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Key stroke at corruption: Removing discretion powers of Revenue officers

Prof Madabhushi Sridhar Acharyulu

Medak District Additional Collector Gaddam Nagesh has demanded and taken Rs 1.12 crore as bribe to issue a no-objection certificate for sale of 112 acres of land, which cannot be otherwise sold, as per the nature of law and concerned norms. It is unregistrable land.

This catch of big fish at different levels of revenue departments happened, while Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao was introducing a Revenue land records transparency legislation, aiming at eradicating the corruption in land deals. Along with additional collector, at top level, Narsapur Revenue Divisional Officer (B. Aruna Reddy and Chilpiched Tahasildar (Abdul Sattar) were also taking bribes in this transaction. It also percolated to Junior Assistant level (Mohd. Waseem Ahmed), working in the office of the Assistant Director of Survey and Land Records of Medak and Kola Jeevan Goud, a private person. They were also arrested in the case.

According to ACB, K. Linga Murthy of Serilingampally from city and four others wanted to purchase 112.21 acres of land in Chippalaturthi village of Narsapur mandal in Medak. To get the land registered on their names, they required ‘No Objection Certificate’ from the Revenue authorities as it was in the list of Prohibited lands-22A. There is a rate!  Additional Collector wanted a bribe of Rs 1.12 crore to issue NOC at the rate of Rs 1 lakh per one acre. As huge bribe could not be paid, Additional Collector wanted an agreement of sale for five acres from out of this land deal only.

They could demand this huge amount because they have different levels of power to convert a land that could not be transferred into a land that could be sold. It is nothing but Revenue department’s complete involvement in ‘real estate’ business. Can this be removed by developing systems and law? The answer is the group of bills introduced by the Chief Minister on September 9.

There are two reasons for this ever-increasing rate of corruption. Firstly, utmost secrecy of land records, which are also full of defects and uncertainty of identification of extents of land,  and secondly the unaccountable discretion power in the hands of officers of Revenue department at different levels.

The Telangana Rights in Land and Pattadar Pass Books Act, 2020, intends to break this secrecy and remove the power of these two departments that made them corrupt to the core. The Section 3 says: “(1) The Record of Rights in all lands in every village of the State shall be prepared and maintained digitally in a centralized storage with particulars, (a) The names of all persons who are Pattadars of lands; (b) survey numbers and extents of each Pattadar; (c) such other particulars as may be prescribed”.

When one purchases the property, he depends upon the Revenue officer to secure the title and lower rung officers in village to tell where the property is located. This was the British Raj kind of Rule going on in whole of our country, and especially in Telangana. The Revenue officers rule the roast, with no choice of the purchasers.  

The name of Registration department came from their function to reduce the transaction of transfer of property by officers and clerks in a register. It gives a stamped paper documenting ‘A’ transferring a Property to ‘B’. Their seal will not seal the disputes. He does not guarantee or assure the genuineness of the title. But he is regarded like the most honourable magistrate certifying your transaction. Unless the buyer produces a properly registered deed, he cannot exploit the value of the property, nor generate any loan on it. A government department that is expected to facilitate, regularly exploits. People fear the Revenue and Registration departments as twin dangers to their hard-earned money. Both are very honourable departments, at origin, that underwent a metamorphosis into awfully dishonest ones which could be easily manipulated. Not only the law (Registration Act 1908), the mind set also is 112-year-old. One common reason that made these two departments reap huge profits every day is the secrecy of records and the absolute lack of transparency.

Dharani, the web portal

Dharani is the name given to a web portal which is contemplated to be developed as store house of all data about the land as announced by the Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, the architect of this Bill, who assured the Legislative House to make ‘Dharani’ accessible to world at large. With advent of Dharani, the secrecy of details of open land, which could be seen by all, will go, and transparency ushers in.  With that everything depends on ‘Dharani’.  It will be so programmed that unregistrable or non-transferable lands like Government lands, assigned lands, etc., will not be accepted for registering the transfer, as the system rejects such attempts.

Merger of Revenue or Registration duties

In contrary to strong speculations that Revenue department would be totally removed or replaced or reformed, the Bill of 2020 has just removed the lower rung employees, Village Revenue Officers from the land related duties and doubled the functions of MROs or Tahsildars. The Revenue and Registration duties are merged at the level of MRO, as the Tahsildar himself must perform of the task of registering also. Whether the powers have been doubled? If so, will not corruption double?

It is neither merger of two corrupt powers nor increase in powers, but the doubling of the duties. The registrar has to simply allot slots to parties to transfer of property, when they arrive at that slot, register it online and update the changes on Dharani portal followed by mutation of records and issuance of a document to that extent, besides delivering the Registered Deeds.

Another major assurance of the CM is that the Dharani and Registration data is so programmed that non-transferable lands like government lands, assigned plots etc will not be accepted for registration. Not only that, the earlier transactions on the property also get reflected the moment the property is identified, which prevents double and deceptive registrations. The law does not assure the genuineness of the title, but ensures nonregistration of unregistrable properties like Taj Mahal or Charminar or Railway stations of Delhi or Secunderabad.  Again, all depends on “Dharani,” which is expected to synchronise the big data of the entire property in Telangana after digitisation.

Non-Agriculture property

The registration of non-agricultural properties continued to be registered by the present Registration department officers. But, they also will be guided by the digital map of Telangana through Dharani, which blocks the pre-registered lands and registration of unregistrable properties. This could prevent innocent purchasers from the cheating of real estate experts and corrupt officers. They cannot register the property unless the Dharani clears it, which cannot allow a re-registration. The registration is expected to complete the process of mutation (change of names and other details) and generate an updated document.

Succession related changes

When the property is not being sold or purchased, but inherited from deceased, the role of Tahsildar or Registrar is again totally diminished by law. Now, with this new law, Tahsildar must simply issue fresh passbooks or title deeds to the heirs of the deceased, provided they submit a joint agreement of all members of family, i.e., dividing and allocating shares among heirs. If they cannot come together or failed to arrive at joint settlement, Registrar has nothing to do, except to wait for the verdict in civil dispute.

Similar provisions are being made for non-agricultural lands and properties like plots, flats, houses etc at three levels -Gram Panchayat, Municipality and Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation. At all these levels, the officers must update the details after the registered transaction and issue mutation instantly. Four legislations are necessitated to amend Panchayati Raj, Municipality and Greater Hyderabad enactments. The fifth one is a brief legislation to abolish Village Revenue Officers ensuring alternative employment to them in other departments along with the offers of resignation or VRS.

Another major reform proposed in this Bill is removal of judicial powers of revenue officers. Now, the Revenue Department grants title deeds to new owners of agricultural land, but also sit over judgment about the validity of that title in a Revenue Court, which works at MRO, RDO and Additional Collector level. After hierarchy of these three revenue courts heard the disputes, the case can also go to regular courts. It is estimated that 66 per cent of civil disputes pending before the courts are about land records and controversies. This not only burdens the judicial system, but also causes huge expenditure to Governments and to the parties to litigation. If a transparent system is introduced, the burden of judiciary could be substantially reduced. Abolition of three tier revenue courts is a big change. The Bill contemplates some fast track tribunals to decide pending cases filed under earlier land records law, which is being replaced now.

Then there are two major requirements for success of these reforms in law. One – a comprehensive survey of land records, which was not done in Telangana since 1940, when Nizam Sarkar did something called ‘survey’. As per the revenue norms, the survey is expected to be done every forty years. Eighty years have passed over, but no survey was conducted. The Chief Minister assured the House to get it done through a perfect digital technology. Two – feeding the mega data generated by survey after due corrections to Dharani, making it transparent and accessible from anywhere in the world.

The author is the Former Central Information Commissioner and Dean, School of Law, Bennett University

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