Telangana : Tales of distress amidst mess in land records and corruption

The morning after Mandal Revenue Officer Vijaya Reddy’s ghastly murder, a video of a dharna by revenue department officials at the Gundala tehsildar office in Yadadri Bhuvanagiri district went viral. It showed officials sitting in protest to demand better security for themselves at their workplace. But they were not prepared for what was to come. 

A lady stormed in to the protest site, livid at the revenue staff. She accused one of them of having taken Rs 2000 as bribe to do her work but not kept his promise. Embarrassed by her tongue lashing, the dharna was quickly wound up and the officials went back to their office. 

Which is perhaps why there is hush-hush talk over what really transpired between Vijaya and Kurra Suresh, who set her ablaze. Eyewitnesses have told the police that the two had an argument inside her chamber before things went out of hand. Suresh brought in a can of petrol, poured it both on himself and Vijaya and lit the matchstick. 

But this is not to suggest there was a corruption angle to the murder. In fact, Vijaya is reported to have received the best MRO award in 2018. A majority of the voices in rural and semi-rural Telangana will tell you that dealing with the Revenue officials is a frustrating ask, there is no ease of doing business when it comes to this government department.

To understand why the conspiracy theories are gaining currency, rewind to 2017 when the Telangana government was about to kickstart the Rythu Bandhu scheme, under which it would give Rs 4000 per acre (now increased to Rs 5000) twice a year to landholding farmers. 

The state government announced to the world that it had undertaken an elaborate land purification exercise whereby all errors in land records had been rectified and there was no confusion about the ownership of land. Clear titles were the norm, the government claimed in 93 per cent of the cases, with digital pattadar passbooks making the process transparent. As a reward for what the revenue officials did, chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao even announced one month salary as bonus. 

Was it indeed the case? No. Even today if you travel to rural Telangana, many land holding farmers will tell you that the officials were more keen to meet the target before the deadline set by the CM. That was because only those with a digital passbook could get the amount under the Rythu Bandhu scheme. 

Agriculture activists say this meant transferring the data from the old passbooks to the digital passbooks without a ground verification exercise which on paper, was mandatory. This meant the errors got transferred. Now to get the same tehsildars to make the corrections in the digital passbooks is proving to be a tough exercise as the entire data is locked in the servers. Making the changes would invite questions from seniors and censure, if it is found that the revenue officials did not do a honest job in the first instance.

In September, the visuals of two farmers falling at the feet of the tehsildar in Chevella in Ranga Reddy district went viral. They wanted him to do justice after their land reportedly went `missing’ in official records. They alleged that their land had been registered in someone else’s name in the digital records, without their knowledge. Now it was becoming next to impossible to get the officials to make the change, despite them running from pillar to post for six months.

In due course of time, the government realised that the land purification exercise had been a sham. So this year, KCR started speaking in terms of bringing in a new Revenue Act in order to address the corruption in the system. Newspapers close to the CM started publishing stories exposing the graft in the Revenue department that suggested that the CM was planning to overhaul the system. 

MRO Vijaya Reddy with her family

But what it did was to label the entire lot of Revenue officials as corrupt. The impression gained ground among the farmers and led to friction between the land holders and the revenue officials. After Vijaya Reddy’s murder, opposition leaders blamed KCR for instilling hatred for revenue staff among the public. 

But it is not as if corruption is not a reality. Close to a dozen revenue officials, including five tehsildars have been trapped by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) and arrested in the last few months. That has further added to the negative image of the entire government staff in the Revenue department. 

The Revenue department has for years, been one of the most seedy departments in the Government of Telangana and before that in united Andhra Pradesh. While there is shock at what happened with Vijaya Reddy, many also point to the harassment they have had to suffer at the hands of the Revenue staff. The buck stops with the CM and it is KCR’s responsibility to set things right. 

At the end of the day, Vijaya whose two little kids have been orphaned, was a victim. Driver Gurunatham who tried to save her and succumbed to his 80 per cent burns today, even more so. And though it may sound insensitive to say this now, Suresh too is a victim. 

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