MISRA – and the era of cute acronyms
By T.R. Raghunandan, 12 Jan 2018

This blog is part of a series on the rollout and progress of e-Governance in India. 

Finally, on the eve of the nineties, I escaped from my dungeon in the Medical Education Department and took charge as Deputy Commissioner of a district. Known as the District Collector in most other states, the posting as the Deputy Commissioner is the single most important aspiration for most people who go through the arduous task of appearing for the civil service entrance exams. The fifty acre forests surrounding the huge colonial era bungalows in which these worthies live, their cars with red beacons on top of them, the appearance of the Deputy Commissioner at most district-level functions, the automatic reference to her as the problem solver in each district, all this drives the popular lore and mystique that surrounds the IAS.

Yet, in Karnataka, the DC of the early nineties was a piffling scaled down version of the real thing. In 1987, the state had gone through a ‘big bang’ effort to deconcentrate power to elected rural local governments, by setting up Zilla Parishads in each district. These bodies were elected and most development departments were transferred from the control of the DC and placed under the Zilla Parishads. What was worse – as seen from the perspective of an IAS officer who dreamt of the day when he would ride into the Collectorate on a white charger (or at least pull up in a white Ambassador) – was that the administration of each ZP was headed by a ‘Chief Secretary’, a far more senior officer to the DC.

Luckily, I was not particularly worried about being dislodged from the numero uno position in the administrative hierarchy of the district. The fact that plenty of open ended development responsibilities had moved to the Zilla Parishad meant that DCs could focus on their core responsibilities, the main of which was land administration.

It was then that I discovered Altaf and Raghavan, two kindred souls.

Altaf was a Shirastedar, a delightful term used to describe someone higher than a head clerk, but not yet an officer. He was one of those rare souls who still retained wit and wisdom even after two decades in government service. His ready smile hid a fanatical commitment to being systematic and a phenomenal memory for the intricacies of the laws relating to land administration.

Raghavan was another restless soul, who, finding the regular land administration work to be too boring, wandered into the National Informatics Centre of the District and discovered that his calling lay in software. He taught himself programming – of course, this was back in the days when Office suites were virtually unknown – and his aptitude got him a job close to the DC’s office, where he could be relied upon to churn out the multitude of reports that are sent every day, which is often the only tangible evidence of any governance happening.

Like all taxation systems, the land revenue laws of most states are precise and logical. Land Administration by the British, which was copied to a large extent by the old Princely State of Mysore, lived by precise data on land assets on which land revenue was assessed, charged and collected. This was maintained by an army of village accountants, displacing an earlier generation of hereditary ‘Shanbhogs’ – village officers who wielded considerable power and influence because of their knowledge over land matters. However, over time, as the attention of DCs began to encompass several welfare programmes, the reporting protocols of land administration had begun to fail. Less attention paid to the daily tasks of land record maintenance, coupled with staff shortages and the expansion of welfare responsibilities, was beginning to weaken the land records system. The resultant confusion and uncertainties about land ownership had the potential to derail the entire economic base for the rural economy.

With my new found enthusiasm for spreadsheets, Raghavan’s far better programming skills and Altaf’s depth of knowledge of the law and rules, we set about systematising land revenue and land records maintenance and creating a computer aided system that would replace the entirely manual one followed so far.

In line with the newly fashionable trend – something that shows no signs of abating three decades later – we used an acronym to describe our efforts. We called our system ‘MISRA’, meaning, a management information system for revenue administration. 

More about MISRA in my next blog.

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