Virendra Pratap Singh Rathod is a student of University of Petroleum and Energy Studies

I. Introduction

In an era where technology relentlessly reshapes societal structures, blockchain technology emerges as a beacon of potential, particularly in land registry systems. Conceptually, blockchain stands as a decentralized ledger, renowned for its robustness and resistance to fraudulent alterations. It operates on a peer-to-peer network, where each transaction is cryptographically recorded in a ‘block’, linked to a chain in a tamper-evident manner. This architectural integrity makes blockchain an attractive proposition for registry systems, potentially offering a solution to chronic challenges like record tampering, property fraud, and bureaucratic inefficiencies.

In the Indian context, the notion of said blockchain integration assumes particular prominence. This is because land registration in India, steeped in legacy processes, is plagued by issues of transparency and efficiency. Incidents of land fraud and title disputes are not uncommon, often mired in legal complexities and administrative labyrinths. For instance, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported over 7,000 cases of property disputes in 2022 alone. The figures are much higher when taking into account the performance of forgery, fraud and cheating in relation to land ownership and possession.

It is thus, manifestly evident that change is urgently needed and blockchain may be the awaited panacea. This blog, therefore, concerns itself with an exploration of blockchain’s true potential in land registries, moving beyond esoteric jargon and superficial reckonings whilst seeking a deep venture into the realm where law, technology, and social equity converge.

II. Blockchain and Land Registries: The Making of a Symbiosis

Traditionally, land registries have been managed through paper records or centralized digital databases which are highly susceptible to manipulation, errors, and fraud. Blockchain can introduce a paradigm shift – a decentralized approach where each transaction (be it a sale, inheritance, or mortgage) is recorded as a block. This block, once entered into the chain, becomes an indelible part of the digital ledger. Each block is linked to the previous one, creating a secure and verifiable record of registration and ownership history. This structure ensures that all records are permanent and maintained with great transparency. In circumstances of a data breach in one block, the entire chain proactively responds, sealing the other blocks and notifying the administrator, leading to a more reliable and efficacious threat detection mechanism as opposed to paper or more traditional digital repositories where a single breach can compromise the entire data set at once.

This presents several viable benefits. Firstly, the aforementioned transparency inherent in blockchain technology ensures that each transaction is visible and verifiable by all parties involved, thereby significantly reducing the opacity that leads to disputes and fraud. Secondly, the enduring nature of blockchain records enhances security, as once a transaction is recorded, it cannot be altered retroactively; hacking a block will entail an isolation of the other blocks, keeping them secure. This feature is particularly pivotal in a country like India, where land record tampering has been a persistent issue.

Furthermore, blockchain can streamline and expedite the documentation process. In a system often mired in bureaucratic delays, the ability to instantly update and access land records can dramatically reduce transaction times and associated costs. The World Bank’s 2022 report on doing business highlights the prolonged procedures plaguing property registration in India, with an average of 58 days to complete a registration. Blockchain can significantly reduce this duration offering further runaway benefits associated with enhanced investment and capita; reduction.

III. Dividends and Concerns

A. Strengthening property and digital rights

In the context of property rights, blockchain introduces a new dimension of ‘digital ownership,’ where the right to a property is inextricably linked with its digital representation on the blockchain. This, in turn, reinforces the legal principle of immutability in property rights, making ownership not just a physical reality but also a digital certainty. For the Indian populace, this represents a metamorphosis, from a system rife with uncertainties to one underpinned by digital definitiveness.

Therefore, it concomitantly augurs a transformative approach to data autonomy by bestowing individuals with unprecedented control over their data, as they become integral participants in the data verification process rather than mere subjects of it. This shift aligns with evolving global narratives on data rights, positioning individuals as active custodians of their digital identities rather than passive possessors. In the present context, it would provide landowners with full access to their ownership data, significantly deterring pilferers from forcibly taking wrongful possession of such properties.

B. Ethical and privacy considerations

While the fruits of blockchain are diverse and many, an analysis of its vitality warrants a holistic examination; wherein, it is concurrently pertinent to also evaluate the potential harms it may yield, for every technology brings with it, unintended fallacies vulnerable to external manipulation and misuse.

From an ethics and equity perspective, the risk of perpetuating existing inequalities may emerge as a pivotal concern. As blockchain technology requires a certain degree of technological infrastructure and understanding, there is a potential risk of exacerbating the digital divide, particularly in rural and less-developed regions of India. This could lead to a scenario where the benefits of blockchain are disproportionately accessible to the urban and technologically literate, leaving behind a significant portion of the population.

Another consideration revolves around the permanence of data on the blockchain. While this feature underpins the reliability of the system, it also raises questions about the right to be forgotten, a key aspect of privacy rights. In instances where land ownership is transferred or disputed, the indelible nature of blockchain may conflict with an individual’s right to have their data history modified or erased.

Moreover, the decentralization of data storage in blockchain systems may introduce complexities in regulatory oversight. Traditional models of regulation and governance may not be directly applicable to decentralized systems, posing a challenge in ensuring legal and ethical compliance.

The intersection of blockchain with land registries, therefore, is not merely a technological augmentation but a transitioning of ethical and privacy frameworks governing property and digital data. It necessitates an appraisal of existing laws to discern and remedy gaps whilst forging refinements to accommodate the unique nature of blockchain, ensuring that as it enhances lucidity and security, it does not compromise privacy rights or further inequalities.

IV. Current Legal Framework Surrounding Land Registration and Blockchain Use

The Registration Act of 1908, which serves as the bedrock of property registration in India, mandates the physical presence of parties and witnesses at the time of said registration, along with the submission of tangible documents. This requirement stands in stark contrast to the decentralized and digital nature of blockchain, where agreements are recorded remotely and electronically. The gap is not merely technological but conceptual, as the Act’s provisions do not encompass the idea of a decentralized and unchanging ledger of property undertakings.

Turning to the newly enacted Bharatiya Sakshya Adhiniyam (BSA), which despite its provisions on electronic evidence, does not specifically cater to blockchain technology’s unique attributes, such as the creation of cryptographic and encoded records of real-estate dealings. This discordance raises concerns about the legal admissibility of blockchain entries as evidence in land disputes.

Lastly, in the realm of digital data use, the 2023 Digital Personal Data Protection Act (DPDPA), while imposing stringent obligations on data fiduciaries and processors, omits to explicitly address blockchain-derived and blockchain-stored personal data usage and accessibility. This omission creates a complex scenario for blockchain-based land registries, where individual land ownership records, an inherently personal form of data, are distributed across remote cloud servers.

These legislative voids and limitations highlight the need for specific provisions and guidelines that recognize and regulate such registry systems. It calls for a nuanced approach, where existing laws are not only amended but new legislative instruments, policies and institutions are created to standardise, monitor and invigilate blockchain utilisation and data operation pertaining to said land registries.

V. Remedial Suggestions

To successfully counteract the lacunae presented, a comprehensive and unified approach is crucial. The suggestions presented hereinafter are not intended to be conclusive or all-encompassing; their purpose is merely to foster recognition and discussion, thereby laying the groundwork for the emergence of effective solutions.

Potential recommendations include amending the Registration Act specifically recognizing blockchain incorporation in land registries, encompassing the criteria for their validity and enforceability alongside conditions under which blockchain records can substitute traditional land registration documents. A similar amendment could be made in the BSA acknowledging the blockchain ledger as a legitimate digital document and setting criteria for its admissibility and weight as credible evidence.

Moreover, the development of a blockchain land registry protocol could be a feasible solution that establishes a legal protocol detailing the technical, ethical, equity and operational standards for blockchain registry systems, including data privacy standards in line with the DPDPA along with guidelines for blockchain network maintenance, skill and monetary assistance to rural and marginalised communities in tandem with sustainable dispute resolution mechanisms for disagreements arising therefrom.

Further, said protocol could be coupled with a specialized task force comprising legal experts, technologists, and land officials. This body would be responsible for overseeing the implementation, ensuring adherence to protocol specifications, and updating policies in response to technological advancements and challenges.

To insulate against execution-related risks, it could also be optimal to implement a pilot program in select regions, focusing on areas with high incidences of land fraud, with the program designed to test practical aspects corresponding to user interface, accessibility, and integration with existing land registry infrastructure.

Ultimately, blockchain is a technology with the potential to portend a more robust, convenient and harmonious future for property ownership in India; how we go about its realisation lies entirely upon us.

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