Digital State, Analog Parts: A Leaky Database in Lahore

Authors: Tariq Rahman*, University of California, Irvine
Topics: Cultural Geography, Urban Geography, Asia
Keywords: land, digitization, financialization, bureaucracy, e-governance, South Asia/Pakistan
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/7/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 53
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 2016, the Government of Punjab (GoP) launched an effort to digitize land records in the city of Lahore. Extending a multimillion-dollar effort by the World Bank to digitize rural land records, the project viewed modern property rights as essential to urban empowerment. Traditionally functioning as inherited wealth, land in Lahore is a palimpsest of colonial property regimes, undocumented transfers, and generations of dispute and subdivision, issues that are magnified by the city’s density. By establishing clear ownership boundaries, the GoP project aimed to make land liquid, or an asset that could be leveraged for profit.

The GoP project centered on eliminating patwaris, or traditional land revenue officials. Patwaris maintain paper records of landownership as old as the 19th century. In the eyes of the GoP, patwaris played a traditional, but ultimately obstructive human role. Under the digitization campaign, millions of pages of records were scanned, centuries-old maps were converted into GIS data, and new computerized land record centers were opened across Lahore.

However, the work of patwaris remains fundamental to the digital database. Establishing the rightful ownership of land continues to require visiting homes, consulting neighbors, and tracing kinship ties, labor that depends upon the local and specialized knowledge of patwaris. In this paper, I follow the path of landed property from inherited wealth to liquid asset in Lahore. If the GoP’s digital database continues to rely upon its analog counterparts, then how is land ownership changing in the interplay between digitization and much longer-standing social and material practices?

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