Indian land program shows tech’s limits

The digital age can’t overcome culture of corruption

A land petitioner, right, waits to get a copy of a land record at Bhoomi, a program that digitized Karnataka state’s 20 million handwritten land records, kiosk in Tumkur 43 miles from Bangalore, India. For years, Karnataka’s land records were a quagmire of disputed, forged documents maintained by thousands of tyrannical bureaucrats who demanded bribes to do their jobs. In 2002, there were hopes that this was about to change. It hasn’t. Enlarge photo

Aijaz Rahi/Associated Press

A land petitioner, right, waits to get a copy of a land record at Bhoomi, a program that digitized Karnataka state’s 20 million handwritten land records, kiosk in Tumkur 43 miles from Bangalore, India. For years, Karnataka’s land records were a quagmire of disputed, forged documents maintained by thousands of tyrannical bureaucrats who demanded bribes to do their jobs. In 2002, there were hopes that this was about to change. It hasn’t.

BANGALORE, India – For years, Karnataka’s land records were a quagmire of disputed, forged documents maintained by thousands of tyrannical bureaucrats who demanded bribes to do their jobs. In 2002, hopes emerged that this was about to change.

The southern state, home to India’s technology hub in Bangalore, unveiled Bhoomi, a program that digitized Karnataka’s 20 million handwritten land records. At the time, it was hailed as a landmark use of computers to cut through bureaucracy and corruption.

But a decade later, Karnataka remains plagued by land disputes that merely migrated from paper to the database, and even the program’s creator says it could take 30 more years to sort it all out.

As the Indian government puts increasing faith in technology to help solve the nation’s thorniest problems – including a complete tech-based overhaul of its welfare system – Bhoomi presents a cautionary tale: Technology, even at its most successful, can be only a part of the solution.

“(Officials) kind of look at technology to be a panacea for everything, which cannot be. The political will is the most important thing,” said Rajeev Chawla, the government administrator who created Bhoomi.

For Yashoda Puttappa, Bhoomi merely marked another setback in her family’s six-decade struggle to recover a plot of 4 acres she said was illegally taken from her grandfather in the 1940s as supposed repayment of a loan from a wealthy upper-caste neighbor. She feels that Bhoomi cemented the competing claim.

“In the computer, the name is of that man, the dominant caste, which is only going to make this harder,” said Puttappa, a land-rights activist.

Bhoomi is good, she said, for preventing future land disputes, by making it more difficult to forge documents, but it also gives a patina of legitimacy to old land grabs.

“Whatever we lost, we can’t get back,” she said.

In this country, a third the size of the U.S. and four times as populous, land supports hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers and is often the only inheritance they pass to their children.

It also has become a hugely profitable investment, as India’s expanding cities grow desperate for new space for office complexes and housing developments.

But land ownership has long been controlled by corrupt bureaucrats beholden to powerful land mafias that dispossessed the downtrodden and spawned millions of disputes.

In Karnataka, 10,000 village accountants presided over piles of stapled, crossed-out, erased and rewritten documents that had been revised so often it was nearly impossible to trace back how land was transferred – or stolen.

Wealthy families routinely took land documents as collateral for usurious loans to the poor, Puttappa said. Upon default, they took the land, often illegally. Even if the loan was repaid, many would trick illiterate debtors into putting their thumbprints on sale documents they couldn’t read, she said.

“You couldn’t even fight in the courts, because you didn’t have the records,” Puttappa said.

Bhoomi, which means “land” in the local Kannada language, changed that. The land records were transferred to a database and the tattered paper documents declared invalid.

Farmers who used to wait days and pay bribes to village accountants to get a copy of their land records, crucial for bank loans, can now get an instant printout at 200 government kiosks across the state for 10 rupees, less than two U.S. cents. When they want to sell their land, they register at the kiosks, which put their requests in a first-come, first-serve queue that makes it far harder for officials to drag their feet in hopes of soliciting a bribe.

But even as the World Bank and others praised Bhoomi as a pioneer in e-governance, the project faced criticism.

In presenting Bhoomi with a U.N. public service award, Cabinet minister Jairam Ramesh criticized the program as “garbage in, garbage out,” saying it should have cleaned up the records before digitizing them.

“We all knew it was garbage,” Chawla said. ‘’But if I tried to clean this garbage, it may take donkey’s years for me, and by the time I cleaned it, more garbage would come into the system.”

Yashoda Puttappa, left, a land-rights activist, speaks about Bhoomi, an effort to computerize land records at her office in Anekal near Bangalore in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Indians are discovering the Bhoomi program has failed to clarify the muddle of confusing and disputed land records in Karnataka. Enlarge photo

Aijaz Rahi/Associated Press

Yashoda Puttappa, left, a land-rights activist, speaks about Bhoomi, an effort to computerize land records at her office in Anekal near Bangalore in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Indians are discovering the Bhoomi program has failed to clarify the muddle of confusing and disputed land records in Karnataka.