When the DAG catches the bribe-takers
It was by a fluke that the victim of extortion for a routine public service happened to be a Deputy Attorney General (DAG), for which reason the crime was made public. According to our report, two employees of Kushtia Sub-Registrar's Office demanded Tk 30,000 to prepare the deeds of his family land. Even after knowing his identity, the duo persisted and offered a Tk 5,000 concession… so brazen were they about asking for the bribe. Their audacity comes from an entrenched system of rent-seeking and irregularities that has characterised most offices related to land issues. A report by the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has found massive corruption at the district registrar and sub-registrar offices, with people paying bribes from Tk 500 to Tk 5 lakh at every step of the process of getting land-related services.
Digitisation of the entire land administration and management has been suggested by many as a way to curb the corruption. The idea is that all land transactions and land records will be maintained in the digital platform. However, while digitisation can ease some of the problems, experts have warned that it is more important to remove existing anomalies that have been created and sustained for many years. An op-ed in this paper by researchers of BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) has pointed out the discrepancies in our land survey records which make digitisation quite challenging. With constantly changing land use and demarcation, regular updating is necessary. And with four different land surveys—none of which were completed—complications are bound to arise with demarcations of land being contested all the time (as different surveys can give different information of ownership).
According to the law, the Revisional Survey record takes precedence but disputes are informally resolved through local arbitrators or land officers. Therefore, there are many loopholes that leave leeway for corruption. So before taking any digitisation initiative, records have to be verified, illegal possession and fake documents have to be done away with, and discrepancies among various documents have to be resolved and made consistent. Otherwise, many errors and fraudulent documents will remain in the system and people will have very little recourse to get them corrected.
In this particular case, it was after the DAG narrated the incident on a Facebook post that the officials of the sub-registrar's office and deed writers called him up to apologise.
Is an apology sufficient to absolve these individuals from this crime? An office assistant has been suspended but it is quite certain that he is way down the ladder in this "unofficial fee structure". This particular incident, where a public official became a victim of the corrupt system leading him to make it public, should be a trigger for the government to get the land office in order. In the long run, all the records and documents have to be verified for authenticity and disputes resolved fairly after proper investigation and then the government can think about digitising, of course, with security measures in place to prevent tampering or hacking into the system. In the short run, however, the government must clamp down on corrupt employees and ensure that people who seek their service are not harassed or made to suffer.