To say that digitisation of land records across the country will be transformative is an understatement
Nearly 70 percent of the world’s population does not have a legal title to property, or access to a reliable land registration system, The World Bank Group reports. Considering that for many, land and houses are their most important assets, and represent a lifetime of investment, the issue of land ownership has emerged as one of global import.
Prime Minister Imran Khan recently announced a plan to digitise land records throughout Pakistan using Geographical Information System (GIS) based technology. The impacts of this welcome initiative will extend far beyond curbing land encroachment and illegal construction. In a country where real estate is in effect a kingmaker, having access to land ownership and tenure information becomes crucial for society at large.
Land ownership has long remained a contentious issue in South Asia, particularly in countries with (historically) agrarian economies. In addition to assuring food security for the world’s 6th largest (and rapidly growing) population, land is an essential resource for sustainable development, social development, environmental protection, climate change mitigation and poverty alleviation.
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have set an ambitious target of “men and women having equal rights to ownership and control of land” by the year 2030. As the first country to adopt the SDGs 2030 through a unanimous resolution of parliament, Pakistan must prioritise action for a prosperous, resilient and sustainable future.
Beyond improving land rights, distribution, and driving the real estate market, improved regulation and access to robust, reliable, readily available information has a direct impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.
Historically, the colonial governance model was built around revenue generation and tax collection. The inheritance of a weak framework and bureaucratic hurdles, a lack of access to information and records considered “privileged information,” and a land record maintenance involving multiple tiers of administration contributed to arsle land ownership records and transfers throughout Pakistan. The district administration, tehsil administration, qanungo circle, and patwaris were entrusted to create and maintain maps, issue land records and perform a plethora of other administrative tasks. In Punjab alone, an estimated 8,000 patwaris maintained the land records of 20 million land owners, kept in a cloth bag they carried on their person.
The Punjab Land Records Authority Act, 2017, marked the first step towards digitisation of land records under the control of the Board of Revenue, Punjab. Through concerted efforts and political will, the PLRA now operates 150 Tehsil Service Centres in all the 36 districts of the province. More than 10 million paper records have been digitised, and today, over 55 million land owners in the province enjoy online access to services, title information, transfers, and sale and purchase of land. Records are integrated with the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) to protect against fraudulent transfers/title changes through a fingerprint and ID card verification mechanism.
The system also incorporates enhanced auditing and oversight mechanisms. A first-in-first-out queuing system has removed the element of protocol and VIP culture from the process (to the extent possible). For the end user, the time required to transfer ownership following a sale or purchase — which used to take two months or so — has been reduced to under an hour.
This is by no means a small achievement. In fact, the World Bank presents this model as an example for other developing nations to follow.
He has supported the implementation of The World Bank’s Disaster and Climate Resilience Improvement Project (DCRIP) and ADB’s Flood Emergency Reconstruction and Resilience Project (FERRP) in Pakistan
The PLRA is a standout example of social inclusion, civic participation and community engagement using information technology (IT). The government’s initiative to digitise land records at the national level can follow some key practices that helped the PLRA transform an age-old service mechanism in a few years.
For starters, the centre must ensure that all stakeholders are on the same page to ensure across-the-board political support. It goes without saying that skillful human resource must be utilised for the project, especially keeping in mind the recent cyber security incident at the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) and the corrective measures — or lack thereof — in the aftermath.
All manual records must undergo data entry following rigorous quality controls — for instance, a double-blind entry method and systematic cross-checks. Revenue officials including the patwaris will continue to play a crucial role throughout the digitisation of records, and hence a clear strategy must be in place to incentivise their involvement.
Working with the existing officials and mechanism will be more efficient, especially given the social involvement and on-ground knowledge of patwaris.
What’s more, the local system already in place must be skillfully harnessed wherever possible, to aid the ultimate objectives instead of being ignored altogether. Existing officials must also be looped in to train new staff and impart knowledge of legal procedures, land records, and other formalities which they may not otherwise fully understand. This training is essential beyond core technical skills in order to prevent disillusionment of the masses with a new and unfamiliar system, where a computer operator may not have the social skills or professional expertise to iron out legalities.
To say that digitisation of land records across Pakistan will be transformative is an understatement. The implications for planning and development, building resilience against climate change and disasters, sustainable development, and inclusive growth are endless.
The writer is a development sector professional with nearly a decade of experience in communications and reporting.