INFOCHANGEINDIA.ORG: Flaws in Bhoomi, India's model e-gov project

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  • Date: Thu, 28 Aug 2003 16:36:44 +0530 (IST)
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      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 programmes.
      
      "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 has.
      
      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)