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A record achievement

Bhoomi, the pilot project to computerise land records, is a resounding success, making the process more accessible and transparent. Meet Rajeev Chawla, the man behind a project that initially faced much resistance and cynicism.


Rajeev Chawla at his office in M.S. Building. — Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

THE EFFORTS of the State Government in taking IT to rural areas has paid off. Its Rs. 19-crore project in this respect, Bhoomi, recently bagged the silver at the 2002 CAPAM (Commonwealth Association of Public Administration and Management) awards function in Glasgow, Scotland. The ambitious project is also among the final entries chosen for the prestigious Stockholm Challenge Award.

The project, of Rajeev Chawla, Additional Secretary (Revenue), Government of Karnataka, was conceived in 1999. It now serves about 70 lakh farmers across more than 170 kiosks in the State. It is the commitment and vision shown by this determined public servant that has brought Bhoomi this much recognition and fame. This inspiring project has taught the rest of the country IT can be taken to the rural areas. Excerpts from an interview with Mr. Chawla:

Q: When were the seeds of the project Bhoomi sown?

A: Computerisation of land records was a plan conceived way back in 1988. The Union Government realised back then that for the formulation and implementation of a good land reform policy, computerisation of land records was necessary. With the system of manual records, farmers were being exploited by zamindars and were at the mercy of the village accountants, who more often than not took the side of the rich landlord. So, in 1988 some pilot districts were chosen, one of them being Gulbarga.

However, it was not clear at all on what computerisation of land records meant. At the time, it was assumed that just by feeding in the data and giving the farmer a printout of the same, the job was done. What was not realised was that the kind of system that had to be in place was one that would incorporate Business Process into the land records updating software. So, the actual work for Bhoomi began only in 1998, when I was posted to the Revenue Department.

Q: How does the system work now, after the land records have been computerised?

A: In the present system, all handwritten land records have been abolished. Now there are kiosks all over the State. All the farmer has to do is to go to the taluk headquarters where the kiosk is located, and pay Rs. 15 and get a printout. If he wants the land records updated, he fills an application. After due verification by the village accountant, the records are updated. On their own, village accountants update the records three times a year.

Q: How foolproof is the system for the farmer? How can one be sure that he is not being exploited?

A: As far as receiving a copy of his land records is concerned, he is now no more at the mercy of village accountants. It is possible that exploitation could take place when a record is to be updated. With this system, however, even that is taken care of. When the farmer files an application to update the record, an enquiry has to be done. We have a system of FIFO (first in, first out), whereby the applications will be processed in the order they have been received. The kiosks also contain the status of the application, which the farmer can follow up.

Q: How long did the whole project take?

A: I would say that the actual work started only in 1998. From the planning stages until the completion, it took about one-and-a-half to two years. It took us about 20,000 man months, which means about 1,200 data entry executives were working over a period of 16 months for data entry. After that, it took about three to four months for validation. In February 2001, the first kiosk was inaugurated in Maddur district.

Q: What were the bottlenecks you faced?

A: Well, it was certainly not easy. There was much criticism and we had to face a lot of cynicism from politicians. To begin with, the 10,000 village accountants, who were already handling the manual records, were indifferent to the idea of computerisation.

They had to be educated on the advantages of the system. The district administration was not excited either. It was hard to get them involved. And of course, another huge problem was the data entry. It was not easy to find data entry agencies, especially in small districts. This job, therefore, had to be outsourced to private agencies.

Q: What were the reactions of the villagers and village accountants after the completion of the project?

A: The villagers, that is the farmers, were more than glad that their task had been made easier. But the village accountants were cynical about the feasibility of the project. After it came into place, they realised that the system was here to stay.

Q: With all this national and international acclaim that Bhoomi has received, has the Government now made plans for it to be used for other purposes?

A: After the success of Bhoomi, the Government is now thinking of making the kiosks more multipurpose, or what we may call broadbanding the kiosks. They can be used for issuing gun licences, ration cards, income certificates, caste certificates, lists of beneficiaries of various government programs, and so on.

Q: You are often referred to as the brain behind Bhoomi. In spite of your post not being considered glamorous, what was your motivation for working on a project others thought of as almost impossible?

A: The good thing is that I am obsessed with anything to do with Information Technology. When I was posted in the Revenue Department, I was also asked by Mr. Sanjay Dasgupta, the then IT Secretary, to join the IT team. It excited me, but then Mr. B.K. Bhattacharya, who was Chief Secretary, told me he had brought me into the Revenue Department for the sole purpose of computerising the land records. That statement came as a great compliment, coming from the Chief Secretary himself.

I also had great faith in the project and its feasibility. I was not worried about the results and just worked hard on the project.

The exciting thing was that the project had so much utility and would benefit the entire farming community. In fact, after Mr. Kenneth Kenniston, Chief, MIT Media Lab, saw the project, he changed his opinion on the near impossibility of computerisation of land records.

SONIRA GULHATI

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