The World Bank-funded project has increased corruption instead of liberating citizens from the Patwari system.
The Punjab Land Records Management and Information Systems Project was a revolutionary and ambitious project launched in 2012 with support from the World Bank. With the primary objective of computerizing the Punjab land records, it promised to bring the opaque, manual land revenue records management system, dating back almost a century to the time of British colonial rule, into the digital age.
The project was designed along four levels:
(a) Expanding service delivery capacity at the provincial, district, tehsil, and patwar levels
(b) Digitizing the land records and building a database
(c) Improving service delivery
(d) Project execution and management.
The project was completed in 2016 and, at least initially, there was a sense of euphoria around what it had achieved. More than 90 percent of the service users surveyed soon after its launch reported that they preferred the new, digital Arazi (trans. Land) Record Centers (ARCs) over the traditional system. However, while the manual paperwork has been replaced completely by a shiny new computerized database, the old approach to service delivery is still the same. At every administrative level, from the lowest Patwar Circle, right up to the Board of Revenue (BOR), the system is still a nightmare. Corruption is rampant with no accountability or checks in place. In fact, the ARC can be described as an innovation that ended all hopes of improvement for the system. For those with vested interests in the old system that gave them absolute power, the ARC was a godsend as it only strengthened their grip over data instead of making it more transparent to the public. Probably no other nation can beat Pakistan when it comes to finding the quickest way to ruin an entire system lock, stock and barrel.
Since its creation, the Punjab ARCs created a terrible situation where farmers and landowners were faced with an ingenious corruption cartel. Through connivance with the Patwaris, revenue staff at the District and Tehsil level make deliberate data entry errors, such as entering the wrong name, CNIC number or other details of lands and then extorting bribes from service users to correct the errors. Having heard many horror stories of how ordinary citizens were being forced to bribe the ARC staff, I personally visited some of the ARCs and was shocked to see the organized corruption nexus. The proceeds are shared equally between the Tehsil Revenue Staff and the ARCs. Making minor mistakes during data entry has become a lucrative money-minting business at the cost of innocent people who simply want to avoid wasting any more time with this lot.
Pakistan is the only country where the citizen has to pay for correcting data entry errors made willfully by public service staff.
The World Bank supported this project with the lofty aim of eliminating corruption and increasing transparency of data relating to land title and ownership. Land ownership transfers were difficult under the manual system, subject to delays, incomplete records, and corruption. The new system was introduced to make land records more accessible to landowners throughout Punjab, reducing disputes over title, and making land transactions smoother. Estimated at an initial cost of USD 16.7 million, the World Bank ended up spending USD 30.5 million. Apart from establishing Service Centers and bringing in new computers to store the digitized land records, a new set of laws and regulations were introduced. Processes were designed to link land record management with land deed registration.
The new system has not changed anything for the people. A new, organized corruption cartel centered on the transfer of land, mutations, demarcation of land, and issuance of Fard (proof of land) is now being successfully run by the inheritors of the manual system—the ARCs. They are in reality nothing more than a modern, hi-tech, one-window operation for organized corruption.
If the government and the concerned authorities really want to make the ARCs a vehicle for change, they need to implement a zero-tolerance policy in this regard and impose severe punishments on those who are involved in these corrupt practices. Otherwise, this project will simply become another mega-corruption giant.