Once, there was an old woman who lived in a Punjab village decades ago. Unfortunately, her family fell into trouble due to an offence committed by her only son. The guy was apprehended and put in the lockup.
The lady moved endlessly from pillar to post to get the issue resolved but there was no breakthrough. She reached out to the local politicians, sought help of her distant relatives and even approached the opponents for a truce.
One day someone took her to the office of the deputy commissioner, who took special interest in the matter and got it resolved. Overjoyed over the development, the woman thanked the deputy commissioner and expressed her wish that may God elevate him to the rank of a patwari (a low-ranking revenue official).
This account may not be 100 per cent true but it is quite reflective of the influence of patwaris and other revenue officials, especially in rural settings. The records they maintain are in manual form and totally inaccessible to people who are not ready to pay bribes to these officials.
This absolute control over records and patronisation by powerful people make patwaris a force to reckon with. Besides, manipulation of records, flaws in data entry, the possibility of records to go missing etc are causes of many ills including bloody feuds over property issues, denial of rightful share to individuals and endless litigations. The uncertainty about the records, or certificates issued by revenue officials being accurate, also leads to slump in the real estate market.
So, the question, where lies the solution? Or would the situation prevail forever?
This brings us to the project called “Land Records Management and Information System (LRMIS)” initiated in Punjab in 2007. The purpose of the project is to computerise land records and make them available online, incorporate use of biometrics for the security and putting an end to patwaris’ exclusive control over them.
The financial assistance for the project worth Rs 10.25 billion (92 per cent of the project) came from the World Bank whereas Rs 0.94 billion (the remaining 8 per cent) was provided by the Punjab government.
Nadia Ahmed, Manager Social Development and Communication, LRMIS Project Management Unit (PMU) tells TNS the status is quite satisfactory.
She says the data entry exercise included scanning of 30 million pages and data entry of 38.5 million owners which was no way an easy task. At the moment, 98 tehsils out of the total 143 in Punjab are functional where people can go and get the required documents in less than an hour, she adds.
As per the process laid out under the system, an individual can visit the concerned data centre and get a fard (certificate of ownership) for Rs 50 per land parcel, after showing his CNIC, within 30 minutes. A mutation (transfer of property) would take 50 minutes and the process would include biometric verification of the parties involved. This would put an end to the practices of impersonation and denial of share in property to rightful shareholders.
Though the new system is in place, people are slow in availing it. One reason, as cited by Ahmed, is that the literacy level among people is low and they are shy of technology. To tackle this issue, she says, they are reaching people on-ground under their outreach programme and familiarising them with the whole process. Demonstrations and lessons with the help of audio-visual support are giving results.
While the data centres are meant for facilitation of people, reaching them is a hassle. Besides, the influentials expect their patwaris to deliver the required records at their doorstep.
Ahmed rejects this criticism saying the centre treats the ordinary people and the elite equally. She adds, special care is taken to ensure transparency through the use of Biometric identification. Further, she says, beneficiaries believe it is better to visit the centre once than making endless trips to local revenue office to locate the ever-missing patwari.
Gohar Majeed, a real estate developer based in Lahore, finds the initiative revolutionary but fears the public availability of information about land ownership may be harmful for the owners. The project website enables internet users to see property details along with the names of the owners in areas where records have been computerised.
Nadeem Ashraf, Senior Member, Board of Revenue (BoR), Punjab dispels this impression and says there is no threat as data entry process is secure and transparent. Only the authorised people are able to work on these records. They have to undergo biometric verification and enter a PIN code to enter the system.
He says there was a lot of resistance from the revenue staff, mainly patwaris who feared losing their centuries-old monopoly over the land record. For example, when he took over the records, 88,000 mutations were missing in the province. The non-cooperative patwaris were punished and issued strict warnings and the result is that they have retrieved records of 78,000 mutations within six months.
Enumerating the benefits of having computerised land records, he says now it has become extremely easy to establish ownership and rights of rightful land owners, check unscrupulous transactions (executed by unauthorised people), update records in real time against the previous practice of updation after every four years and so on.
There are around 4.5 million overseas Pakistanis who can now see the status of their property online. Besides, banks will happily accept property documents as collateral due to the ease in verifying them, he adds.
Ashraf says, DCOs have been made responsible for achieving targets related to computerisation of land records in their districts. If progress is slow in a district, the DCO is called for explanation.
Another major development is that a totally new cadre of Assistant Director Land Records has been introduced by the government and recruitments made through Punjab Public Service Commission. These officers will manage land records whereas patwaris and tehsildars would be supposed to perform their all other duties except this.
The new system is also likely to support women’s right to ownership. Linked with Nadra database, the software would have an inherent feature to identify all the legal heirs to property, even women.
It was common that male members of a family would produce women other than their real sisters etc and make them surrender their right. In the presence of biometric verification this would not be possible now, says Ahmed.
All these steps are heartening but it is to be seen how much the common man benefits from digitisation.