The Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (December, 2003) of the Government of Pakistan (GOP) highlights the importance of the rural economy for poverty reduction and sustained economic growth. Given that land is at the heart of agriculture and the rural economy in Pakistan, particularly in Punjab Province, land ownership and administration issues are of key importance. Inequalities of land distribution, tenure insecurity and difficulties associated with the land administration and registration system are closely interrelated and continue to impose significant constraints on both rural and urban populations, particularly the poor. Land transactions are relatively high cost (containing a high proportion of informal costs), and disputes about authenticity of land rights are caused, among others, by the inefficient and dispersed land records system. As a result land markets are thin and land prices are in excess of the discounted value of potential agricultural earnings from land. The low mobility of land contributes to perpetuating the highly unequal distribution of land and, thus, livelihood opportunities.
Improving land administration and consequently the functioning of land markets in Pakistan is therefore a priority concern, linked to the broader area of governance and administration at both the central and local levels. Punjab has a total area of 205,345 square kilometres, and is the most populated province of Pakistan with 80.5 million inhabitants (55.6% of Pakistan’s total population). Nearly 70% of the population lives in rural areas. Agriculture plays an important role in the Province’s economy. However, the overall dispersed and duplicative nature of its land records makes land rights uncertain, negatively impacts economic development, and threatens the vulnerable and the poor whose rights remain virtually unprotected. Problematic features of the current land revenue system, recognized by the Government.
In Punjab, high transaction costs and difficulties associated with the land records system continue to impose significant harm on land owners and prospective land owners, (particularly the poor, who have small holdings and less access to information or resources), making them vulnerable to the predatory behaviour of middlemen, and lowering the liquidity of family assets composed in whole or in part of land. As land is also a form of capital, current obstacles for documenting and enforcing land rights have the effect of lowering income from those assets through means such as rent, cultivation, sale, or access to other factors (e.g. credit). Well-defined land rights are key for productive development and factor market functioning. In addition, clear land rights have far-reaching implications for social cohesion and governance, acting as an important catalyst in stabilizing communities, empowering individuals and reducing social exclusion.
Pakistan has a land administration system inherited from the British, involving rules and regulations regarding sale, purchase and use of land resources mainly linked to the collection of land tax. The present land legislation – which is constituted mainly of the Land Revenue Act (1967) and the Registration Act (1908) – does not profess to provide for a State certificate of title to land under the aegis of a public authority. The records of rights and other documents based on the land records, by virtue of provisions in land laws, are presumed to be accurate. However, these entries only provide presumptive status of rights under land laws. Many court rulings have also maintained that entries in the land records are contestable, that the revenue records are not documents of title, and that it is permissible to challenge the entries for determining the title to land.
The ambiguity of agrarian law regarding records of land rights is particularly harmful to the poor, who cannot afford protracted land disputes. Numerous legal disputes are caused by contract enforcement of land rental contracts, e.g. over illegal possession of land, eviction of tenants, and recovery of rent. Cases of land disputes are either heard in the Revenue Courts or Civil Courts. In general, smallholders and tenants tend to prefer to use the Revenue Courts, because they are cheaper, more accessible, and less time-consuming.
The institutional set-up of the land recording system (especially in urban areas) of Punjab Province is also very opaque, involving many different agencies. The main ones are the Board of Revenue (BOR), the Excise and Taxation Department (ETD), and the development authorities, of which the main one is the Lahore Development Authority (LDA). However, there is no single agency maintaining updated land records for all of Punjab, and the coordination in record keeping functions being carried out by the various agencies is limited. Within this complicated institutional structure, the BOR is the most important agency for land administration. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the BOR essentially is a body geared to collect land revenue for the Government. Over the years, the revenue collection role has become secondary to the BOR’s role of being the custodian of the records of rights to land, but, inconsistently, the business processes of the organization are still directed to its traditional role.
The BOR’s land record maintenance takes place through an intricate system, which involves several levels of administration; the district, Tehsil, Kanungo circle, and Patwar circle. At the lowest administrative level of the records system – the Patwar Circle – are Patwaris. They are not only responsible for land record issues, but also for many social, political, and administrative tasks, including keeping weather records, collecting crop harvest information, reporting of village crimes, and updating registers of voters. In Punjab, about 8,000 Patwaris maintain land records pertaining to 20 million land owners. The Patwaris keep their records in a cloth bag called a Basta. They are the custodians of records pertaining to private as well as government lands. The transfer of land is initiated at the level of the Patwari, but affected by his superiors at the Kanungo and Tehsil levels.
The overall supervisor of the land revenue system at District level is the District Officer (Revenue). At this level, the officer reports to a double hierarchy, the Board of Revenue (Senior Member BOR) on one hand, and the District government on the other.