Hyderabad: In the first week of August 2021, N Venkattaiah, a farmer from Kurmidda village in the southern Telangana district of Ranga Reddy, recalled waking up one morning and discovering his name—linked to his three acres of land, on which he raised rice, jowar, corn and other vegetables—had disappeared from the state’s online land records.
Earlier that morning, Venkattaiah, 45, a lean, quiet man with a slight squint, had received a panicked phone call from a neighbour who informed him that, according to the Telangana government’s two-year-old online land record management portal, Dharani, he was no longer the owner of his three-acre farm.
Venkattaiah logged onto Dharani to check on his ownership record, squinting into his cracked phone screen for a long time, refreshing the unresponsive page a couple of times before realising that he, too, was no longer the owner of his land.
“My survey number is still there, with the correct extent of land, everything is still there, but my name is nowhere to be seen,” he said. The official owner was now listed as the Telangana State Industrial and Infrastructure Corporation (TSIIC), the government department that handles land and property requisition for development projects.
A few phone calls established that he and his neighbour were not alone. Of the 10 or so farmers he called, almost everyone confirmed the story. After a hurried meeting between those so affected, a complaint letter was duly sent to the revenue district officer (RDO) on 6 August 2021.
After a few weeks and several complaints later, the RDO, E Venkata Chary, informally acknowledged the complaint. “It is just a mistake,” he responded, according to Saraswati Kavula, a farmer-activist who had helped the farmers file the complaint.
“This was a technical error that occurred in the backend process,” Chary said, when reached for comment. “It happened while changing the names and records of farmers who had already signed consent to give their land to TSIIC.”
But Kavula, like other affected farmers, expressed skepticism at this response.
“This is just another way to intimidate us and make us give up our land,” said Venkattaiah. He said that it had been close to a year since the incident, “and still they have done nothing”.
When Article 14 asked Chary why the corrections had not been made for almost a year, he said that Dharani did not have “this option for correction”, meaning that the system did not provide users with any direct way of correcting wrong names or errors in extent of land ownership.
“I have written to the DC (district collector), who in turn has notified the chief commissioner for land acquisition,” said Chary. “And we are waiting for a response.”
The prospect of losing their farmland because of a glitch in computer records now faces about 1,000 farmers in at least four villages in Ranga Reddy district.
Article 14 made several attempts to reach DC Amoy Kumar, on his phone and in person, between 1 and 8 June but received no response.
Farmers said it was ironic they were running from pillar to post because the Dharani system, which is at the heart of their trouble, was supposed to do the opposite, created as it was with the goal of securing and bettering tenure rights.
“Dharani will emerge as a trend-setter in the country,” chief minister K Chandrashekhar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) said while inaugurating the portal in October 2020. “Gone are the days when people, particularly farmers, had to make the rounds of various offices for land transactions including registration and mutation, often having to part with money to get their work done.”
In March 2021, Rao repeated similar promises in the Telangana assembly. “Under no circumstances can land records now be tampered with,” he said. “This is Dharani’s contribution.”
That does not appear to be the experience of the farmers we spoke to.
A History Of Distrust
In 2015, when the Telangana government announced a 19,333-acre industrial development project called Hyderabad Pharma City, managed by the TSIIC in the vicinity of Kurmidda village, it was to take land from 12 villages (including Kurmidda) in Yacharam, Kandkur and Kadthal mandals in Ranga Reddy district. The land in question is the size of 14,620 football fields or 307 times the size of the Narendra Modi cricket stadium in Ahmedabad, India’s largest.
The project stalled, with long delays over land acquisition and has been dogged by controversies and persistent opposition, largely from local farmers unwilling to give up their land, alleging compensation rates less than a sixth the market value.
“This (erasing their names on Dharani) is their latest strategy,” said Kanamoni Ganesh, a fellow farmer from Medipalle village.
India has a presumptive land titling system, which means ownership is established through records of possession and transfer of property, rather than a single, conclusive title document. So, an owner’s right to land is technically spread out across many bureaucratic documents, such as a record of rights or ROR, which is a record of land transactions with the State, and, in the case of agricultural land, bank-linked ‘passbooks’.
While conclusive titling is in its stated purview and goals, the online Dharani platform, is not currently the sole record of land ownership and does not act as what the government calls a ‘single source of truth’—not yet at least.
Since Ganesh has passbooks, we asked him how erasing his name on the Dharani portal could amount to actually losing the land. He said even if he did not, he could no longer get crop loans or access to government welfare programmes, such as Rythu Bandhu.
Rythu Bandhu or ‘farmer’s friend’ is a government social welfare programme that underwrites a farmer’s cultivation and sowing investment, paying in cash Rs 5,000 per acre each for monsoon and winter crops. But farmers—more than 5.8 million qualify—are only eligible if their names exist in Dharani.
“How will we farm our land?” said Ganesh. “At this rate will be forced to give up the land, which is what KCR (K Chandrasekhar Rao, the Telangana CM) wants.”
Whether the implied accusation that the Dharani glitch is intentional and meant to surreptitiously takeover farmland is unclear, but as in the rest of India, Telangana, too, is witnessing pressure from industries for land.
With Land Taken Over, Farmers Lose Benefits
A surge in industrial activity over the decades since Independence has displaced more than 50 million people nationwide, forced into what experts call “involuntary displacement”. So rapid has been the influx of big business into many areas that there are families that have endured displacement up to three times in their lifetimes.
In Telangana, land acquisition is frequently caught up in petitions filed by protesting farmers (here, here and here). Such acquisitions mean former owners are no longer regarded as farmers and lose access to social-welfare programmes, such as Rythu Bandhu.
Venkattaiah, who had received Rs 5,000 per acre or Rs 40,000 in total under Rythu Bandhu for at least two previous seasons, has now been cut off from what is called a direct benefit transfer or DBT programme, which transfers cash directly into farmers’ bank accounts. He has not received any Rythu Bandhu money since his name disappeared from the Dharani record.
Hundreds of farmers in the four villages of Nanak Nagar, Medipalle, Kurmidda and Tadiparthy similarly said their payments had stopped. Others, such as Kurmidda farmer Srinivas (who uses one name), reported being repeatedly denied crop loans by the mandal revenue officer (MRO).
The inability to access Rythu Bandhu and other credit schemes disrupts the increasingly precarious profession of farming, leading many to suspect, like Ganesh, that the unaddressed glitches are part of a premeditated and hostile, government “strategy”.
From Pillar To Post To Pillar To Post
Venkattaiah, Panga Vinod and other farmers said they had made repeated rounds to the local revenue offices to have their names reinstated on Dharani. Vinod said that when they met the MRO, Ch Nagaiah, they were told to file their grievance with the RDO, next in the line of command.
“The MRO says he doesn’t know what happened, and directs us to the RDO,” said Vinod. “So we went to the RDO, who told us to go talk to the district collector.
“He (the DC) said it's a mistake, but he still hasn’t corrected it,” said Vinod in obvious frustration. “They make us run around like this, but nobody is really listening to us. They don’t want to help us!”
The Dharani platform, it appears, has rendered an already tedious, unfriendly land-administration system into an opaque bureaucracy. According to Vuppala Bhargavi, who works at Hyderabad-based non-profit farmer distress call centre, Kisan Mitra Helpline, it is technically the MRO’s job to look into matters regarding land records.
“First the farmer needs to go to the nearest Mee Seva centre (where data entry operators work) and register a complaint. All complaints go to the DC, who forwards them to the MRO,” said Bhargavi. “The MRO will investigate, and undertake an on-ground survey before verifying, approving and/or resolving the complaint, which then comes back to the DC.”
“Earlier, if I had to buy land, I had to go to the patwari (local revenue official), who alone had the power to make changes to the land record,” said Seethalakshmi. “Now everything is in the hands of the data entry person.”
Farmers have no access to data entry operators, who work for a software company hired by the government, Quantela, based in Hyderabad and Silicon Valley, California. Only the data entry operator can make changes, such as correcting errors, to the database. The company managing the database answers only to the government, and farmers cannot directly approach it.
Experts said that by its design, the Dharani system facilitated centralisation, delays and shifting of blame related to land-related complaints.
‘It Is Only A Technical Error, Not Intentional’
In an official statement in response to a petition filed in the Telangana High Court on 16 April 2022, DC Kumar echoed RDO Chary’s contention that the names of farmers were deleted by “oversight”, since their names had been published in a government notification that announced the takeover of land for the pharma park.
“It is only a technical error but not intentional,” said the collector in his response to the high court petition.
Farmer-activist Kavula said the government had “defaulted on two separate court orders directing that the names be restored with a stipulated timeline”.
Another official at the revenue office, who asked not to be named, attributed the delay in correcting errors to design flaws on the Dharani software. “You cannot get the whole name changed,” said the officer. “Only if there’s a mistake in the spelling of your names, for example, can you get that corrected”.
Since the farmers’ names have been replaced with that of TSIIC, their prospects of rectifying the situation appear bleak. The option to correct spelling mistakes, too, came only recently after a backlash from citizens. The official also said it was “unlikely” that farmers will be paid the Rythu Bandhu money “that they have lost till now”, which is the equivalent of three seasons.
Agricultural services are linked to proof of land-ownership in Dharani, so farmers must get land-record complaints resolved before getting Rythu Bandhu issues solved. Once the land record issue is resolved, the farmer needs to next visit the MAO, who is in charge of agriculture related issues, such as non-payment of Rythu Bandhu.
This long, confusing process is further convoluted by the Dharani software, since the Dharani database has an inadequate grievance redressal. Since there is no option on the software to change a landowner’s name (in the absence of land sale or transfer), farmers have had to go through several government officers to try to rectify errors in the record. Many said they could not spare the time and money required to make a trip to the Mee Seva centres.
A System ‘Rigged’ Against Users?
Hyderabad-based land activist and researcher Usha Seethalakshmi, PhD, said if the onus of correcting a mistake in the Dharani records was on farmers and not the government, then the system “is rigged” against them.
Farmers who had already faced hostility from officials had to petition the same officials for redressal, said Seethalakhsmi.
Since its launch, the Dharani portal has been plagued by complaints, including those related to technical glitches during registration, which makes the entry invalid, lack of redressal for refund complaints, missing survey numbers and wrongful categorisation of private and bhoodan (land granted to landless laborers under nationwide reforms that began in 1951 and continued till 1990) land as government land or “prohibited land”, which cannot be sold, registered or inherited.
Many of the errors reported by farmers in the 12 villages slated for acquisition to build Hyderabad Pharma City fall into the latter two categories.
All India Congress Committee spokesperson Dasoju Shravan, in a letter written to chief minister Rao in March 2021, alleged that the government had wrongfully acquired land from poor, small landowners by categorising certain areas as prohibited land on Dharani.
That the Dharani database has not stabilised is apparent from an unending barrage of complaints reported by landowners statewide. So, while it is certainly plausible that the complaints from Ranga Reddy district are part of these glitches, as local officials claim, Seethalakshmi said that once names of landowners were removed, it “would be a clear cut way of coercing them (farmers) to move from the land”.
Not only are errors hard to fix, they come at a cost, with a fee of up to Rs. 1,000 to complain online. Seethalakshmi called Dharani a “self-cleaning system”, in which the government is no longer responsible for fixing errors. “The revenue department, in the process of deliberately getting landowners to run around to solve their problems, is actually earning revenue,” she said.
“The government can basically now ask us (the service users) to prove that we are not fraudulent,” said digital policy researcher Srinivas Kodali.
Kodali said Dharani appeared to have been built on a centralising software philosophy commonly known as the “single source of truth”.
“This kind of centralization is happening at the state level without being attached to any social good, (and yet it) is being passed off as if it is for the wellbeing of the people,” said Seethalakshmi.
Kodali said it was “very easy” to change names of owners in Dharani before it was finalised (onto a blockchain or digital ledger). He alleged the software could be easily manipulated. “Either it could be the son taking away his father’s land perhaps,” he said, “or it could be the land surveyor, skimming away an acre here and there.”
Back in Ranga Reddy, it did not matter to farmers how the system was designed or why the errors were hard to fix. What mattered was to get them fixed, but that clearly will not happen easily, if at all.
“When we spoke with the DC about this, he said he would get the errors corrected, but no action was taken,” said Saraswati. So, in September 2021, after a month of waiting on the DC’s promises, a few hundred affected farmers filed what is called an interim application into a petition before the high court challenging the land acquisition.
In December, the High Court ordered the deleted names be restored and outstanding Rythu Bandhu dues be paid. As of June 2022, that had not happened.
“This is contempt of court,” said Saraswati. “We have even filed further notices indicating this to the court.” Meanwhile, RDO Chary said “we will be sorting this out in the next three to four days”.
“We are still waiting”, said Venkattaiah, the farmer. “We will fight this.”
Reporting for this piece was undertaken with the support of a research fellowship from Article21 trust.
(Faustina Johnson is a writer, editor and research fellow at Article 21 Trust, studying land record digitization in Telangana.)