Why Telangana farmers are facing the brunt of the new digitised land record system

Dharani was supposed to fix everything related to land records in the state, but it is now creating more problems than it addresses.
Why Telangana farmers are facing the brunt of the new digitised land record system
Why Telangana farmers are facing the brunt of the new digitised land record system
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On November 4, Mandal Revenue Officer Vijaya Reddy was brutally murdered in Telangana’s Abdullahpurmet after she was set ablaze in her office. K Suresh was found to have committed the crime, allegedly over a dispute involving several acres of land between Gowrellu and Bacharam villages. Her death triggered widespread protests across the state.  

In the weeks after Vijaya’s death, other incidents related to alleged discrepancies in land records began to crop up throughout the state. One man attempted to throw petrol at a revenue officer in Karimnagar, while others resorted to death threats and suicide attempts. Two farmers tried to kill themselves after their attempts to update land records with the Revenue Department failed multiple times, and in another instance, a farmer in Nizamabad district attempted to take his own life after 1.03 gunta of land was registered to another person. Another farmer of Gummadavelli village under Jangaon district also attempted suicide after revenue officials failed to update his land records.

At the heart of these incidents, including the horrific murder of Vijaya, is said to be the state government’s flagship Integrated Land Records Management System, known as Dharani, and the delay and difficulties surrounding the digitisation of land records. 

Through Dharani, the government aims to digitise all land-related records and functions in Telangana for better land administration and land registration services. But inconsistencies and failures involving the new system has led to a number of new land disputes, raising questions on the ownership of the land of scores of farmers in the state.

What is Dharani?

According to a state government official who has worked on the project’s development, “Dharani is unique. It’s a new land record system where revenue and registration functions are combined, acting as a single database. Earlier, the Revenue and Land Departments worked on a separate database, so they were not the same. Thus Dharani was initiated. In one database itself, the registration will happen and the revenue part will also happen. This makes the instantaneous transfer of land ownership possible.”

Up until the integration of land and revenue records, the two departments had no statutory obligation to interact. For revenue officials, this meant that they would have no clue about the land transactions taking place in their jurisdiction.

Telangana is the first state to attempt a land record system of this magnitude based on blockchain technology, and a similar system is expected to be rolled out across the country. 

Dharani aims to digitise all land-related records and functions in Telangana, for better land administration and land registration services. This is being done by compiling land records of “a total of 2.7 crore acres spread over 10,850 villages” into a single portal that is accessible to citizens, officials say. The portal was created after a Land Records Updation Programme (LRUP)  titled, “Rythu Vari Bhu Survey” was undertaken by the Revenue Department in 2017.

Where did Dharani get its data from?

The brainchild of the Telangana CM KCR, the aim was to determine who owns how much land in the state, but the data collection drive left out crucial spatial data, which would have helped record the location, size and shape of a plot. The updating programme also left agricultural tenants out of the survey. 

Dharani, on its website, claims to provide a Geographic Information System (GIS) based on visual representation of the land record data for greater accuracy, but sources told TNM this feature is not yet functional. 

The aim of the LRUP was hence reduced to merely identifying beneficiaries for KCR’s Rythu Bandu financial support scheme for land-owning farmers. The survey was done in a span of just five months, and the resulting data was repurposed to populate Dharani.  

But since 2017, the portal has been partly operational, and farmers have reported a loss of land parcel records or their lands have been recorded digitally under someone else’s name. And though the system is being used in multiple mandals across the state, the project is technically still in its pilot stage.

Missing lands

Imagine owning five acres of land inherited from a parent. On paper, the land is yours, but when the new pattadar passbook, which denotes proof of ownership, arrives, it shows only three acres of land. So where did those two other acres of land go and why aren’t they recorded?

“Most of the passbooks are filled with errors,” says K Chandrakala, a Tahsildar and member of the Telangana Tahsildars Association. She explains that this is due to faulty data in the Dharani portal, which carries its mistakes to the passbook. The litigations arising over the land are based on the carried over mistakes on the pattadar passbooks, she added. 

The state had set a target of issuing 57 lakh pattadar passbooks and as of 2019 over 55 lakh pattadar passbooks have been issued. While there is no clarity on how many of these passbooks contain errors, revenue officials peg over a 1,000 error-prone passbooks per mandal in the state. 

These mistakes go back decades to when land transfers and acquisitions weren’t always recorded in a strict sense. “Some 30 to 40 years ago in villages and in tribal areas, the sale of land was done through word of mouth or written on a slip of paper or a stamp paper, but not registered. It was a gentleman’s agreement. This is still the practice in many areas, but the shift in land ownership is not often recorded by the government. This has now created a complicated situation during digitisation,” says Narasimha Reddy Donthi, a public policy analyst working with various organisations. 

Since the launch of Dharani, instances have cropped up where land is being reclaimed by the descendants of those who, on paper, sold their land years before. According to Chandrakala, many of the latest land disputes involve lands that have been sold, but not registered. Revenue officials say they can only go by the facts presented before them. 

Chandrakala blames an absence of coordination between the Revenue Department and the Land Registration Department over decades as the kernel for the present crisis. The Revenue Department has little accurate data on who sold land to whom, nor do they have accurate data on how much land was transacted between two parties. “Each of the new land disputes arising is unique in their own way,” she adds.

Digital errors and real-life effects

For the farmers facing these issues arising due to data discrepancies in the Dharani portal, the Mandal Revenue Officer (MROs) is their first point of contact.  In preparation for the roll-out of Dharani, the state government had set up new IT infrastructure, servers and better internet connection for the revenue officers.

However, Chandrakala says the revenue officers like her were neither informed of the technology change, nor were they given any training. The officials are also unable to make any changes to the data as all the cases are in litigation. 

A tech entrepreneur who has worked closely with the Telangana state government in developing Dharani, told TNM, “You can assign a designated person to make the changes, it could be a revenue officer. They will be the one verifying the claims being made, there is nothing stopping the revenue officer from making the changes. The system will just record that a change has been made.”

But it isn’t as easy as it sounds, revenue officials say. “Any changes or updating of records have to be done as per the Record of Rights in Land Act,” the Tahsildar says. The Act calls for the verification of claims before any changes are made, a time-consuming process. So as Dharani throws up new errors in pattadar passbooks, all changes being suggested thus have to be verified. 

“The Dharani website is full of errors. Due to these errors, there are several litigations in the land records. When we appraise the District Collectors of the situation, instead of notifying these problems to the Chief Minister, they are asking us to handle the situation. And these farmers continue to make rounds to our office assuming that we are deliberately delaying their land issues, and we face their angst,” a revenue official from Mahbubnagar told TNM during protests that followed Vijaya’s death. 

What’s more, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao’s repeated castigations of the Revenue Department has not helped quell the issue. With Revenue Department widely perceived as one of the most corrupt in the state, KCR in August announced a new Revenue Bill to help eliminate corruption in the department and provide hassle-free service to farmers and the state’s citizens. 

The unfinished chain

Some of the issues with Dharani can be traced back to the lack of prior testing before the system was adopted by the government for state-level implementation. A pilot program, launched in 2018 at Shamshabad with the help of Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, is still underway. 

“It’s an independent project. At some stage, if we have more study points from what they have learnt, it will be easier for us to adopt,” the officer says. “Please understand that even before all land records were in digitised only, they have been online for the past many years. This is only a change in tech in the backend.”

IT Minister KT Rama Rao has routinely touted the use of blockchain technology in the development of Dharani in the state. But in its present form, Dharani has not been integrated into blockchain as yet. Only its architecture has been designed to be developed into blockchain at “a later time.”

“The whole project was supposed to be in four phases,” a government officer explains. ”Revenue, registration, GIS and the fourth phase is the blockchain integration. So the architecture is designed to be blockchain from the beginning.” However, the state government will not be able to roll out the whole project until the Revenue Act is amended, said the officer.

“Some aspects of the revenue law have to be amended for the portal to become fully operational. Like for example, revenue officials also have to perform the registration now, so an amendment has to be made for that. The government wants a new Revenue Act. They found the present Act slightly difficult to work with. The discussion on the new Act is going on,” the officer added.


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