The finding of the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) to the effect that corruption has been institutionalised in land registration offices, though not unexpected, is indeed frustrating and shameful. It is not that this is the only department in the country with such a tainted label. It is ubiquitous in most government departments, only in varying degrees. The people of the country have ironically been the source of the graft as well as the victim of the greed of the corrupt. If they do not cooperate, they are denied the required service. One can well understand the value of a piece of paper that the land registration offices produce giving a seal of ownership to a helpless citizen. Most of these were well known in our society for ages. However, what the TIB brings to the fore is the extent of such corruption. The fact that bribes vary from Taka 500 to 500,000 in every step of land-related service exposes the enormity of the problem. The TIB's assertion that offices of the district registrars and sub-registrars are among the most corrupt places in the country is an ominous signal for land administration. The fact that nothing moves there without skulduggery gives a sorry reflection of things going on in a government department in the twenty-first century.
It has also been stated in the TIB report that common people are not conversant with the rules and processes and therefore fall easy prey to the vicious circle of 'local goons, well-connected people' and the concerned office staff. It is good that the TIB has made several suggestions to cope with the malaise. The adage that sub-registrars were kept at a low pay in British colonial times because the employers knew there were other sources of earning has not yet been disproved. Bazaar gossip or not, the TIB's study also brought up the issue of institutional incompetence in land service that led to lack of governance. Lack of monitoring is one important issue that must be addressed. Total land digitisation has also been mentioned as a way forward.
We wrote in these columns recently about a project of the Ministry of Land which aimed for total digitisation of land records. In the aftermath of the latest TIB findings, that project gains greater relevance and importance. Maybe that the Ministry of Land can extend a helping hand to the Office of the Registrar General through the project that would bring the work of the two institutions closer. It is sad that after so much of talk about 'digital Bangladesh', we lag in the most important problem of our citizens, that of land. That land issues give rise to the single largest number of criminal and civil cases in our courts has been talked about incessantly, but hardly given due importance. There are days ahead when Bangladesh's wishes to be a developed country would be materialised. It would require the smartest and cleanest of land management and land-related services, be those for the hapless rural peasant, a local entrepreneur or for a foreign investor. For our own advancement, digital land services are absolutely imperative. To that end, we must take stock of the TIB findings and do whatever is needed for a turn-around.
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