Fortunately for the government, its 'Digital Bangladesh' catchphrase has occupied a significant space in the public sphere over the past years. Unfortunately for the people, digital technology is still far from embracing even some of the most crucial areas where its application, though rather arduous and complicated, could bring a sea-change in the extent and quality of public services.
It need not be mentioned that one of the most important areas of public interest requiring immediate attention is digitisation of land records. Ever since the term digitisation entered into the public domain as a sure healer of countless maladies, maintenance of land records with the help of digital devices demanded priority. The outmoded manner in which land records are kept and maintained all over the country traces its ancestry to the British colonial period, and for obvious reasons, people engaged in doing the work as custodians of the age-old valuable documents are barely aware of the modern, technology-driven system which can ensure safekeeping as well as authenticity of the documents.
Digitisation of land records is a must. Land administration has been an area known for ages as the breeding ground of endless litigations, cut-throat enmities, especially in rural areas. It is also a hunting ground for the powerful to prevail upon the weak by taking advantage of the age-old methods of record keeping susceptible to manipulation. It is because of the faulty and vulnerable system reliant on manual record keeping in ledgers and registers that a piece of land might get sold a number of times, rendering sales or purchases extremely risky. As a result, the number of land dispute cases pending with the courts all over the country is increasing every year and is believed to be much higher than in most other countries. A good deal of the problem is attributed to the cumbersome and complex system of record-keeping, that often makes accessing correct information more than just difficult. The victims in the process are the commoners. Hassled and tricked by touts and middlemen - bred by the system over generations - they often find themselves ripped apart.
In this connection, it may be mentioned here that in most government offices, private too, there is the practice of destroying files and papers once these are found outdated and of no use, after expiry of a certain time as per guideline. The government offices also have earmarked spots for destroying useless piles of papers and documents by burning them. This cannot be imagined in case of our sub-registry offices - the depository of land records, for when it comes to land records, there is nothing called old, outdated or useless. So, these offices, often housed in tiny spaces, especially those in places outside the district headquarters, are crammed with heaps of papers, some as old as fifty or more years. In an atmosphere heavily stuffed with papers and documents in racks and roof-high dusty shelves, it is difficult to put one's mind to work. Retrieving a decade-old document may take days, even weeks, if not lost mercifully.
Given the prevailing situation, there should not be any questioning about the merits of digitisation. A local daily has recently reported that two projects taken up by the government in this regard - one with its own resources and the other under donor funding - have run into snags. The government in 2010 approved a project with its own funding to digitise all existing land documents, including maps, mauzas and khatians in a total of nearly 60 upazilas. But reportedly, due to application of faulty software, the project could barely have any worthwhile outcome. The other project -- Digital Land Management System project - funded by the Asian Development Bank is currently executed in 44 districts. But this project is also not progressing well, reportedly for delays in release of funds, and hence the project is being repeatedly extended.
This is not at all desirable in so far as the task of digitising one of the most critical fields of public administration is concerned. Unfortunately, the issue is no longer in public discussion at all.
Today, most countries, including the developing ones, have parted with manual handling of land records. Since it is a mammoth task and cannot be expected to be completed in a strictly time-bound manner, as in the case of a construction project, there has to be a well-planned strategy on how to go about converting these into digital formats. Reports published in the newspapers say, the sub-registry offices are yet to be provided with the effective tools to start with.
Digitisation, more than anything else, will do away with a lot of public sufferings. Needless to say, because of the manual handling of documents and their susceptibility to manipulation, forgery and even theft, safekeeping is crucially important. This, besides easing the tasks of the offices dealing with land records, will also provide a great relief to the people - the perennial victims. All concerned should do their best to put things in place so as to facilitate the digitising process that, unfortunately, appears to have lost much of its thrust for various reasons.