The Rhetoric and Reality of Transparency:
Transparent Information, Opaque City Spaces and the Empowerment Question

Bhuvaneswari Raman
French Institute at Pondicherry, India

1.0 Introduction

Opening Government Data (OGD [1]) is viewed as a means to facilitate greater transparency of the State, which in turn is expected to catalyse citizens' participation and strengthen their bargaining power vis-à-vis the State (Baviskar 2010; Florini 2008; UNDP 2003; Saxena and Srivatsav 2001; Srivatsava 2010; Gupta 2008; Pope 2003). This paper examines the purported links between OGD, transparency and citizens' empowerment through a focus on opening urban spatial information in the Indian context. Spatial information is held by the State in the form of land tenure records, archives of survey maps, city development plans, and documents relating to urban development policies and projects. The outcome of opening such information, particularly in the urban context, and the processes by which such information is produced are considered in this paper.

In the Indian context, two aspects of changes in governance are critical for the discussion on transparency. These include the introduction of e-governance initiatives and the Right to Information Act (RTI) (Wright 2010). Since the mid-nineties, the Government of India has introduced e-governance projects for creating a centralized spatial information system using GIS maps (MoUD GOI, 2006; Rao 2011) and digitized land titles (Singh 2005). The significance attached to e-governance initiatives for digitizing spatial information is indicated by the high level of funding allocation by the Government of India. The RTI Act which was variously enacted by different state governments between 1996 and 2002, and finally amended in 2005 as national legislation by the Government of India, provides an avenue for citizens to force the State to disclose its information archives, which in this context includes survey maps, land titles and master planning documents. The possibility to open spatial information through the provision of the RTI act and various e-governance projects are justified on the grounds that these will empower citizens, particularly those of relatively weaker economic and social background.

The term empowerment can be interpreted in different ways. At the basic level, opening spatial information will enable citizens to access information easily (Parycek and Sachs, 2010, Mason 2008; Florini 2008). The possibilities for citizens to view and scrutinize government records regarding their land titles and territorial maps will open up spaces to secure their claims, and especially resolve conflicts arising from multiple claims over a particular piece of land (Singh, 2005; Chawla and Bhatnagar, 2004). Further, armed with OGD, citizens will be able to pressurise the State to implement "officially' sanctioned master plans and urban development programmes and to hold State officials, particularly "field bureaucrats", accountable for their actions (Chawla and Bhatnagar 2004; Wright 2010). However, there are several other logics underpinning the various initiatives for opening the government's spatial information. The e-governance initiatives discussed in this paper were used as vehicles for reforming institutional practices [2] relating to the recording of land claims, retrieval and management of land records [3] (Chawla and Bhatnagar 2004; Ahuja and Singh, 2005). Both information and decision-making power were centralized in order to realign the influence of senior bureaucrats and field bureaucrats over the process of creating and managing land records (Raman and Bawa 2011; Benjamin 2007; De 2005).

The decision to introduce the digitization project in the revenue department of the State government was also influenced by intra-departmental power dynamics relating to control over the process of recording land claims and management of such records (Benjamin 2007; Raman and Bawa 2011). A centralized database of digitized land records was created with differential access privileges. Further the Government of India intends to set up a "single' "unified' database of information held by government departments of various functions and scales.

Spatial information was opened at a time when land was viewed as a vehicle for accelerating growth and attracting foreign direct investment into real estate (Denis 2010). Notably, the financing models of large urban development projects being planned or under implementation rely on tapping real estate surplus for capital (Benjamin 2008 Shakin 2011). But these projects often encountered delays due to difficulty with land acquisition stemming from lack of clarity of land claims (Benjamin 2010; Bhatnagar 2002). There was also pressure on the State from multilateral institutions [4] to open up spatial information.

As well, these projects generate lucrative contracts for production of GIS maps and databases for private sector Information Technology (IT) companies. Thus, while transparency of spatial information is used as a justification by the State for projects like Bhoomi or GIS mapping, there are also other political and economic logics underpinning their introduction. Rather than assuming the beneficial effects of OGD and transparency, it is critical to examine not only the outcomes of opening different types of data but also questions of how and why government data was opened.

This paper suggests that the outcomes of OGD may differ depending on the nature of information disclosed and conflicts surrounding it. Discussions on OGD predominantly focus on the benefits arising from information transparency (Florini 2008; Graham 2002; Wright 2010). Although some studies observe the differing effects of transparency initiatives, its resolution is sought in the techno-managerial realm (Davies 2010; Graham, 2002; Fenster 2006). The risks posed by information disclosure are seemingly addressed through better choice of technology for right design or right policies for greater transparency (Mason 2008).

Questions of who decides and what is decided as the "right' policy, "authentic information' and "right design' are important here (Mason 2008; Gupta 2008). This paper suggests that a techno-managerial approach overlooks the underlying political issues with respect to the construction of different types of information archives and the State's decisions to open information. This may, contrary to the intention of a progressive OGD project, disadvantage relatively weaker groups in protecting their land claims rather than strengthening their power. Further, information disclosure in itself will not reduce conflicts (Jasonoff 1990). This paper builds on earlier works of Benjamin 2007 and Raman and Bawa 2011, which have argued that projects such as digitisation of land records serve as vehicles to reconfigure land information. It proposes that contrary to the intention of the OGD project, the unquestioned celebration of OGD and the transparency paradigm may serve as a vehicle to reduce political claims into techno-managerial issues, and thereby realize an "anti-politics" agenda (Ferguson 1996) to counter contestations over urban territories.

An argument for a critical review of transparency paradigms in the context of spatial information tends to be interpreted as a call for opacity, which is not the intention of this paper. Rather it argues for situating the debates on spatial information transparency in the political-economic context of information and land in order to understand the workings of power. As Kracauer (1927) notes, reality is a social construct and paradigms such as open data and transparency are significant in shaping perceptions about reality. The power of these paradigms is such that

... sublime in its promise of immediacy, comprehensibility, and unity ... is an aesthetic principle that can never be translated into an empirical reality matter how noble the effort ... proposing a model of language, communication and political action based on presence, closure, and single meaning ... that is ahistorical and one dimensional, offering affirmative mimetic reflection than a deconstruction of power. (Jarosinski 2002: 63-64)

The rest of this paper is divided into two sections. Section 2.0 describes briefly the Indian State's initiatives for opening spatial information. The following section has two parts. Section 3.1 explores the experience of citizens with retrieving information using the provisions of the RTI Act and with recording or rectifying entries in digitized titles. These cases illustrate the difficulties faced by citizens in retrieving records and the differential outcomes of opening spatial information. Such differences are influenced by citizens' positions in the political-economic hierarchy and issues pertaining to constructing a perfect land archive. This case brings to light the issue of competing, multiple records pertaining to land claims held by different State institutions.

Techno-managerial issues, including the choice of better technology, right design for easy retrieval or greater transparency, are useful to address the problem to an extent, but these do not address the fundamental issue of constructing a perfect, unified, consistent land database. The difficulty with constructing such a database arises from the complexities involved in the accurate capture and representation of information on land tenure forms or the workings of the city.

As argued in 3.1, the open spatial data hides as much as it reveals about the history of conflicts surrounding the claims to a particular land. Further, focusing on the use of open spatial information, it shows that given the varied interests seeking land information, opening such data may allow for violent appropriation. The stakes involved in seeing land information is high but the ability to mobilise it or benefit from it differs. It then considers the implication of elevating visible information as the legal information. OGD discussions recognize the State's decisions to selectively open data, but pose greater transparency as a way to resolve the conflicts arising from multiple records (see Wright 2010). Such contra-positioning of transparency versus opacity, legibility versus illegibility or legal versus illegal is counterproductive.

At the heart of the conflict in the case discussed in section 3.1 is not only that some claims get recorded and others do not, but also with the competing information in the State domain and which of this information gets prioritised in times of conflict. In such instances, the resolution of conflicts lies in the political realm and hence, is shaped by power relations. It is important to differentiate between technical information on paper as recorded by State agencies and the information that is eventually authorised as legal. For example, as the discussion in the following sections show, land records may be maintained in different forms by various institutions of the State, but not all of these records may be accepted as admissible evidence in the court. This distinction between paper information in the State domain and its legal acceptance is overlooked in the assumptions that greater information transparency in itself will lead to clarification of claims. While there is a clarion call to enhance the visibility of spatial records, particularly from economic elites and large developers (Benjamin and Raman 2011), the process by which related information is generated remains obscure. This is considered in section 3.2. This is important so as to understand further how power constitutes the context of rationality for OGD and transparency (Flyvberg 1998).

The discussions in the next two sections suggest the need to review some of the assumptions underpinning the advocacy for open data viz., the neutrality of information and the politics underpinning the construction of a perfect spatial information archive. An absence of a critical review of the paradigm poses a real risk of it being hijacked by powerful interests in society to further their agendas.

2.0 Initiatives for Spatial Information Transparency

This paper draws on ethnographic research on two types of initiatives that the Indian state undertook for opening spatial information namely, the RTI Act (RTI) and e-governance programmes for digitizing land titles and setting up centralized spatial information system using GIS maps. The ethnographic fieldwork was undertaken by the author either independently or as a part of a team. Information was collected through non-participant observation and semi-structured interviews with agents embedded in different hierarchies of the State and the local government, citizens, and activists. The State agents interviewed include the elected representatives and field officials of the local panchayat [5], a field and a mid-level official of the Revenue Department, the ex-Chief planner of the Chennai Metropolitan Planning Department, a senior official of the Tamil Nadu Urban Infrastructure Finance Corporation (TUFICPO) and a planner-consultant for CMDA. Besides, this paper draws on the information available on the project websites and secondary sources. This section sets out the project's rationale, impetus for introduction and mode of implementation.

State Initiatives: Right to Information Act (RTI) and Digitization of land Titles and City Maps

Similar to the provision of the Freedom of Information Acts implemented in other countries, the RTI Act of the Government of India (GoI), can be used by citizens to view, scrutinise and obtain information kept in government files, government orders, letters, records pertaining to expenditures and incomes of the State or policy documents (Baviskar 2010; Wright 2010). The Act was an outcome of a decade long struggle by the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) initiative. In the context of spatial information, this tool has been used to secure information relating to land ownership and the enforcement of master plans.

The Act's strength is attributed to the simplicity of application procedures. An applicant can address questions to the relevant public information office with the contact address, upon payment of a nominal fee and photocopying charges. The concerned government authority is required to respond within a stipulated period of time. If information is not provided, or if it is inaccurate or incomplete, citizens can complain to a Public Grievance Commissioner, and the erring officer can be fined a fixed amount for each day of delay (Baviskar 2010). RTI is supposed to benefit all income groups. Based on ongoing research in a small town adjoining Chennai metropolis, section 3.1 of this paper examines the experience of citizens from the Dalit caste - a relatively weaker social and economic group, with the use of this Act.

Digitization of land records held by the Revenue Departments [6] of the State Governments [7] was perhaps the first generation of e-governance projects introduced by the GoI (Meena 2005). Land records are critical because land revenue constitutes an important source of government revenue (Bhatnagar and Chawla 2004; De 2005; Raman and Bawa 2011; Senthil Priya and Mathiyalgan 2012). The National Informatics Centre (NIC), an autonomous institution reporting to the GoI, was mobilised to provide technical support to the regional governments for implementing these projects. Discussions in this paper draws on ethnographic research conducted on two projects - Bhoomi and Nemmadi - both implemented by the Government of Karnataka in South India.

One type of land record, namely the Record of Rights, Tenancy and Crops (RTC) was digitized under the Bhoomi project [8]. In addition to RTC, personal information relating to age, caste and religion were digitized to deliver welfare programmes, also known as Rural Digital Services (RDS) under the Nemmadi programme (Gatty 2009; Raman and Bawa 2011). Internet kiosks were set up at the sub-district and district levels, under a public-private partnership (PPP) arrangement, where citizens could retrieve RTC and RDS records. In addition, under the 12th Five year Plan [9], GoI introduced a programme called the National Urban Information Systems (NUIS) to create a centralised digital urban spatial system using GIS maps and a social information system (NUIS GOI, 2006). The NUIS programme consists of two major components namely Urban Spatial Information System (USIS) and National Urban Data Bank & Indicators (NUDB&I). Creation of spatial maps using GIS technology for each city and town were funded under the USIS stream, and the generation of the database on urban population under the NUDB&I.

The following section examines the suggested association between transparency facilitated by spatial information disclosure, easy access to information, resolution of land conflicts, and citizens' relationship with the State, particularly that of relatively weaker groups.

3.0 Transparent Information and Opaque Spaces

This section has two parts. The first, section 3.1, starts with the experience of citizens who tried to retrieve information using the RTI Act and with recording information in digital titles. Through this evidence, it explores the claim pertaining to accessing information, resolving conflicts over claims, and their relationship with the State after the introduction of transparency initiatives. The following section 3.2 examines the decision-making process relating to the coding of information represented in spatial documents such as master plans, maps of city territories and the categories of representation.

3.1 Information Transparency, Easy Access and Resolution of Conflicts over Claims

The case described below traces the experience of citizens from the Dalit caste with using the RTI act to secure information about a contested plot of land in a small town called Marakkanam, in the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu. The town is in close proximity to Chennai city. Two caste groups namely, the higher caste Mudaliars and the socially marginalized Dalits, dominate the town and its surrounding villages. The Mudaliar caste households controlled the economy and the land in the town until the late nineties. Members of the Dalit caste depend on salt work, small-scale agriculture and animal husbandry for their income, and are predominantly both economically and socially disadvantaged. The real estate market of Marakkanam town and its surrounding villages is influenced by the growth of Chennai city. Since 2000[10], there is a high demand for land in Marakkanam; this has led to the conversion of agricultural land under individual ownership as well as common land into plotted development [11].

One particular plot of contested land is at the edge of a reserved forest called the Kurumabaram Rare Medicinal Plants and Herbs Forest. It is about three acres in size. It is currently controlled by an individual from the Mudaliar caste. This person will henceforth be referred to as "A'. "A' claims that he is the rightful owner because there is a land record in his name. This ownership is contested by some residents from the Dalit caste residing in a settlement adjacent to the forest. The Dalit group's counterclaim is that the land was once a part of the Forest and that "A' captured it incrementally and recorded his claims drawing on the systemic power of his caste in the Panchayat office.

Further, a political activist working with the Dalit community and a Panchayat official interviewed for this research confirmed that the genealogy of the Forest land would reveal the common land tenure status of the territory claimed by A. They argue that this genealogy can be constructed only through a reading of different institutional records including the records [12] of the traditional village accountant for Marakkanam, the records held by the Revenue Department and, the old survey maps and titles held by the Forest Department. The former records in the possession of Dalit citizens show the three acres of land as part of the forest commons. The Dalit group is struggling to secure the land record archives of the Forest Department to strengthen their version. Another claim is that the common land was allotted to the Dalit community but it was encroached upon by "A'. Hence, the land should be reclaimed and allocated to them as their community is involved in protecting the herbs and the members depend on the forest for survival.

While it is difficult to prove the veracity of different claims [13], it is equally difficult to overlook the assertions of the Dalit citizens' group for two reasons. The title held by "A' was issued in the seventies by the Panchayat office when members of the upper caste communities dominated it. Further, discussions with revenue department officials suggest that it is often difficult to ascertain the boundary between land parcels and consequently, taking into account the location of the contested territory, it is difficult to dismiss the claims of Dalit group.

Despite repeated attempts to secure the spatial records of the Forest Department using the RTI, the Dalit group has yet to receive an appropriate response to their queries. According to the group members, they received an evasive response to each of their applications. During their face-to-face meeting with the Deputy Conservator of the Forest Department, the officials mentioned that the department cannot disprove "A's' claims to the land with the records currently available to the department. Dissatisfied with this response, the Dalit leaders are continuing their demand for the release of old records, particularly, the survey maps of the Forest Department. In 2006, the conflict took a serious turn when the leader of the Dalit group was attacked - allegedly by the occupier - in an attempt to stall the RTI. With the help of another local leader, the Dalit group established connections with the English media through which they are seeking to fight their case. The conflict is ongoing.

The Kurumbaram case resembles the experience of several other activists and individuals with the use of RTI to secure information. Baviskar (2010) notes that instances of evasive replies, dilatory tactics, outright refusal of RTI applications and supply of an avalanche of irrelevant information far outnumber the success stories of obtaining information via RTI (see Samu 2008; Further, in 2006, the Government of India attempted to restrict the power of the act by exempting the information stored in government files and government orders, which is critical to trace the trail of the decision-making process. Although following the protests by activists, amendments to the Act were withdrawn, but keeping the Act intact in implementation remains a challenge (Samu 2008; Baviskar 2010). In addition, citizens do not have uniform capabilities to interpret the data disclosed (Gupta 2008; Paycerk and Sachs, 2010). Moreover, although RTI is portrayed as a people's movement, a key factor influencing the introduction of the RTI act is the campaign leaders' connection with the bureaucracy, activists and intelligentsia (Baviskar 2010). My intention is not to deny the usefulness of the RTI Act but to highlight the differing experience with the use of RTI to open up information.

The conflict over Kurumabaram forest land shed light on the existence of three titles but there is a possibility of other records surfacing as the conflict proceeds. In theory, opening multiple records may provide a way of destabilising the data capture by the elites. The response of the Forest Department in terms of not releasing the information in the Kurumbaram context can be read as a case for more transparency in order that the Dalit group can obtain "conclusive evidence'. Such a reading would suggest that making visible various competing records held by different State departments would settle the conflict. However, in reality, opening multiple records in the State domain may be inadequate to shape the outcomes of these conflicts for the following reasons. First, the records held by the State may not reveal all the claims to a particular plot of land. Citizens record their claims to land in different institutions and in different registers of the State. In this respect, the databases maintained by a particular department are far from complete or continuous. Moreover, claims to territory and land are established in several ways including drawing on culture and symbolism (Fox 1998; Benjamin 2012; Srinivas 2005), which are not captured by official records.

These imperfections, discontinuities and disjunctures in the archived information stem from a variety of factors including the cost considerations that influence the design and format of databases during different regimes [14], changes in the institutional practices of recording land claims over time, non-recording of certain types of occupancy [15], and citizens playing to different institutions to establish their claims. Thus, the multiple records may reveal the multiple histories of claims. Second, in the event of such competing imperfect information on land with high stakes, how does one conclude the validity of one record over the other? Consequently, the resolution of land conflicts is influenced by political positioning of different groups at a particular place and time. Thus, the records held by each department of the State may not necessarily reveal the full story of conflicts or reflect the reality on the ground [16], but rather reflect the political outcome of the contestations over claimed land.

Moreover, even if the various records in the State domain are made visible, not all visible information may be accorded legal status. In other words, it is critical to distinguish between the information on paper (i.e., technical information) that is opened up and that which is accorded a legal status. For example, the architects of the Bhoomi and the Nemmadi projects viewed the prevalence of multiple records as a manifestation of "inefficient record keeping', "corruption of field bureaucrats' and the opacity of land records due to lack of modern systems of documentation (Chawla and Bhatnagar 2004). They sought to resolve the conflicts by identifying a single owner to a single plot of land by according a legal status to the digital RTC. Thus, post the introduction of Bhoomi, only the digital RTC is admissible in a court of law as legal proof of one's claim to land. In effect, claims recorded or authorised by other institutional channels may be disregarded (Benjamin 2007). The elevation of the status of one type of land record, namely the digital RTC, may pose a risk to poor citizens in terms of proving their claims to land which are based on various forms of paper records such as the General Power of Attorney (GPA), agreement on a stamp paper in front of village elders, and holders' certificates. My intention is not to deny the problem of corruption or inefficiency confronting the State but such a reductionist interpretation of the issue of multiple records allows for submerging land conflicts [17] under the guise of resolution. The issue therefore is not one of more or less transparency, but is about the way in which the paradigm is appropriated in a particular context.

Another argument for spatial information transparency is that it enables poor groups to see the records of the State to which they did not earlier have access. This is based on an assumption of the poor's total exclusion from the State realm, which can be questioned drawing on the evidence in the anthropological research on state-society relationships in India (Gupta 1996; Corbridge 2005; Fuller and Harris 2002; Benjamin 2000; Chatterjee 2011, 2002). The Dalit group of Kurumbaram as their other counterparts secure information from the State in different ways - including the use of RTI, their social networks embedded in local governments and local society. Similarly, retrieving the digital data of RDS records or rectifying mistakes in the digitized RTC has proven to be a relatively time consuming and costly process as compared to the earlier system, particularly for households from relatively weaker economic or social backgrounds (Raman and Bawa 2011; Benjamin, Bhuvaneswari 2005; Baviskar 2010). Consequently, these groups tend to use their social networks to secure information and restrict their reliance on the new systems. A key document that enabled them to contest "A's' claim in this conflict is the records maintained by the traditional village accountant, which was secured via their inter-generational ties in Marakkanam and their networks in the Panchayat office. A pertinent question here is why did the Dalit group not contest "A's' claims until recently despite having access to the records of the traditional accountant?

While acknowledging that the RTI Act has opened yet another avenue to secure information on land to counter the claims of competing agents, I argue that their ability to wield the tool was shaped by a combination of other factors. These include their socio-political position in Marakkanam town, tacit knowledge of local histories and access to the records of the traditional village accountant. It is only over the last ten years, that Dalits have managed to secure political power [18] in the area and are beginning to contest the land claimed by other communities. Their understanding of local histories is critical in eliciting relevant information from the State as the type of responses to RTI application depends on the framing of the question. In fact, as an anonymous reviewer of this paper has pointed out, the RTI itself creates the State as a gatekeeper of information. In this light, tacit knowledge about land / territory and access to old records gathered through inter-generational involvement of members of the group in lower levels of the Panchayat is critical for the Dalit group to continue their struggle.

A related assumption is that information transparency will increase citizens' bargaining powers vis-à-vis the State by replacing the power of social networks. In so far as land administration is concerned, as much as technology supports transparency of information, it is also used to centralize power with the respective government departments in order to channel the forms and avenues by which information is circulated. This has, in effect, squeezed the bargaining spaces of the poorer groups (Benjamin 2007; Raman and Bawa 2011; De 2005), who used to rely on their connections with the field level officials to secure information and to access State services (Benjamin 2000; Corbridge 2005; Gatty 2009 [19], Raman 2010). The latter's influence over land related issues were curbed under the guise of eradicating corruption [20]. This change is to be understood in the context of close alliances between the senior officials, policy makers and large real estate developers and corporate interests in shaping land policies and urban development programmes (Shakin 2011; Benjamin 2008; John 2005) [21]. While this is not an argument in support of lower level officials, the issue here is that rather than assuming the intrinsic benefits of the transparency paradigm, it is critical to understand the context in which such concepts are embedded.

The Use of Visible Information

Mechanisms for disclosing spatial records are a double-edged sword. As much as poorer groups use the RTI act to seek information about State actions (see; Samu 2008), this avenue has been used by the elites to secure information on urban development policies and to pressure the State to evict slum dwellers in the name of enforcing the rule of law (National Convention on RTI, 2008). In a policy and legal context that is tipped against the poor, there is a risk that transparency initiatives serve the politics of evicting the poor from productive localities of the city and their resettlement outside the city. A counter argument may be that the threat of eviction exists irrespective of the State opening spatial information. Historically, the State used the city planning process to evict squatters and to reconstitute claims to urban territory (Fox 1998; Kosek 1998; Dossal 2010). While this is true, when the demand for eviction is made using the RTI route, it adds to the pressure on the State toward evicting occupants. In contrast, when the issue is less visible or audible, the poor used to lobby political representatives to stall evictions. This does not mean that the poor seek opacity under all circumstances; they too actively seek to regularise their tenure status through their political alliances. Rather, the issue is that the use of open spatial information in the contemporary political-economic context may reduce rather than enhance the political space in which the poor have to manoeuvre to limit evictions.

Access to information on land records alone may have a limited value unless competing agents have the ability to harness other political and economic resources to benefit from such information. Field research on the Nemmadi programme (Raman and Bawa 2011) revealed that some respondents perceived the transparency of their land records as weakening their bargaining power vis-à-vis powerful real estate agents. Their views reflected the reality of the workings of real estate markets.

The real estate developer is a dominant clientele for viewing the RTC applications and consulting websites at the revenue department in land administration in Bangalore (Raman and Bawa 2011; Benjamin 2007; De 2005). The easy access to digital RTC upon knowing the survey numbers [22] makes it easier for developers to secure information on the tenure status of each plot and circumstances of the land owners, particularly, with respect to properties under conflict (Benjamin 2007:p.18-22). The information on the physical and legal characteristics of land and the owners' circumstances is critical in land transactions as it influences the bargaining power of buyers and sellers (Benjamin 2007; Haila 2002). This information is mobilised by real estate developers [23] along with physical force, money and information on family crises to pressure land owners to part with their land (Raman and Bawa 2011). Given the sensitivity of land transactions and the political and economic power of real estate agents and their alliances with lawyers as observed in an Indian metro area (Benjamin 2007), opening up spatial archives may have a regressive impact on weaker sections of society.

The capture of information by real estate developers and its use to influence the State to evict / dispossess weaker groups is not a far-fetched scenario in contemporary Indian cities. While one may argue that such capture by real estate agents prevailed prior to opening the data, the effects of opening land information is to be considered in the light of increased competition over land, in the decade of 1990's in Indian cities. A few large developers dominate the high-end real estate markets in many cities, particularly in the metro areas. Their websites outline [24] the extent of land that they plan to acquire for development. Prior to their entry into the market in the-mid 1990s in places like Bangalore, real estate was dominated by small developers who relied on their knowledge of local histories and relationships to assemble land for development.

State agencies seeking to implement mega urban development projects as well as large developers, faced difficulties in consolidating large tracts of land due to the illegibility of claims on the ground (Benjamin and Raman 2011). These large developers with financial connections to capital markets in India and abroad [25] have been lobbying for opening spatial information archived in the forms of RTI and mutation certificates [26] (Benjamin 2007; John 2005). At another level, large real estate developers are also closely connected to the spatial policy formulation process including the construction of city development plans and urban infrastructure programmes (Randeria 2011, Benjamin 2010; De and Chowdhry 2011). They have been lobbying for a host of other interventions such as the new Land Acquisition Bill [27] and a conclusive title project entitled the Partnership for Land Title Implementation for Urban Management (PLATINUM) (Benjamin and Raman 2011b). ( The India Space foundation dominated by venture capitalists and IT lobbies is involved in this formulation as well as the implementation of the PLATINUM programme. There is a also proposal to link this with the Unique Identity Card ((UID) programme.

It is in the above context, that the conflation of visible land records (i.e. RTC) mentioned earlier as the only legal proof of one's claim to land further disadvantages the relatively poor groups in the city. Similarly, the visible master plans of the city become the reference point to label legal and illegal spaces and as a justification for evicting the poor from their economic and residential spaces and resettlement [28] (Roy 2011; Benjamin 2008). Mass demolition and eviction drives have become a normal occurrence in Indian metros. The conflation of visibility with legality together with the difficulty in correcting mistakes in digital titles or contesting information coded in plans, in effect, results in further closure of political spaces for the poor to contest State archives or resist eviction. The alignment of different forces - the rise of the real estate economy as a driver of growth, the capture of the policy process by relatively powerful political and economic groups in Indian cities together with the elevation of open information as the only legal / authentic information has serious consequences for relatively weaker groups to hold on to their claims.

The above discussion underscores the importance of situating OGD frameworks and advocacy in the wider political context of spatial information and technologies of its production. As the Kurumbaram case revealed, it is difficult to trace the totality of claims to a particular piece of land and visible spatial information may reflect the differential ability of groups to get their claims recorded. The assumption that greater transparency will even out conflicts over land is premised on the power of technology in ironing out power relations in society. The issue faced by the poor is not only about access to data, but also to do with who is seeing the information on their land and how they are likely to mobilise it and the shrinking of the political spaces for contesting visible information. As land information is implicated in the generation of wealth in both urban and rural areas, the politics around urban land is not only about the forms of land development but the manner in which information pertaining to claims are recorded and its institutional location. Here, various agents including the State, technologists connected to e-governance companies and large real estate developers have an interest to open spatial information as well as to shape the categories under which such information is coded. The balance of power further disadvantages the poor. The celebration of OGD and transparency paradigms as intrinsically beneficial, without taking into account the power context in which it is embedded allows for the capture of the paradigm by powerful interests in society.

3.2 Opaque Production of Information

The Opacity of the Planning Process

Literature on critical cartography and master plans of the city have shown that spatial records in the form of master plan for cities or policy documents represent particular narratives, identities, representations and thus, the political aspirations of some groups in a city (Sarin 1982; Nair 2005; Holston 1989; Dossal 2010; Foetidas 2009; Wood and Fels 1992). The master plan that is opened to the public is an outcome of such opaque lobbying processes. There are several examples to illustrate this point. A nationally well-known real estate development firm that controls much of the land development since the mid-nineties in Gurgoan near New Delhi, started purchasing land much before the area was urbanized and then lobbied the planning agency for an inter-city state corridor to abut their properties in order to secure high prices (De and Chowdhury 2011). Another example is the case of the IT corridor in Chennai where landowners lobbied for declaring the territory as an IT corridor [29] [30]. Such stories of master plans being shaped by real estate lobbies are common to cities across the world (see Holston 1989). Similarly, the 2005 master plan of Bangalore metropolitan city was influenced by the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF) comprising IT entrepreneurs, real estate developers, architects and venture capitalists, which also played a key role in hiring a French Consultancy firm [31] [32]. These groups are among those who lobbied for opening land records information [33]. Thus at one level, they are shaping the rules of the game and at another level, appropriating the transparency agenda to actually clear out the obstacles from below.

The construction of any information archives involves selection and sorting of information and in this selection, key aspects may be left out due to technical and political exigencies. For example, the master plan for Chennai city did not map the category of squatter settlements on account of which there is a risk of some activities and spaces occupied by the poor being labelled as illegal (Pfeffer 2010). Decisions pertaining to the choice of categories used in master plans and digitized titles remains a black box. Similarly, cost considerations influenced the design of databases and the choice of technology for the digitized land titles' project (Raman and Bawa 2011; see also Chawla 2002 quoted in Benjamin 2005). All these factors affect the ways in which land related information is reconstituted.

Increasingly, decisions pertaining to urban planning and development are restricted to a select group of officials and bureaucracies within a particular department. The recent exercise to produce city maps using GIS technology under public private partnerships has further pushed the production of maps into the private realm and secrecy [34]. Producing GIS maps and digitizing land records is a lucrative market for technology companies because schemes have massive state funding. The creation of these maps also contributes towards the infrastructure of the e-governance companies who seek use this information to acquire other consultancy contracts. For example, the company involved in digitizing land titles in Bangalore has now moved onto digitizing survey maps. Further, they were lobbying the Revenue Department for introduction of e-governance in 18 districts of Karnataka as well other departments such as the Food and Civil Supplies (FCS) [35]. There is limited information about the role of private companies involved in the production of GIS maps or e-governance companies digitizing land records and their relationship with the State. While these lobbies are making demands for opening State information, there is little information on how / who shapes the terms of reference for the technical bids on these projects on e-governance. This remains an important question given the limited technical capabilities within the State. Not many technologists are willing to speak about these aspects openly.

Another example is the tight control over information relating to decisions on the implementation of mega-projects and urban renewal programmes within local governments (Raman 2010). In Bangalore, such information and knowledge is controlled by the triad of the Commissioner, Deputy Mayor, Mayor and the head of the special project cell [36] (Raman 2010). In theory, these projects are approved by the Council to justify transparency in implementation. In practice, the decision-making concerning such projects remains a question. Another example is the secrecy surrounding the decisions to de-notify land. Some of this land was earlier notified for other uses by planning and administrative agencies in a city centre ward of Bangalore. The de-notification process was effected through a parliamentary act which was passed without much debate. This meant that overnight, traders working in the city centre ward were declared illegal and those affected by such changes were taken by surprise (Raman 2008).

The above discussion demonstrates the opacity of the processes by which decisions concerning land use planning and urban development are made and how such information is produced. These decisions affect the material and legal practices surrounding the use and development of urban land and its control by different groups in the city. Contrary to the assumption that state initiatives for opening spatial information will contribute to information transparency and the de-centre power, these have actually resulted in further centralization of the production of information and power. In understanding the source of this opacity, it is useful to examine the questions of "where' and "how' the decision making process takes place with respect to collation, representation and classification of land-related information in maps, titles, master plans and other meta data, as well as the financing of digitization projects and their implementation. Decisions on urban land use and development, including the constitution of spatial information in the form of master plans and project documents, are discursively located in several institutions in the public and the private realm. A thorough analysis of the institutional arrangements for urban development is useful to understand this aspect.

The Domains of Spatial Information Production

A variety of state and non-state institutions and actors are involved in the production of urban spatial information in India. For example, in Chennai, over a period of three decades, the production of spatial information and decisions relating to it have been shifted out of the local governments to that of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), and subsequently, to the Tamil Nadu Urban Development Project Cell (TNUDP), and the Tamil Nadu Urban Infrastructure Financing Corporation (TUIFCO) [37] and the Tamil Nadu Power Finance Corporation (TPFC) (Benjamin and Bhuvaneswari 2006). The hybrid status of some of these organisations allows them to refuse to provide information on key decisions on grounds of privacy. This is an issue of serious concern, as the policies of these organisations are geared to generate finance from the capital markets, and private investors such as the IL&FS and infrastructure financing corporations (Benjamin and Bhuvaneswari 2006). The latter institutions are represented in the board of TUFICO. Another recent trend is the location of decision-making and production of spatial information in private companies and consultancy firms (Randeria 2011), which also complicates access to key information relating to urban land. More recently, credit rating agencies have a significant influence on decisions relating to investments on land and infrastructure (Swain 2011).

Discussions on OGD have focussed extensively on the performance of tools for facilitating transparency such as the RTI or issues associated with project implementation. The conflicts surrounding the information that is opened up or the process by which the information disclosed is generated has received less attention. There is a role for community informatics theory and practice to shed light on the latter aspects to challenge the hierarchising nature of governmental data practices and to counter the capture of the OGD project and transparency paradigm by powerful groups in a society to advance their interests.

4.0 Conclusion

This paper argues for situating the discussions on the open government data and transparency paradigm within the wider political economic context of information and land. It explored the outcomes of open government spatial information drawing on citizens' experience with retrieving information through the RTI act. The discussions in section 3.1 illustrated the differential outcomes of open spatial information and that these differences arise from a combination of factors including the political and economic positioning of citizens and the specific characteristics of land information. The difficulty of capturing accurate information pertaining to land claims over time poses a challenge to the construction of a perfect spatial information base by the State and therefore the quality of information opened up. Further, this paper showed that the visibility in itself is inadequate to protect the land claims of poor groups as this information is mobilised along with other resources including finance and muscle power in land transactions. Moreover, not all claims get recorded in various departments of the State and even if they are recorded, not all are accepted in law courts. The evictions and displacement for which such open information may be mobilized are not linked only to the simple issue of legal or illegal status of land, but also to how OGD is implicated in this politics of labelling some information as more authentic/legal over others. In addition, while there is a clarion call for spatial information transparency, the processes by which such open information are produced remains opaque as shown in 3.2. The position taken in this paper is not one of pro or contra OGD or the transparency initiative, but to underscore the need to situate the discussions on OGD and transparency in the context of the nature of information and the premium attached to it. In this light, it is critical to examine the multiple logics that drive the State's decision to open up information rather than assuming the intrinsic benefits of transparency.

Both the realities of opaque information production processes and transparency of outcomes constitute the two sides of a coin, shaped by the wider dynamics of contestations over urban land, and shaping forms of territorial development. Contestations over city spaces have accentuated in recent times with a policy emphasis towards promoting high-end corporate economies and large developers. Transparency serves as a useful rhetoric to shape the production of spatial information archives and its modes of circulation.

An argument for spatial information transparency without taking into account the wider political economy of information and land and specifically the ways in which information will be mobilised and the power of agents mobilizing it; it may, contrary to the intention of the OGD project, affect the land claims of relatively poor groups in society. To argue that the construction of legality or the working of the land market is outside the purview of OGD and the transparency project is to allow for the easy takeover of the paradigm by powerful interest groups in society. Discussions on OGD very rarely focus on the politics of the appropriation of the transparency paradigm. The excessive focus on the techno-managerial aspects to facilitate greater transparency or better implementation as Fergusson (1996) argues serves to depoliticize the substantial issues associated with the construction of the spatial information archive. A critical review of the OGD theory and practices is important in order to prevent the capture of the language of transparency and its use for outcomes quite contrary to the goal of accountability and fairness that many OGD advocates believe that they are working for.


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In addition to primary research, discussions in this paper draw on the findings of two published research projects namely, the Bhoomi and Nemmadi. The Bhoomi research was undertaken by a team of researchers including the author in the peri-urban and rural areas immediately outside the city boundaries in six districts between 2003 and 2005. Findings of this research were published as "Benjamin, Raman, 2007. The Nemmadi research was conducted along with Zainab Bawa in 2010-2011 in the rural districts immediately outside Bangalore. The author is grateful to members of the two teams whose deep insights and knowledge have helped in deepening her understanding of the politics of urban land and e-governance. However, the views expressed in this paper are those of the author.


[1] Open Government Data (OGD) relating to spatial information is defined in this paper as that information produced by the State and which is visible in the public domain for use in terms of securing information about territory to protect one’s claims or to benefit from land transactions.

[2] See Raman and Bawa 2011 for a detailed discussion on the institutional politics that underpin the rationale provided by policy makers for digitizing land records in Karnataka known as Record of Tenancy and Crops (RTC).

[3] See Benjamin 2007, for a detailed discussion on the role of multilateral institutions such as the USAID and the World Bank in shaping the rationale for digitizing RTC.

[4] See World Bank 1993, 2003, and 2004 reports titled ‘Housing: Enabling Markets to work; Pro-poor Development of Land titling and benefits to the poor; Regional study on Land Administration; and, Land markets, and Collateralised Lending; and

[5] Panchayats are at the lowest tier of local governance in India.

[6] The revenue department is one of the three departments under the State governments, which is in charge of recording land claims. The others include the Department of Survey and Land Registry.

[7] The federal structure in India is three-tiered with the Union or the Central Government occupying the highest rung followed by the State governments, and local governments right at the bottom.

[8] In addition to providing RTCs through the computerization process, Bhoomi also initially attempted to the digitize mutation certificate, which is a record of the changes in the land boundaries and ownership. The project of digitizing mutation certificates was dropped because of the high costs as well as the complex process involved in updating changes to land tenure (Gatty 2009:157).

[9] Five-year plans and the Annual plans published by the Government of India sets out the States policies and programmes and provides for funds allocation. This is critical because increasingly urban land policies, including decisions to collate information or to open it, are shaped through central government schemes.

[10] Based on interviews with land developers, Panchayat officials, and Dalit caste political activists in Markannam. The current price of the land in the town is between Rs. 3,00,000-5,00,000 per acre.

[11] Plotted development refers to a form of land development undertaken by the land owners--either their own or in a partnership between two to three developers. The developers prepare the layout plan, subdivide the land and sell it as residential plots.

[12] These include old survey books and personal diaries, which also gives an account of intergenerational claims on land. Prior to the introduction of the Village Administrative Officer in the Revenue Department, these records were maintained inter-generationally by the traditional village accountant.

[13] See Benjamin and Raman 2011, section 2.1 for a similar conflict on common land.

[14] For example, projects such as Bhoomi contributed to the reduction of the categories of recording the tenure or the forms in which land is held (Benjamin and Raman 2011b). During the transfer from paper to digital form, several errors crept in in terms of names and places areas, in the digitized version. However, affected claimants did not attempt to rectify these due to the high cost of transactions arising from bribes to senior bureaucrats, and travel cost associated with numerous visits to the government offices (see also Benjamin, Raman 2007; Raman and Bawa 2011).

[15] Raman (2010) on how the santhe land was shown in the survey map but over the years the practice of showing it in the records was given up. Further, studies on Nemmadi and Bhoomi suggest that in the translation of land tenure records from paper to digital form there was a reduction in the tenure forms.

[16] Research on land digitization programmes in India and other countries (Benjamin 2007; Mathiyalagan and Punita 2011; Mitchell 1996) and the internal audit reports of the regional Governments in India (Audit Report, Karnataka, 2007) have highlighted the issues of the inaccuracy and unreliability of information that is made public.

[17] See Ho 2001; Smith 1996; Haila 2002; Mitchell 1996; Benjamin and Raman 2011for the complexities of capturing land claims, which poses a challenge to the construction of perfect, unified information archive.

[18] Marakkanam residents have been returning Dalit candidates to offices in the Panchayat election since 1995 and during the time of my field work in 2011, the Dalit Viduthalai Siruthai a caste based mobilisation dominated the Panchayats.

[19] Gatty 2009:157 discusses why a majority of small landowners relied on the village accountant, a key field official of the revenue administration to record mutation or changes to their land tenure system even after the introduction of the Bhoomi programme.

[20] Corruption is used as an argument to curb the influence of field officials but the role of senior officials remains unchecked.

[21] See Benjamin 2005 pp.39-50 for the working of the real estate market and its connection to the Bhoomi programme. Also several recent scams brought to light the close connection between senior politicians, bureaucrats and the real estate and IT lobbies (see Benjamin and Raman 2011b).

[22] It is a number assigned to each land parcel by the Department of Land survey, which will help to identify its location and actual measurements.

[23] See Randeria 2011 for the process of land acquisition by a private company (ADANI group of companies) for setting up an SEZ park in Gujarat State in India, which illustrates the role of mafia groups in pressuring the land owners to part with the land.

[24] An example is the case of a large developer in the country who developed much of the land in Gurgaon in New Delhi. See also, De and Chowdhry 2011.

[25] See also Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Retail and Real estate, The Hindu dated February 10 2005 and ICICI Bank ADS among 24 FDI proposals cleared in Deccan Herald, February 17 2005.

[26] An example of this is the lobbying for the Bhoomi project by the head of an infrastructure company in Bangalore. In a private conversation with a retired senior official, it was revealed that the lobbying for the Bhoomi came from them as these projects are based on land-based financing. They were stonewalled with the problem of land acquisition. See also Benjamin 2007.

[27] The new bill enacted in 2011 provides for further and stricter clauses to counter opposition/resistance.

[28] See Raman 2010, where, irrespective of the legal status traders were forcibly removed from the territories.

[29] Interview with Member of the Monitoring Committee, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority on 11th November 2011 and ex-MP, South Chennai Constituency, dated March 2003.

[30] Interview with the Chief Town Planner and Secretary, CMDA, dated 2003-4.

[31] Raman 2010, PhD field notes, interview with the then director, SCE Consultants, Bangalore office on 23rd September 2004.

[32] See Benjamin 2008, 2009 for the role of BATF and Janagraha for their role in shaping urban land policies particularly Bhoomi and the implementation of the reform agenda particularly in the local government. A leading member of BATF and the founder-director of Janagraha are now lobbying under the banner of the India Urban Space Foundation (IUSF) for the implementation of a conclusive land title programme.

[33] The shaping occurs in several ways some more crude as in the examples of the developers and others controlling the production of plans in an apparently "participatory" manner.

[34] Interview with Abdul Razack, Professor of Planning, School of Planning, Chennai, dated 15th October 2011 revealed that due to availability of large funds, each department of the State is commissioning the production of- GIS maps controlled by private consultancies who are reluctant to share this information due to the possibility of generating further income.

[35] Interview with the manager of COMAT, Bangalore. Field notes of Raman and Bawa 2011, Nemmadi Programme.

[36] Field notes of Raman (2010): Interview with Deputy Mayor (2000-2002), Bangalore City Corporation dated 10th June 2004.

[37] The World Bank has had a significant influence in the institutional reorganization in Chennai.

The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441