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3 Challenges Bringing Blockchain Land Tenure Records to India

By Guest Writer on February 23, 2023

blockchain land registry india

Over the last year I’ve been lucky enough to work with an FTL Pilot team that is piloting the use of Blockchain to increase transparency in Land Records in India. In 2021, the team set out with big aims but after one year of experimenting and learning, we have decided to bring the pilot to an early close.

We’ve done this because we have learned that the state governments we looked to work with are focussing on other priorities to reform and update their land records, with some focussing on validating the underlying records and others looking at incremental updates to their current systems, rather than taking such a large step with the blockchain.

Ultimately, the Frontier Technologies programme is a learning programme, and so the learnings that we make and generate are what’s most important, both when we successfully implement frontier tech in new settings and, often more interestingly and importantly, when we aren’t successful in implementing it. Given that, I wanted to share my three takeaways from working and reflecting on this pilot over the last year.

Tech is normally the smallest part of the problem

This won’t be a surprise to anyone that has thought about technologies, especially those looking to have an impact, and even more so in low and middle income countries. It’s impossible to count the number of solutions that are believed to be silver bullets to critical problems, and instead fail because of reasons that have nothing to do with the technology that they are trying to implement.

While our pilot had blockchain as a part of the solution, that’s not really what it was about. It was about public records that are centuries old, remained unchanged and unadapted since colonial authorities. It was about working with governments at the state level, and trying to implement a technology solution with them. It was about public communications, and much more.

Specifically, we have learnt a lot about the human element of working with government. By working closely with the individuals within state governments, we have better understood their needs, and how they changed. At times something like the blockchain can feel like a bit of an awkward fit with government. To implement it you’d be asking them to make a big change shifting everything to a blockchain ledger and to start relying on something that is still pretty frontier around the world. Government is really set up to limit risk, to make gradual change, and to probably not take such a big bet.

We started the project focussing on building relationships with local government, understanding their needs and explaining how the proposed solution could help, but across our year of work, the government team and their priorities changed, adapting to a world that doesn’t stand still either.

A few State governments in India have tried implementing blockchain for property registrations and land records but faced system complexity and a lack of verified legacy records to use as a single source of truth. The challenges that the other governments faced led to the initial interest and traction with the remaining governments slowing. We as a team could have focussed more on the more understanding government needs, having a greater number of check-ins, placing the reverification of stakeholder priorities at the centre of what we were doing, and getting ahead of any changes.

If you ever get too focused on the tech, and not the human or system in front of you, you really run the risk of the solution hitting a big roadblock.

Blockchain ≠ Bitcoin Cryptocurrency

Blockchain is much more than crypto. We’ve known this and have been hearing more about this over the last six months, as we saw crypto currencies become increasingly volatile. However, crypto currencies, and Bitcoin in particular, are still the most well known parts of Web3 though, and any innovations in the space need to recognise that and work with that in mind. We’ve learnt that to acknowledge and plan for the fact that we are going to have to start any blockchain pilot with a more negative public perception.

Last week I saw a survey that found that just 8% of Americans have a positive view of cryptocurrencies (I wish I could find more global numbers!) and it reminded me of other stories of how brands have to try to tackle negative perceptions. At Facebook for example, employees started to find that they faced a “brand tax” following a number of privacy scandals, including, most notably, Cambridge Analytica harvesting user data in 2018.

This “tax” has meant that any products associated with the Facebook brand start off being negatively perceived and distrusted. Ever since, they have had to work extra hard to build trust in any new offerings, starting from square minus one, and it feels that the same is true with the blockchain. Blockchain ≠ Bitcoin, but it definitely does in the mind of a lot of first-time users and it probably hurt us a little bit as we tried to build and maintain stakeholder buy-in.

When working in the blockchain space, we learned that it’s essential to be able to clearly and simply explain what the system is, how it will benefit the user, and to be really conscious that new stakeholders are likely to start with a very healthy dose of scepticism. Those sceptics may be in the government, not necessarily convinced by another new silver bullet, or it may well be their constituents, who the government themselves have to convince. Land records are so fundamental that building trust, knowing how to tackle the initial distrust, and knowing how to explain how useful a solution might be, is crucial.

Constantly evaluate your place in a crowded space.

Land records in India are seeing huge innovation and change at the moment, the pilot team were trying to solve problems that have existed for decades and centuries, and they weren’t the only ones.

Working with our pilot team, I’ve learned how India is largely an agrarian economy, with around half of its population is working in agriculture and allied activities. This has meant that land has been, and still is, the most valuable asset owned by the public. With the growing population, the demand for land is increasing although the supply is limited. This makes land ownership even more valuable as an asset and the interest in updating and securing land records is huge.

There seem to be a thousand different solutions being trialled to bring a dated records system into the 21st century, from the the underlying task of digitising land records, to teams introducing biometric authentication for property registration, integrating wider data on loans and mortgages, using drones to survey rural land and update land records, and implementing Unified Land Management Information Systems, just to name a few.

Some of the technologies are going to be revolutionary, and some, as is normal, are going to be redundant. In such a crowded space, having the right technology at the right time, for the right solution is key, but most importantly, being humble enough to take a step back is just as important. Most of the time, building off what is already getting traction rather than competing with it is the best way forward.

Reflecting on the last year, I wonder if our solution was the right one at the wrong time. It answered some of the fundamental challenges of the current land records system (creating a single truth, creating a record of any changes) but maybe isn’t the right answer to the most pressing challenges (verifying the records in the first place, upgrading and digitising the outdated underlying systems) and in a world of limited time and money in government it might not be the step for today.

In future I’ll be looking to question our understanding of the ecosystem and its needs even more and looking to keep the question of “are we really the right solution” in the front of my mind.

In the end, I’m going to be watching the Land Record space in India with a lot of interest over the next few years… a sentence I never thought that I’d say a year ago! The Frontier Technologies Programme is doing a little more than just looking on with interest though, with our Web3 Symposium that took place last month, and deep dives on the blockchain are planned for early next year.

Written by Nick Moore and originally published as My three takeaways from a year working on Blockchain in India

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