Indian land program shows tech's limits

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 24, 2012 at 11:18 pm •  Published: December 24, 2012
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"We all knew it was garbage," Chawla said. "But if I tried to clean this garbage, it may take donkey's years for me, and by the time I cleaned it, more garbage would come into the system."

Instead, by putting safeguards in place to ensure the same piece of land is not sold to multiple buyers and by making the system of land sales more transparent, he hoped the garbage would slowly be squeezed out of the system as land was sold over the years.

But that could take decades, he acknowledges.

The land fight in Karadigere Kaval, a tiny village 85 kilometers (53 miles) from Bangalore, has raged since 1952, when the government gave a little under a hectare (two acres) apiece to hundreds of dalits — so downtrodden they have no caste.

It was rich earth — what they called "golden land" — where almost anything could grow. But repeated droughts forced many to move away. In the late 1970s, the government redistributed the land, giving the 90 remaining families 1.6 hectares (four acres) each, according to residents and a local land rights group.

Upper-caste families insisted they had bought some of the land from migrating farmers and it was rightfully theirs. The two sides fought in the fields and in the courts.

Three dalits were killed in a battle over the land in 1980. Six years later, the upper castes won eviction notices against some dalits. The dalits convinced local officials not to serve the notices, and got a court to agree to preserve the status quo and leave them on the land. An upper caste farmer fenced off about 18 hectares (44 acres). The dalits rounded up hundreds of allies, ripped down the fence and sold off the barbed wire. Finally, in 2002, a court ruled in favor of the dalit villagers, the residents said.

Yet when Gangarangamma, a 65-year-old widow who uses one name, went to the Bhoomi office to check her land record, it showed the four acres she and her husband had farmed for decades were registered to the government, a sign the land remained in dispute. She has repeatedly complained, she said.

"(Officials) all the time say this will be fixed, but we haven't got it," she said in exasperation. "All of my generation is dead, only three of us are left, I can't say with any confidence this will be resolved before I die."

G.N. Nagaraj, a state Communist Party leader, hailed Bhoomi as "wonderful software," but it was only of "very, very small, limited help." The land mafia can still pressure the officials entering the records into the computer to help them steal land, he said.

Chawla said Bhoomi was designed to prevent new disputes from entering the system, but he acknowledged it wasn't foolproof. Officials were still required to process land sales. They could be bribed and so could witnesses identifying sellers, he said.

Bhoomi's transparency did help Goutham Venki in his fight to get back land that had been taken long ago from his great grandfather by a powerful landlord.

He and about a dozen from his community of migrant stoneworkers looked up their dispossessed land at the Bhoomi office in 2004 and found it had been registered to a real estate developer, who had just bought it from the landlord.

Venki sued — and won. But he still had to borrow 120,000 rupees (about $220) at 60 percent interest from a loan shark to bribe bureaucrats to change the Bhoomi record back into his name.

A month later, the real estate developer appealed. And the decades' old land dispute drags on, like so many of Karnataka's land battles.

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Follow Ravi Nessman at twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ravinessman

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