Is it your turn now?” someone asked a patwari or land clerk, “to face the music which the people have been facing at your hands?” The same is also generally asked from the patwaris by their spouses and families in Punjab in some other words like, “What will happen now? Have you people been replaced for good?”

The answer by the patwaris would obviously be variant. It ranges from outburst of anger, frustration and even in a spirit of hope against hope to get the system finally back for the people being resistant to any corporate touch of tokens and a non-familiar attitude of corporate patwaris vis-à-vis primitive patwaris, who in many cases used to be taken as a family member by the land owners who would happily be paying them for their services delivered at home.

Under the reformed land record system by the Government of Punjab, the old patwari seems to have been replaced by a corporate patwari. In the past, the patwari or land clerk used to hold his office in congested localities of small towns while sitting on sheets made of cotton or jute. He used to maintain records on the long sheets of papers compiled in the form of a large book similar to old sacred books wrapped in an unstitched cover of cloth. The patwari used to be regarded as ‘the real owner’ of the land belonging even to kings or state heads who, despite being kings, used to grease his palm out of happiness in kind and cash in shape of rewards or gifts. We have also seen in certain renowned books like Shahab Nama narrating an old woman praying for a Deputy Commissioner’s elevation to the rank of patwari on his redressing her grievance. Certain Presidents of Pakistan are also reported to have been speaking very highly of the office of the patwari, besides finding so many sons of theirs enjoying very high places in the governance.

Admittedly, the patwari was considered to be a key person in the society both out of fear as well as reverence, being the custodian of the land holdings of the people. However, he was also ill-reputed to be a person who can change the very ownership of a genuine land owner to someone else without any evidence with a single stoke of his pen to the extent that even superior courts felt helpless in deciding the cases on merit in favour of the real owner. The statement of the patwari called ‘fard’ carried weight, and used to play a decisive role in verdicts passed. The system was ridden with all ails of malpractices, corruption and political influence so much so, that the whole land revenue system came out with the impressions of hatred and mistrust for the end consumer where corruption was recognised as a ‘norm’ to get relief in cases of merit even.

Under the headship of Chief Minister Punjab, the Punjab Land Records Act, 2017 has created a central organisation called the Punjab Land Records Authority working under a dynamic Director General, Captain Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, in view of having a secure, accountable, equitable and an efficient land records system which is claimed to eradicate chronic patwar culture through a digital and computerised system. The mandate of this authority mainly comprises prompt issuance of fard within 30 and 50 minutes respectively besides distribution of different agri-loans to the farmers on their doorsteps. The venture has been spread to all 36 districts and 143 tehsils of the Punjab where in every tehsil, Arazi Record Centres (ARCs) have been established under digital and computerised system (LRMIS) claimed to have scanned a data of all available revenue records comprising 31 million pages.

True, that with accurate and complete information of the people’s rights in the title of their land holdings, more than 5 million inconsistencies in the allegedly redundant corrupt system are claimed to have been removed by way of this digital system. The applicant approaches Arazi Record Centres manned by corporate staff for issuance of fard and attestation of mutation of land whereby on biometric verification from NADRA, the fards are issued and mutations are attested procuring the photographs and details of the applicant. The record so updated is displayed on the website of the authority for access to everyone for online verification of the same in the public interest. The daily activities conducted by all the respective centres are claimed to be monitored at the authority headquarters at Lahore through online screens with sharp reporting to the concerned heads.

It is also true that a new cadre of educated gazetted officers of Grade 16 and 17, called Land Record Officer (LRO) and Assistant Director, Land Record (ADLR) got selected through competitive exams by Punjab Service Commission and the authority itself is introduced to replace so-called ‘crude’ land clerks in order to transform the system and its chronic image. It is also true that queue management based on the principle of rule of law treating all the citizens equal before the eye of law regardless of their caste, creed and designation, the applicants are claimed to have been sensitised to get their request processed on first-come-first-served basis through issuance of tokens and queues with due exception to the deserving disabled and the senior citizens.

Certain major core works of the system are seen to be in place, which are the need of the hour indeed. However, certain major irritants are also intrinsically found in the system, which require a fresh comprehensive approach and spirit to beat the old challenges.

First is community participation in itself. The system has to be synchronised through an effective awareness campaign amongst the land owners, the actual targeted beneficiaries of the system. They have to be tuned up to tolerate the anomalies of the system which are alien to them and modify their tendency and approach to the new system. The elite, especially, the rural one would certainly be immune and resistant to the new system of treatment on merit of equality in view of their established habits of priority treatment, parda (veil) observance by its female members and their cultural liking to be treated at their doorstep by the revenue staff as in the past. As an opinion leader for folklore, it may mar the impression of the system to its favour amongst common people to label it as a failure if its desire is not quenched through a devise specially designed for them. The establishment of executive windows may be brought in place, maybe on higher charges which they would be most willing to pay, to cater to the needs of such people and to counter its opposition in the best interest of the project.

Secondly, the patwari clan, who feels aggrieved of the new system and still works behind the scenes for process and hence a strong antagonist thereof, is to be duly taken care of. At least his job satisfaction has to be protected by creating his revised role in the land revenue system. Duplicity, diarchy and conflict in the working and control of district administration and the authority itself has to be reconciled not only to the good of revenue officers, patwaris and the newly inducted staff of the authority with special reference to latter’s service structure. Despite having effective leadership, the punch line remains that an effective implementation, monitoring and evaluation systems have to be launched to make this system of corporate patwar a success.