who has four villages under his jurisdiction near Wagah border. He was amazed to find that the only map the patwari had of the area dated backed to the British era. It was on a piece of cloth, a metre wide and two metres long. It covered 12,000 acres of land, which was the area under his control. It had holes in it and most of the boundary markings had faded.

Although a BPS-5 employee but because of his primary base in rural areas, where literacy and wealth is low, he exercises a larger-than-life influence in the local community and is known for changing land records at will.

In fact, the patwari is considered to be the main culprit for the failure of 1973 land reforms. In most cases, at the behest of the landowners, he never informed the tenants that the reforms had taken place and their status has changed.

The peasants continued to work on their fields as before, without knowing they had become the owners of their farms. Also, because of the poor maintenance of land record, the government was never able to take action against the feudal lords who conspired to defeat the reforms.

A 2010 report of the International Crisis Group titled “Reforming Pakistan’s Civil Service” holds provincial revenue departments responsible for lack of effective checks on the patwari, and observes that the departments generally “lack both the will and the resources to hold the patwari accountable.” It says, “the revenue departments themselves are corrupt to the core. There can be no improvement in the system of land revenue until and unless the provincial revenue departments themselves are cleansed from top to bottom.”

The report, quoting a revenue officer, says that “there are major vested interests at work in preserving the existing system of land management. The landed 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.”

Punjab is making some progress in respect of computerisation project which was launched in March 2007 and is expected to take eight years to complete.

A Board of Revenue official says the project may take some extra time because of the destruction of a lot of manual records in the wake of fire that broke out in the district courts in 1990s. However, director, Land Record Management Information System says the computerisation work will be completed by 2014.

Besides, a new service cadre replacing patwaris will be introduced. On March 19, a member of the Board of Revenue, Saeed Ahmad Nawaz, during an inspection, identified serious lapses and flaws which have complicated the matters relating to land records.

On December 8, 2011, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif said that the project of the computerisation of land records was of great importance and that after its completion, not only would the people be facilitated in obtaining revenue records, but they would also get rid of the patwari culture and corruption. Addressing a high-level meeting, he said that fraud and forgery with regard to registration of properties would be eliminated through the computerisation of revenue records and that the people would be facilitated in obtaining the record of ownership of their land.

In India, computerisation work, which began in 1988, also remains slow. However, the success of one model which has also been praised by the World Bank is known as the ‘Bhoomi’ project carried out in the Indian state of Karnataka in 2001. The project has computerised 20 million land records in the state, covering seven million farmers and 35 million beneficiaries in 27,000 villages.

Earlier, farmers had to wait for months and pay bribes for rights of tenancy. They can now simply visit information kiosks to obtain a computerised copy of their records for a nominal service fee.

On November 12, 2010, the Indian Punjab government claimed to have achieved a major landmark by computerising the land records of the entire Sangrur district and putting it on web. Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal termed it a part of administrative reforms to eradicate corruption from the public dealing offices. As Mr Badal clicked the mouse, Sangrur got the proud distinction of becoming the first district in India having 100 per cent computerised land records.