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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Our land records modernization initiative has a major gap to plug
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Our land records modernization initiative has a major gap to plug

Online registration of documents enabled remotely would help us realize key goals of Digital India

Office desk cluttered with paperwork, post-it-notes and files.Premium
Office desk cluttered with paperwork, post-it-notes and files.

In recent years, India has taken proactive steps to digitize land records under the Digital India Land Records Modernisation Programme (DILRMP) to create an integrated land management system. One such step is the Bhu-Aadhaar or the Unique Land Parcel Identification Number (ULPIN) project which seeks to assign a 14-digit alpha-numeric number to land parcels in India based on the geo-coordinates of the land parcel.

Speaking at a recent event on the implementation of Bhu-Aadhaar, Union minister Giriraj Singh said that Bhu-Aadhaar will bring transparency in land dealings and mitigate our huge pendency of court cases involving land disputes. Despite these initiatives, an important legislative reform missing in the land record modernization efforts of the government is a revamp of the process of document registration, which continues to be governed by a colonial era law enacted in 1908.

In India, most property documents must compulsorily be registered under the Registration Act, 1908, failing which they cannot be admitted in court (in case of a dispute) as evidence. Despite being a crucial formality for legal documentation, the registration process in India still relies on the outdated physical mode of registration. In most states, the registration process still requires parties to a transaction to appear physically at the sub-registrar’s office, submit physical copies of documents, use physical fingerprints and photographs, and obtain physical registration certificates. Consequently, registering documents at the sub-registrar’s office is a time-consuming process, where it often takes two days or more to just appear and submit the documents. Often it requires parties to travel long distances to reach the nearest registration office.

In light of technological advancements, including legal recognition of electronic records, electronic signatures, biometric authentication, video-conferencing facilities, and online payments, our physical mode of registration under the Registration Act is highly inefficient in today’s digital economy.

The country needs to modernize the registration process to facilitate the ease of doing business and of living by leveraging technological advancements. Today, where most commercial and real-estate documents can be executed electronically, physical registration makes the entire registration process archaic and slow. Some state governments have undertaken initiatives to amend specific provisions of the Registration Act to introduce some form of an electronic registration process. However, there is no uniform approach across the country, and in many cases where such electronic registration is allowed, parties may still be required to physically present themselves along with the necessary documents.

In 2013, while the government sought to amend the Registration Act to allow the digitization of certain processes, these amendments were never enacted. Since digitization of the registration process is a key part of the DILRMP, we need to review the Registration Act to introduce and establish standardized remote online registration practices and ensure its adoption throughout the country. This exercise should include amendments to allow online submission of documents and remote online appearance of parties and witnesses; we must introduce a provision for the electronic verification of parties, which could include biometric authentication modes and live photo captures, and also for online exchanges of queries/comments between parties and the registrar, apart from allowing registrars to issue electronic registration certificates and maintain a digital backup of such records.

Since registration is a subject on which the Constitution also empowers state governments to make state-specific amendments, the central Act must establish minimum standards for remote online registration to ensure that registration throughout India is undertaken in a safe and secure manner. This will entail introducing a new provision setting out standards for identity authentication techniques, security and storage, and a format for electronic records. Establishing this baseline framework will also help standardize data and processes across registration offices, which would in turn facilitate the creation of an integrated land registry for the country. To realize the full benefit of an online registration system, these amendments should be supplemented by other legislative interventions, such as to enable remote notarization and clarification on stamping of electronic instruments.

Considering the digital divide in India, the government should chalk out a transition plan to implement such reforms aimed at shifting over from physical to online registration. Taking into account the extent of digitization in a state, this will involve setting out a cut-off date for state governments to ensure that registration offices have adequate infrastructure to support remote online registration. Till such time, facilities for physical registration should not be abandoned.

Registration of documents is a quintessential legal formality. Modernizing this process will be a big step towards presence-less, paper-less services to realize the vision of Digital India.

Shehnaz Ahmed & Swarna Sengupta are, respectively, the fintech lead and research fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

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Published: 23 Apr 2023, 11:02 PM IST
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