- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 25, 2012

BANGALORE, INDIA (AP) - For years, Karnataka’s land records were a quagmire of disputed, forged documents maintained by thousands of tyrannical bureaucrats who demanded bribes to do their jobs. In 2002, hopes emerged that this was about to change.

The southern state, home to India’s technology hub in Bangalore, unveiled Bhoomi, a program that digitized Karnataka’s 20 million handwritten land records. At the time, it was hailed as a landmark use of computers to cut through bureaucracy and corruption.

But a decade later, Karnataka remains plagued by land disputes that merely migrated from paper to the database, and even the program’s creator says it could take 30 more years to sort it all out.

As the Indian government puts increasing faith in technology to help solve the nation’s thorniest problems _ including a complete tech-based overhaul of its welfare system _ Bhoomi presents a cautionary tale: that technology, even at its most successful, can only be a part of the solution.

“(Officials) kind of look at technology to be a panacea for everything, which cannot be. The political will is the most important thing,” said Rajeev Chawla, the government administrator who created Bhoomi.

For Yashoda Puttappa, Bhoomi merely marked another setback in her family’s six-decade struggle to recover a plot of 1.6 hectares (four acres) she said was illegally taken from her grandfather in the 1940s as supposed repayment of a loan from a wealthy upper-caste neighbor. She feels that Bhoomi cemented the competing claim.

“In the computer, the name is of that man, the dominant caste, which is only going to make this harder,” said Puttappa, a land rights activist.

Bhoomi is good, she said, for preventing future land disputes, by making it more difficult to forge documents, but it also gives a patina of legitimacy to old land grabs.

“Whatever we lost, we can’t get back,” she said.

In this country, a third the size of the U.S. and four times as populous, land supports hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers and is often the only inheritance they pass to their children.

It has also become a hugely profitable investment, as India’s expanding cities grow desperate for new space for office complexes and housing developments.

But land ownership has long been controlled by corrupt bureaucrats beholden to powerful land mafias that dispossessed the downtrodden and spawned millions of disputes.

In Karnataka, 10,000 village accountants presided over piles of stapled, crossed-out, erased and rewritten documents that had been revised so often it was nearly impossible to trace back how land was transferred _ or stolen.

Wealthy families routinely took land documents as collateral for usurious loans to the poor, Puttappa said. Upon default, they took the land, often illegally. Even if the loan was repaid, many would trick illiterate debtors into putting their thumbprints on sale documents they couldn’t read, she said.

“You couldn’t even fight in the courts, because you didn’t have the records,” Puttappa said.

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