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FORGET THE PAST

The saga of land records of India’s western neighbours keeps erupting every once in a while in the news. There was a time when India was ruled by hardworking, conscientious rulers who believed in exploiting the Indians with justice. India then was devoid of cameras and computers. The government had to live; the rulers had to live well. There were not many industries to tax. The British rulers continued to tax farmers, but tried to introduce some system into the taxation. They would go to a village, draw meticulous maps showing every bund and path, and record the title to every piece of land. Title was a pretty nebulous concept; villagers, knowing that the entire rigmarole was a prelude to taxation, tried to obfuscate it further. But the sahibs rode their horses into the countryside one winter after another, and repeated the surveys every few decades. By the time they were ready to pack their bags and leave, they had a pretty accurate map in a million sections of all the land users of the country.

As a tax imposed on the common ploughman by alien masters, land revenue had an unenviable reputation. But the successor states have continued to hoard the age-old revenue records. This ancient practice has suffered grievously in the state of Jharkhand because its land records were kept in Patna and continue to reside there. The chief minister of Jharkhand indulges in many important and rewarding activities, such as recommending applicants for coal blocks. But when he gets time, once in a few years, he shoots off a letter to his northern counterpart and asks him to send him the revenue records of the part of old Bihar now ceded to Jharkhand. The letters get duly recorded in inward post ledgers, filed in red files reserved for very important persons, and forgotten.

One of these days, Nitish Kumar may well order his clerks to pack the 82,000 maps of territory he had to cede and send them off to Ranchi. Even then, the maps will be a dozen years old; even if the government begins to update them immediately, it will be another dozen years before they can be brought up to date. The National Informatics Centre plans to digitize the maps along with those for the rest of India. However, scanning the ancient maps is of little utility. The information is far outdated; using a modern medium to photograph ancient records does not make them more useful. Jharkhand would be better off if it used modern technology from start to finish. All it has to do is to ask Google to set up a digital land registry based on the pictures of the entire globe it gets every second from satellites. Jharkhand can feed into those maps any information from the ground it needs for administration. Let Bihar keep the mildewed old maps.