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There is growing recognition that India cannot solve many of its critical development challenges if it doesn’t help the 20 million landless rural families and the millions more who lack legal rights to the land they till.
This recognition has sparked a flurry of promising state-level programs and a historic new national bill that aims to eliminate rural landlessness and land insecurity. These new programs are now recognized for their potential to dramatically reduce landlessness, hunger, poverty, and land insecurity in rural India and hold significant potential in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar, to name a few.
The draft National Rural Homestead Bill, 2013, now awaits formal approval and adoption. The proposed Bill envisions a democratic and market-friendly land reform program that would provide India’s 20 million landless families with tennis court-sized plots of land. Such a program would require less than one-half of one percent of the roughly 400 million acres of India’s present arable land to end landlessness.
This national program builds off experience with successful homestead land allocation in the states of West Bengal (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Karnataka and Odisha.
Research shows that these micro plots of about one-tenth an acre can provide significant economic and nutritional benefits to landless families by providing them sufficient space to grow food, build a house, keep small livestock, and develop other livelihood options. Not to mention the other tangible benefits: security, a stake in the future, opportunity, incentive, access to credit, and a host of government poverty alleviation programs.
Such land can be sourced through a combination of purchase on the private market and allocation of existing government land.
Already more than 250,000 families have benefited through the state programs. These families now have the incentive and opportunity to climb out of extreme poverty. And, just as importantly, they are building a positive relationship with their government.
Another promising state-level program has been implemented in Andhra Pradesh (funded by the Omidyar Network). The state uses low-cost legal aid workers to deliver landownership to millions of rural families. These paralegals fan out across the countryside ensuring that families have all of the documents they need to prove and protect their ownership rights, and making sure that all of those documents are correct and valid)—at a cost of about $3 per family. This allows Andra Pradesh to efficiently address a sleeping giant of a problem: the fact that 20 percent of land titles in the state have some irregularity that makes owners insecure—which we know dampens investment and growth.
Lastly, there has been renewed focus across India on the issue of women’s land rights. State governments can maximize the impact of existing land programs by including women's names on land titles. Increasing evidence points to a strong association between women's land ownership and myriad desired gains, including increased nutrition and schooling for children, and reduced domestic violence. West Bengal now ensures women’s names are included and come first on “pattas” (land titles). And Odisha is working with Landesa to address the needs of widows, abandoned women, and other women-headed households, many of whom are landless and vulnerable.
India’s national program on the empowerment of adolescent girls is even incorporating land rights into its curriculum to help ensure girls know their rights and can access their family land to support themselves and their families.
Getting to the root cause of poverty is difficult, but in the case of India, land rights can provide poor rural Indians with the opportunity to improve their lives and spark inclusive and sustainable economic growth.
This post originally appeared on USAID’s Land Tenure and Property Rights Portal.
Ashok Sircar is India Program Director of Landesa, a global organization that partners with governments to help secure land rights of the poor. Follow us @Landesa_Global
Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights. An initiative of Landesa, the Center for Women’s Land Rights champions the untapped potential of women and girls to transform their communities. With secure rights to land, women and girls can improve food security, education, health, and economic development for themselves and their families.