Computerisation of Land Records

The Computerisation of Land Records project was initiated in 1992 with assistance from BITS Sweden and UNDP at the behest of the Royal Government of Bhutan to computerise the national cadastral land records. By the end of 1993 a database and land transfer system was developed and went into operation. In 1996 a continuation to the computerisation project by a term of three years was granted by Sida.

In 1999 the last three years phase of the computerisation and decentralisation plan together with a program for digital archiving of the land records was granted from Sida. With effect from April 2000, Survey of Bhutan was reorganised to the Department of Survey and Land Records (DSLR). Swedesurvey has been the implementing consultant throughout the project period advising the client on organisational-, management-, system development- and technical issues.

From measuring cans and oxen to modern cadastre: "An evolution of the Bhutanese cadastre"

By Mr Dorji Tshering, Head of Cadastral Information Division, Department of Survey and Land Records (DSLR). Project Director, DSLR-Swedesurvey Cadastral Project (1994 -2002).

1. Introduction

The origin of the term 'cadastre' is debatable, and has been defined in many ways –and today there are as many definitions of the term cadastre as there are experts. However, cadastre has taken on a much wider meaning today to include such aspects as land register, land tax, land registration, cadastral survey, etc. An acceptable definition of modern cadastre could perhaps be simplified as:

'Methodically arranged public inventory of data about properties depicting - legal rights, size, value, nature, etc and complemented by large scale maps of parcels with unique parcel identifier'

Further, cadastre can classified into three broad groups depending upon the purpose:

    • concerns only with taxation
    • legality of ownership and precise survey
    • legal, fiscal, community based information base, spatial planning, valuation, general land administration tool, etc and maps need to be on a geodetic

This paper will attempt to relate how the Bhutanese cadastre evolved over the last century from one form of cadastre to the next, and will step through the various stages of transformations that it has seen over the years. The paper will not delve into the legal and administrative issues on the processes of land conveyance but be confined to the content, quality and use of the data. 

In this context five major milestones segment the historical trajectory of the Bhutanese land recording system:

  • Marthram Chem 1919
  • Ashi Tashi Thram 1950-57 (Trashigang)
  • AcreThram 1964
  • New Thram 1986
  • Computerized Thram 1993

The earliest semblance to organised documentation of the land record for the country goes back to the 17th century, when the God King Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel instituted the Marthram Chem – a written inventory of landholdings in the country.

The Marthram Chem exist in various forms such as books, scrolls and loose sheets and is basically a document containing information on all the landholdings in a certain administrative division. These documents are conspicuous by the red stamp that authenticated the record – thus the name Marthram – Red Seal.

The data registered in the Martham was very comprehensive and practical for the purpose for which it was conceived. Totally devoid of the knowledge about the international systems of measurement, the size of a land holding was indicated by the amount of seeds 'soen' that could be sown broadcast in a given area. The standard gauge for seeds was a container called 'dre' and the area was quantified in terms of 'soendre'. The names of the parcels, description of the boundaries and or count of terraces amply provided the identification and locational address of the parcels. This proved to be very effective in defining the extent of land holding and also provided the logical foundation for customary ownership.

In terms of unit of measurement used today, 20 sondres are approximately equal to an acre. From our observations it can be seen that the margin of error could go up to10 to 15 percent depending upon who is doing the sowing, and also on the type of terrain, etc.

The most significant piece of data that was recorded was the quantity of produce from each individual parcel. This formed the basis for assessment of land tax. To the authorities this piece of information was by far the most vital as their basic interest was centred upon tax collection. Though the quality of the data as an accurate base for tax assessment is questionable it was a very practical approach given the absence of alternate know how. This was a fiscal 'cadastre' in every sense.

Despite the fact that the switch from 'soendres' to the FPS unit of 'acre' was made more than three decades ago, you will find that most landowners in the rural west still refer to area of land by their original preferred unit of quantification. You can still buy rice in units of 'dre' from the Sunday market and land is still sold in units of 'soendres'.

The major shortcomings of this record wsa that it had no indexing mechanism and thus is very difficult to search for information. Given the format of the register it was practically impossible to update.

Between 1950 and 1957 an exercise was started in Trashigang by Ashi Tashi to revise the old records (marthram chem). All the records of landholding were converted to 'langdos' as the unit of area. 

A 'langdo' is defined as the area that can be ploughed by a pair of oxen in a day and our observations today give us the equation of "3 langdos of chhuzhing or 4 langdos of kamzhing" to an "acre".

The 'Langdo' is still very much alive in the eastern part of the country today. 

The Ashi Tashi Thram was also an attempt to improve the land taxation system and was not very concerned with the legality of ownership. Therefore this too was a fiscal cadastre in all essence.

The government made a major decision in the early 1964 to do away with the 'Soendre' and 'Langdo'. This initiative was largely taken in order to reform the land taxation system by converting the land records into a more realistic and tangible form for tax assessment. The taxes payable in kind till then were to be levied in cash. 

The chain survey was carried out to provide a more tangible base for tax assessment. This involved considerable physical work in very adverse and hostile terrain. Each and every parcel was identified and its area systematically entered in the Thram in units of 'acres'. While the exercise was thorough in the sense that all taxable parcels were recorded it was not comprehensive. No maps were made and no measurements of any form were recorded other the area.

While this technique of survey was reasonably accurate in the flatter valleys, it was prone to error when it came to irregular boundaries, rough, sloping and thickly vegetated parcels. Often the technology proved futile in the thickly overgrown subtropical tseri's. However, the quality of the data during this survey was compromised more by the fact that landowners were able to influence the surveyors rather than the shortcomings of the methodology itself. 
The most important outcome of this exercise was in giving the Thram a new look. The format of the data took on a very definitive form as it introduced the 'Thram Number' – the unique identifier (with some exceptions) for a land holding. All the other data fields such as land name, land use, area, tax, etc. were recorded in a tabular form. It was the first land register of the country. 

This Thram though compiled by the Ministry of Finance for basically fiscal intentions has now become the legal Thram with the enactment of the Land Act in 1979. Most Dzongkhags currently hold this Thram as the legal base for land title pending the compilation of the new ones based on the cadastral survey.

5. THRAM SAR (New Thram)
It was not very long before the inaccuracy in the Acre Thram became a national concern. In 1980 the government decided to call for a fresh set of cadastral survey this time using a more modern method of surveying and mapping. The plane table survey was introduced. The survey involves using self-reducing alidades for measurement of distances and parcels boundaries. A well-distributed network of control points connected to the national geodetic frame provides the necessary base geographic reference for the survey. 

This survey was started from Paro in 1980 and the coverage of the whole country was achieved in 1996 with Ha being the last Dzongkhag.

The cadastral survey was carried out on either of the two scales –1:5000 and 1:2500 depending on the size and concentration of land parcels in the Dzongkhags under survey. The 1:5000 sheet cover an area of 2km X 3 km and the 1:2500 covers an area of 1km x 1.5km. All the plots are numbered uniquely within the sheet, and the sheets are labeled following a standard index that has been developed for the country. And areas of parcels are computed in acres. A lot of other cultural and topographic information is also depicted in the map. 

The format of the New Thram is identical to the Acre Thram with one addition. A direct map reference of the plot is entered in the register. The cadastral map on its own merit has become indispensable in constraining encroachments, resolving boundary disputes, relocating lost boundaries, expropriation of land, and greatly enhancing the security of land title. 

The relative accuracy of the measurements should be within the limit of 0 .65m and 1.25m for 1:2500 and 1:5000m respectively. 

So far the New Thram has been compiled for only 5 Dzongkhags and the rest is expected to soon follow.

The major drawback of this new Thram is that all the records are in the analogue form and thus suffers from the inherent problems associated with it. The increasing backlog of transactions also became a big concern

6. Computerized THRAM
Despite the enhancement in accuracy of the land records data achieved via the plane table survey, the management of the data was still very slow and arduous. Volumes of Thrams had to be handled every day, and miniscule parcels located on the maps, eventually wearing away the documents. Therefore, there was a clear need to safeguard the documents as well as to make the information searches more efficient by automating the processes involved.

Thus a computerization initiative was taken up in 1993. Through this initiative the land registers were computerized and the cadastral maps digitized. A land registration interface was also developed to automate the land registration process and further a browser interface was developed which integrated the map and thram data for viewing purposes. Today for those districts that have been computerized, sharing and accessing data has been immensely simplified and the risk of destroying original maps and records avoided. Tax computations, generation of statistical information, etc were simplified. 

Today we have at least 80 % of the country's cadastre data in the digital form. And in a couple of years we will have acquired the full coverage of the country.

With the implementation of the computerized thram some very significant benefits both direct and implicit have been realized such as:

  • Improve security of ownership
  • Reduce land litigation
  • Improve land conveyance
  • Accurate basis of land taxation
  • Improve storage & handling of Records
  • Improved mapping 

    7. The Future - Multipurpose Cadastre
    The computerization of land records was initially conceived as a dedicated system for land registration. However, even as we strive to complete the digitalization of all land records data and the creation of new Thram, our vision is directed towards the expansion of our system into a multipurpose environment. Our ultimate goal is to be able to derive the optimal benefit from the data that has been collected for over more than two decades. We are aware that the scope of utility is only limited by our imagination. 

    The multipurpose cadastre is a concept, which is very much in practice in the developed countries. It takes the land registration system beyond its dedicated application into the realm of non-traditional use and users. It believes in sharing and integrating data with other data sets and sources. 

    The Bhutanese land register integrated with the cadastral maps provide information on owner, parcel boundaries, villages, houses, names of places, landuse, communication, irrigation and information on other utilities. And most of all the scale is large enough to be used for most spatial based applications. 

    Some of the immediate applications could be with regard to the following:

  • Environmental – assisting the forest department in monitoring and controlling encroachments into forest or government land.
  • Physical planning - expropriation for different purposes, utilities planning, etc
  • Basis for statistical planning – all forms of statistics on land holdings, landuse, etc
  • Land use Planning - land use maps, statistics
  • Socio-economic studies –The land parcel data linked with productivity indicators and census data can be used to generate a host of reports for planners. & decision makers.
  • Overlay and analysis