Thursday, March 4, 2010

Learnings from Bhoomi

Best Practices from Implementation of the Bhoomi[1] Program of Karnataka
Author - Anirban Mukerji[2]

1. Abstract

Under the Bhoomi program of Karnataka Government, about 20 Million farm land records in the State were computerized leading to transparency in rural land record management. The Bhoomi program, implemented in 2002 , was among the pioneering e-Governance programs of the Country. The difficulty in implementation of Bhoomi can be perceived from the fact that even now in 2010 only Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have achieved end to end computerized delivery of farm land records. The Bhoomi program has been recognized both nationally and internationally by agencies like UN and World Bank and is lauded as a land mark e-Governance program. The many reasons for the successful implementation of Bhoomi namely proper design of the program, abolition of manual alternatives, stakeholder management, capacity building among government servants etc. are written in this article. [i]

2. Introduction

The program for computerization of rural land records of Karnataka or the Bhoomi program led to digitization of 20 million land records and abolition of manually maintained land records. The entire system of management of land records has been computerized and thus the changes to the land records called Mutations are electronically managed through a transparent first in first out (FIFO) mechanism. Karnataka was the first state in the country to have initiated delivery of computerized land records and in the many years that the program has been in existence, the program has exceeded the expectation of both the farmers and the government officials. Even after the initial success, the pace of innovation in the Bhoomi program has continued and several enhancements like integration with the registration department, delivery of land records from Telecentres have been initiated. The success of the program has led to its securing several awards like the United Nations Public Service Award in 2006 and the project champion being awarded the first Public Service award by the Prime Minister of India in 2007.

3. Issues Prior to Bhoomi

Prior to Bhoomi, the land record of the farmer was traditionally maintained in the form of a paper record by a junior government functionary known as the village accountant or patwari, as he is called in some of the northern states of the country. The farmer requires this land record for many reasons like obtaining a bank loan or for availing some government benefits and every time. Every time the farmer needed his land record, he had to request the village accountant which was not easy as he has to first locate the village accountant who was a field functionary of the government and did not have a fixed office. More importantly, in most cases the village accountant issued the land record to the farmer only for a consideration. In case the farmer wanted to sell the land or make any other transaction on the land he was at the mercy of the petty bureaucracy at the sub district office to effect changes in the land record.
Figure 1 Old RTC

Figure 2 New RTC after computerization of Records

4. Benefits from Bhoomi

The Bhoomi program or the computerized distribution of land records has yielded several benefits to both the citizen as well as the revenue department of Karnataka

a)  Benefits to citizens

Under the Bhoomi program, the manual system of record keeping of land records was abolished and a single computerized system for both issuing of land records as well making changes in land records was established. Now a farmer in Karnataka could come to the computer centre in the sub – district office and obtain his land record without fear or favor. Also, making changes to the land record (mutation) was also simplified and applications were accepted through a computerized kiosk in the sub district office. Further, mutation applications are disposed off in a transparent manner on a FIFO basis. Another benefit of Bhoomi to land owners has been that the land records are now maintained centrally and are available in the public domain and hence cannot be manipulated or tampered with.
Figure 3 : Farmers obtaining a copy of RTC from the computer centre
In an independent audit conducted by the World Bank[3], the farmers of Karnataka overwhelmingly endorsed Bhoomi for its numerous features like its user friendliness, reduction in corruption, responsiveness of the government staff manning the Bhoomi counters in the Sub-district office. This was despite the fact that in the earlier system, the farmer could obtain the land record in his village itself whereas now in the new system he had to travel to the sub district office to obtain his land record.

b) Benefits to the Revenue Department

The Bhoomi program has significantly improved the efficiency of the Revenue department of Karnataka as well. Some of these benefits are
  1. Transcribing a land record manually is a laborious job for a village accountant. Currently about 1.5 Crore land records are delivered every year from the computer centers in the Sub-district office and it would have been impossible handle such a large volume in a manual fashion.
  2. Computerization has enabled the revenue department to easily track the mutation (change) transactions and monitor pendency of transactions.
  3. Another benefit of Bhoomi for the revenue department has been in safeguarding government land because the Bhoomi software electronically prohibits any transaction on government land.
  4. The judicial process has also benefited as prior to Bhoomi, resolution of several land related disputes was hampered due to either non availability of records or presentation of wrong land records to the courts.

5. Difficulty in implementation of Bhoomi

Despite the benefits of Bhoomi to the farmers of the state, it must be realized that it was an extremely difficult program to implement for many reasons. The biggest difficulty was in the humungous task of accurately digitizing the 20 Million manually written land records. As can be appreciated that Land is the most valuable asset for any farmer and any mistake in digitization of land record could cause a great loss to him. In case such mistakes were rampant in nature two adverse events may have happened, the farmers of Karnataka would have agitated to abolish this computerized system and secondly the village accountants who were custodians of the land records would have disowned the computerized land record and forced the administrative and political leadership to disown the computerization project. Additionally changes to land records are a continuous process and land transactions could not be stopped for the 1-2 year period required for completion of the digitization process.
The other major issue was in changing over to an entirely new computerized system. The land records management was managed at the sub district level and these government officials were completely unfamiliar with computers and the new computerized system was a far change from their earlier manual way of working.

6. Factors leading to success of Bhoomi

Bhoomi is certainly an unparalleled example of a successful implementation of an e-governance program. Bhoomi has been successful due to thoughtfully designing the program as well as numerous innovations incorporated in the implementation of the program. Some of the factors leading to the success of the program are as following

a)  Program design

The Bhoomi program was funded by a Federal Government initiative for computerization of Land records, however the funding for the program was confined to mere one time digitization of land records. The project champion realized that a mere one time digitization of land records would not be sustainable and an end to end computerized land record management system was required. Also the manual system of transcribing land records was abolished and only computerized land records were issued. Any change in any section of the land record like change in name of the owner was effected through a workflow process on the electronic database. Many other states continued to keep manual land records valid and attempted to synchronize changes in the manually maintained land record with the digital database but failed in the attempt.
The Project champion tirelessly worked to persuade the Political and Administrative leadership to allocate funds for computer centers in the sub district office for the purpose of both issuing the computerized land records to the farmers and also accept and process changes in the land records.
In all other states of the country, the program for computerization of land records failed in many stages, firstly all land records were never digitized, also both manual and computerized systems of issue of land records management continued leading to lack of synchronicity between the two systems and finally the computerized system was disregarded and the manual system maintained its primacy.

b) Political and administrative support

The then Chief Minister of Karnataka, Shri S.M. Krishna firmly supported the program and exhorted the revenue officials to make the program a success. Many of the written directives, circulars to the district officials were personally signed by the CM which demonstrated the commitment of the CM to the Bhoomi program. The commitment of CM also bolstered the efforts of the senior bureaucrats of the State – the Chief Secretary and the Principal Secretary, Revenue the head of the revenue department that managed the land records of the state. These senior administrators also stressed on the importance of the program for the state to their subordinate officers.

c)   Stakeholder engagement and involvement

During the project implementation period workshops were regularly organized with all levels of officers of the revenue department. During these frequent workshops, the details of the Bhoomi program, and the deliverables expected from these officers were communicated to the officials. Further during these workshops the officers also provided feedback regarding the progress and suggestions were used to improve the program. In the period of 2000-2002 when the Bhoomi program was under implementation, computerization in the government sector was at its infancy and government officials did not have much knowledge either of computers or of the benefits that could be obtained from such a computerization program. However the project champion took great efforts to communicate both the program design and the computerization process to the department officials. Further this communication encompassed all levels of the Revenue department, starting from the junior most village accountants to the Deputy Commissioners (the head of the revenue function in the district).
The entire hierarchy of the Revenue department was also asked to validate the computerized land record. Since the village accountants are the custodians of the land record it was obvious that each computerized land record needed to be validated by the village accountant. But even officials senior to the village accountant like the Revenue Inspector, Tahsildar[4], Assistant commissioner and even the Deputy Commissioner validated a proportion of the digitized land record.

d) Institutionalization and legal changes

During the program implementation stage, the central program office prepared and circulated a large number of circulars covering every aspect of the program to all levels of the revenue department. These circulars contained clear actionable guidelines to the field officers executing the program. Appropriate changes were also made to the Karnataka land revenue act making the hand written land records invalid and the computer generated land record the only valid document.

e) Capacity building among government servants

In most e-governance programs the computers are operated by private data entry operators and the government officials are not involved. This leads to the government servants having neither any information nor any ownership of the e-governance program being implemented in their department. However, in case of Bhoomi this was avoided by identifying 1000 young, enthusiastic and eager-to-learn village accountants, training them on computers and giving them responsibility of managing the Bhoomi computer centers at the Sub-district office. Since government functionaries work on the computer and process the land records, there is a greater ownership and accountability of the program from the revenue department of Karnataka.
Further, to support the government officials in use of the computers, a cadre of engineers was recruited on a contractual basis. These private engineers were located at the district level and supported the computer centers in 4-5 sub districts. These young engineers provided the assurance of support on computers to the government officials.

f)    Institutional structure

In most e-governance programs, the administrative head of the program managed the new project along with his regular routine responsibilities. In any new project numerous issues crop up which need to be resolved, but the administrator due his routine responsibilities can’t pay attention to these issues. However in case of the Bhoomi program, a separate Bhoomi monitoring cell was created in Bangalore with the exclusive responsibility of managing the program. This Bhoomi monitoring cell also supplemented its man power by recruiting private technical staff for specific technical jobs like software testing, communicating user requirements to the software development staff, application deployment and first-level application trouble shooting and maintenance.

g) Establishing good Vendor management practices

For implementation of such a large e-governance project it is important to work with the private sector in a constructive manner. There are many aspects of the Bhoomi program where the private sector was involved. The initial data entry of the twenty million land records of Karnataka was done by private data entry agencies. It needs to be appreciated that in 2000-01 when the Bhoomi program was started trained data entry operators were not easily available, and further the task of data entry was done in remote districts of the State with many infrastructure constraints like lack of regular power supply.
Thereafter, when computer centers were established in the Sub district offices, an IT service provider was engaged to provide facility management services for the computers in the offices.
Working with the private sector has many challenges but they can be mitigated through precise definition of the scope of work and contractual terms and transparent payment procedures. The absence of these good practices will lead to disputes with the vendor and delay the implementation of the project.

h) Importance of pilots

The computerization of land records and issue of computerized land records was first commenced in five Sub-district offices, thereafter it was expanded to 27 Sub-district offices and thereafter to the remaining 177 Sub-district offices in a phased manner. Hence the lessons at each stage of the project were incorporated prior to expansion to the next stage.

i)    Financial sustainability

To enable financial sustainability of the project the computerized land record was priced at Rs. 15/-. This was in contrast to the fact that earlier the handwritten land record was supposedly given free of cost to farmers, though practically mostly the village accountant took a bribe for issuing the record. The collection of user charges has made the program self sustainable and allowed it to invest in technology upgrades and innovations like setting up of a Data Centre, establishing a VSAT network for connectivity of all the 213 sub district computer centers..

j)    Business process re engineering

Several changes in the system were introduced to make the Bhoomi program a success. Some of these changes are
1)                In the old system, the hand written land records were signed by the village accountant of the village. The computer operator manning the computer centers from which the new computerized land records were issued were also government officials of the village accountant cardre. These computer operators signed the computerized land records and it was mandated that their signature was legally valid.
2)                A First-In-First-Out system (FIFO) system was introduced for disposal of applications for changes in the land record (mutations). This led to reduction in discretion on the part of the officials in effecting mutations and also speeded up the process.
3)                User friendly system: A person could request for a land record by giving the survey number or the farmer’s name. The farmer did not need to prove his identity or submit an application at the computer centre in order to obtain his land record.

k)  Technology choices and innovations

Several technology choices and innovations also led to the success of the program. Some of these innovations were
1)                Use of a widespread technology platform: The project team decided to embrace a technology both for hardware and software that at that time had the largest user base. This has led to trouble free operations of the Bhoomi system over the past many years
2)                The importance of the safety, security and integrity of the land record data was understood by the project team and all efforts were made to ensure security of the data. Some features introduced in the technical architecture were simultaneous back up of data in another hard drive attached to the server storing the Bhoomi data. Later a central data centre was established both for the purpose of backing up the data at the distributed sub-district offices and centrally managing and monitoring the infrastructure at these offices.
3)                Biometric authentication was built into the software to incorporate non-repudiation. Hence any change made to the land record could be tracked to the individual effecting the change.
4)                Continuous process of innovation: Over the past 6 years, since the initial objectives of the project were met, the project team continued to innovate and introduce new features and functionalities in the Bhoomi system that is both benefiting the citizens and the revenue department.

l)    Importance of the Project Champion

Margaret Mead, the noted anthropologist has said that
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
The above quote is more than true of the efforts of Rajeev Chawla, an officer of the Indian Administrative Service, who managed the project from 1998 – 2007 and thereafter from 2008-09. The project as mentioned earlier was a centrally funded project called “Computerization of land records” and it involved mere digitization of the manual land record. Prior to Chawla taking over the project, the Implementation efforts merely comprised of allocating the funds obtained from the federal government to various Deputy Commissioners of the district who in turn were expect to recruit data entry agencies for the digitization work. After taking over the responsibility for the project, Chawla completely redesigned the project for sustainability and said that the project should not merely limit itself to digitization of land records but should be a comprehensive land record management system.
With very limited resources he tackled each component of the project with a missionary zeal, which included digitization of manual records, getting them validated by the government officials, establishment of the computer centers, training of officials and other associated tasks.  Most IAS officers take pride in looking at the big picture and prefer to not get their hands dirty in the nitty gritty, however Chawla involved himself with every aspect of the project, including working very closely with the software developers from National Informatics Centre in designing and testing the software for the Project.
The Bhoomi project when launched across the state in March 2002 was heralded as a great success and was appreciated by all. It was among the pioneering e-Governance projects of the country and Chawla could have leveraged the success for positions in World Bank or Federal Government, however he felt that the Bhoomi project needed his guidance for some more years so that the change in the Government process is irreversible and there is no scope for closure of Bhoomi and reverting to the manual system.

7. Conclusion

It is without doubt that Bhoomi is among the most successful large scale citizen centric deployments of e-governance programs in the world. In the years since the deployment of the program, the number of services delivered through the Bhoomi system has more than doubled to 15 million and mutation applications have trebled to over 2 million per year. In each of the 176 Sub-district offices of the state the revenue officials have been well trained and are successfully managing the computer centers of the program. It is obvious that because of the above mentioned factors, the program is on solid foundation and is able to meet the increased demand for services and also win the confidence of both the revenue department and the citizens.
Any e-governance program that is to be implemented, particularly those that are citizen centric in nature will have to examine each of the above mentioned success factors of Bhoomi and replicate them for successful implementation of the program. None of these factors can independently ensure the success of the program but in case a program addresses each one of the factors there is no doubt that such an e-governance program will be built on a strong foundation and will deliver benefits to both citizens, and also improve the operational efficiency of the government department serving the citizens.
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[1] Bhoomi literally means land in Hindi
[2] The Author is thankful to Shri Rajeev Chawla for providing the framework for this article. The views expressed in the article are those of the author alone.
[4] A tahsildar is revenue administrative officer in India in-charge of the Taluka or the sub district office

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