Flaws in Bhoomi, India's model e-governance project

By Keya Acharya

Karnataka's Bhoomi project, which computerised 20 million rural land
records, was designed as an instrument of equity. But is IT also
reinforcing inequality, with men benefiting more than women and the rich
benefiting more than the poor?

India has rushed headlong into a romance with electronic governance but,
in a country struggling to emerge from centuries of entrenched
inequalities and poverty, its outcome is baffling observers.

Electronic governance, or e-governance, is pushing buttons around the
world. It's the latest buzzword for governments trying to cut poverty,
address corruption in their bureaucracies and make themselves more
responsive to their citizens.

It is part of a whole swathe of so-called 'digital solutions' that many
hold can help developing countries leapfrog, or bypass, certain stages
in their development processes. And the Indian experiment is being
keenly watched as experts try to gauge the efficacy of the budding
relationship between the government, the computer and the citizen.

So far only a handful of state governments have tried to go on-line with
any seriousness. The southern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and
Kerala pioneered the move to digitise the vast and complex workings of
government. Now, with no standardised format to follow, some of India's
other 29 states and 6 union territories are having a go.

"We are the best," Karnataka's Information Technology Secretary Vivek
Kulkarni told Panos Features proudly, revealing an underlying rivalry.
Karnataka's capital Bangalore was chosen by the World Bank to be the
first developing country host for its annual Conference on Development
Economics held in May, in recognition of its IT achievements.

The task is huge: less than 1% of the mammoth administration in India is
computerised, and most has been done in a piecemeal fashion. The results
are mixed, as a visit to various rural areas of Karnataka revealed.

Karnataka is home to one of India's most prominent e-governance
projects, launched in 2001. The Bhoomi (or 'land') project has seen the
revenue department computerise the state's 20 million rural land
records, involving some 6.7 million farmers.

It's a project the federal government now wants all states to emulate,
as strong data on land holdings is needed to implement development

"I have no complaints [about Bhoomi]," says farmer Basavenappa Angadi,
president of about 40 farmer self-help groups in the cotton-growing
Dharwad district of Karnataka, 440 kilometres from Bangalore.

Central to the Bhoomi project is the computerised system of producing a
farmer's Record of Rights Tenancy & Crops (RTC) - an all-important
identity paper needed by the farmer to obtain bank loans (for diverse
activities ranging from children's education to buying seeds), settle
land disputes and even use as collateral for bail. It is no less than a
social ID.

In Kengeri, a satellite town near Bangalore, farmer Byregowda too likes
his new RTC: "This is now pukka [genuine]. The Village Accountant cannot
change names anymore."

Under the old system, some 9,000 Village Accountants (VA) were employed
by the state revenue department. They lived in the village, had three or
four villages under their jurisdiction and were responsible for
maintaining land records, including 'mutations' which recorded changes
in ownership.

It was mainly through these 'mutations' that the poor suffered.
Mutations became an instrument for rural corruption, exploitation and
oppression. Landowners simply bribed the VA to change the titles of poor
farmer's lands to their own name. Small farmers, mostly illiterate,
could do little to change this state of affairs, either because they did
not know of it or because they could not afford the VA's bribes.

Now mutations can only be approved by the head of a taluka (a
sub-district-level administrative unit) in the revenue department, and
the farmer has to be present for their record to be changed - only the
taluka head or computer clerk's thumbprint can open the file.

The system is simple - at least in theory. The main town in each taluka
has an 'e-kiosk' with two computers, a printer and a modem. The
software, designed by the National Informatics Centre, stores all kinds
of information for each villager, including the name of the landowner,
history of previous ownership, and minute details of the land, including
what other lands it borders, and how many trees and what type of soil it

In order to access either an RTC or a mutation record, a farmer only has
to turn up at the kiosk and hand in an application to the clerk, who
keys in the request and gives the print-out to the farmer after checking
their identity.

The problems that arise have to do with the vast inequities that cut
across the social, economic and cultural spectrum of India - although
e-governance has gone some way to addressing corruption.

Mallaiah Prabhakar, director of Karnataka's treasury department, admits
that IT cannot address fraud in primary data that is put online. The
concern is echoed by GN Nagaraj, a prominent left-wing politician in
Karnataka, who says the state government has not bothered to tackle
fraudulent land records that went online in the Bhoomi project.

"In one district in north Karnataka where feudalism still prevails, 32
farmers' lands had been recorded in the VA's name prior to
computerisation," Nagaraj says. "The man immediately sold the lot before
Bhoomi began. I know of hundreds of such cases."

All e-governance projects needed to do, he says, was to tally old
records from the 1950s with current records and identify excess lands
which could have been distributed to those cheated and landless. "The
administration has just hurried this through and India has lost an
opportunity to replicate Bhoomi as an instrument of equity."

This criticism cannot be overlooked in a country where 34.7% of people
live on less than US$1 a day - the largest concentration of poor people
in the world. It also goes into the heart of the view, held by many,
that e-solutions cannot be effective in isolation from other social,
economic and political solutions.

Ironically, while Bhoomi aims to help the poor, in regions like Bijapur
in Karnataka, which has the highest demand for RTCs, it is the poor who
appear to be struggling most with the new system.

"We spend Rs 10 ($0.2) as bus fare to reach the town from our villages
and pay Rs 15 ($0.3) for an RTC. Sometimes it takes two days because the
queue is so long. The VA was better," complains Mehboob Modi Patel.

Another farmer, Amsidda Irrappa Karnal, says, "I am illiterate. Who will
help me fill up the application form [for the RTC] here?"

The project also fails to address gender inequality. Land ownership has
long been a male bastion in India - in Karnataka women own just 12% of
the land - and this is reflected in Bhoomi. Women in Dharwad district do
not know of the new system.

Those from Kalakawatagi village in northern Karnataka say they have not
seen their computerised RTC, issued free by the revenue department in
2001 for personal verification.

In Kolar Dsitrict, about 100 km from Bangalore, 42-year-old Pappamma, a
feisty leader of some 200 women's groups, says she has visited the local
e-kiosk several times to help women obtain RTCs. "But taluka officials
themselves know little of the system and are in no position to even
begin helping the women. They need training," she comments dryly.

These issues have opened up the debate on how best to use information
and communication technologies to further development.

Dr Richard Heeks, an e-governance expert based at Britain's Manchester
University, says, "At present, IT is reinforcing more than attacking
inequality: men are benefiting more than women; the rich are benefiting
more than the poor. The challenge is to create the conditions for
'reversing the polarities'; but that is a task for social movements more
than computers."

Bhoomi's pragmatic designer, revenue director and Karnataka's first
e-secretary Rajeev Chawla, dismisses these problems as
system-vulnerabilities. "These are organisational flaps that can be
corrected. What I want is someone to challenge me in Bhoomi's
[technical] design - to show it won't work," he says.

There are other 'vulnerabilities.' Although the federal government is
asking all states to emulate Bhoomi, on the field, former Village
Accountants are still very much around - being used for verifying
mutations and other tasks. Chawla admits, "The VA cannot be erased
completely from a system where his powers have been in existence for the
last 150 years."

As to the illiteracy and gender issues, he says: "IT cannot be held
responsible for solving all of India's problems."

(Keya Acharya is a Bangalore-based Indian journalist specialising in
development and environmental issues.)

(Panos Features, July 2003)

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