What ails Kerala’s revenue system? Based on the author’s research, this article examines prevalent malpractices and practical solutions.
Krishnakumar C. S.
Kerala is well-known for its achievements in socio-demographic attainment. However, its social development is not reflected in state public administration and the delivery of public services. Discourses of the state’s development tend to deal with past achievements of health, literacy and international migration, and completely ignore current public services delivered through the line departments in the state. Being an institution which has regular linkages with the public, the functioning of the state revenue department is an indicator of the functioning of state government departments in general. People perceive the efficiency of the state government not only through programme design but also through the way it is implemented through various machineries. In Kerala, most large-scale programmes are implemented through the revenue departments, particularly through the taluk and village offices. The important question, then, is this: how far is this institution capable of delivering these services, and how does it deliver routine services? Unfortunately, it is generally an accepted fact that the revenue department is one of the most inefficient departments in the state government. News from various parts of the state, and in particular, two incidents that happened in Thiruvananthapuram district, are remarkable in this case.
In March 2016, a man set fire to the Vellarada village office in Thiruvananthapuram district, causing severe harm to the staff1. It was soon learned that this was because of his severe frustration at the unjust behaviour of the village and taluk officials. He had made several complaints to many higher revenue officials and had even written to the Chief Minister and Prime Minister to convey his grievance about the long delay in the processing of lands’ pokkuvaravu (transactions) and the non-collection of land tax. Subsequently, in September 2016, another man torched the Neyyattinkara taluk office floor against the delay in fund release.2 Although everybody condemned the arson, the state government and policymakers have not realized the gravity of the grievances and helplessness of ordinary people who are unnecessarily forced to spend a lot of time for availing services.
My own experience and field evidence suggest that the functioning of taluk offices in the state is pathetic and that personnel handle files in a lethargic manner. There is no transparency in the process of file handling and corruption is rampant. For anything related to land, department personnel make multiple unnecessary visits to the site, imposing a huge financial burden on the applicant. Applicants have to bear travel and food expenses of the personnel, particularly for the surveyors and their accompanying persons. Often, these expenses would extend to extraneous things like smoking and drinking. Many bribing mechanisms exist in taluk offices. For example, the personnel would come to the applicant’s land in hired vehicles and would direct the applicant to pay the expenses. In some cases, they have an association with the hired vehicle driver, and the bribe money is collected from the applicant through the driver. If a client refuses to pay the bribe, s/he faces repercussions such as the freezing, delaying or mishandling of her/his file. Sometimes, officials react by writing file notes which are totally confusing and misleading, confounding further action.
The reasons for malpractice are many. First and foremost, there is no proper system for the handling of files in village and taluk offices. Documents or survey plans submitted by applicants are not recorded properly on file, and consequently, often go missing in a year or two. In some cases, the mishandling is purposeful. For instance, if the taluk or village revenue office receives a direction note from the Collectorate to speed up the process, they will knowingly conceal the letter for a few months by not putting a file number in the Tapal section.
How can these be avoided? Firstly, it is recommended that a list of documents in file should be maintained for all case files in the village and taluk offices—something that is currently not in practice. With such a list, it becomes easy to determine the documents submitted by the applicant, the dates of submission, as well as the creator of the document in cases where more than one staff member is involved in the case. Additionally, applicants must be informed of the file code and the documents therein. Electronic communication can be used for this purpose. Another important aspect is the dissemination of information about services offered. Applicants must be aware of the following: 1) the documents required for any process, 2) the steps involved in file handling, 3) the current status of the file, 4) the time required to complete the process, and finally, what to do if they are not getting timely services.
The effective implementation of the Kerala State Right to Service Act 20123 will go a long way in addressing these issues. This Act provides effective, time-bound redressal of citizens’ grievances and service delivery, and also holds officials liable in case of default. It allows the public to hold government servants answerable in terms of their functions, duties, commitments and obligations towards the people.
In conclusion, it is high time that we considered ways to improve the services delivered through the revenue and other departments of the state. A regular monitoring mechanism using ICT (information and communication technology) by a competent external agency can also be considered.
(Krishnakumar C.S. PhD is Director at the Institute of Development Research, Thiruvananthapuram. His areas of specialisation are demography of health, Institutional economics, ageing and migration. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)