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A little land can make a big difference

When distributed broadly, secure land tenure becomes a fundamental building block for the development of sustainable, prosperous and peaceful societies. With more than two lakh poor landless families having become landowners in Andhra Pradesh, the innovative Community Resource Person model has become a model for land distribution programs in many Indian states.

While the post-liberal era has marked a clear shift in the nature of the economy, India remains primarily an agrarian country. About 58 percent of the nation’s population still depends on agriculture and related services for their livelihood. Given the scenario, the issue of land access to the poor is a key hurdle in the vision of a truly prosperous nation, and has been so since India gained independence.

Microplots after one year

Having inherited a feudal, agrarian system, India was quick to adopt wide ranging land reforms that primarily focused on abolition of intermediaries; land ceilings and redistribution of ceiling surplus land among landless and semi-landless families; and abolition or regulation of tenancy. But despite 60 years of land reforms, India continues to be plagued by high rates of landlessness and marginalisation of landholdings. Nearly 63 percent of the agriculture-dependent population own small holdings of less than one hectare, with large parcels of 10 hectares of land or more in the hands of less than two percent. The absolute landless and the nearly landless (those owning up to 0.2 hectares of land) account for as much as 43 percent of total peasant households. Further

research indicates that inequalities have only increased with the wealthiest 10 percent of the population monopolising more land now than they did in 1951. Women and the so-called backward castes are relegated even further to the fringes. Though women in India contribute most of the labour in agriculture, only a miniscule seven percent have any legal control on agricultural land. The lack of legal rights makes women more open to exploitation. It also limits their opportunities as they lack access to institutional credit facilities.

Though women in India contribute most of the labour in agriculture, only a miniscule seven percent have any legal control on agricultural land. The lack of legal rights makes women more open to exploitation and limits their opportunities

The Rural Development Institute (RDI) champions the cause of securing land rights to the poor communities. Its seminal work stems from the conviction that sustainable ownership of land is often the first and the most certain step out of debilitating poverty. Land ownership means giving a family access to reliable income and shelter, improved nutrition, and perhaps most importantly, a life of dignity which landlessness more often than not, denies to them.

RDI conducts field research to understand relevant policy and programme constraints to determine where the potential bottlenecks to the poor gaining land rights may be. These research findings form the basis of practical and detailed recommendations for policy, legislative, and programme changes to the government. Given the deep-seated nature of the challenges India faces, (RDI) believes that the state needs to lead all conversations and action on land reforms. Neither RDI nor any other agency can do so, at least at scale. Therefore, RDI works in close partnerships with the government. Currently, RDI is operational in four states, namely West Bengal, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.

RDI’s current land rights work in India

Homestead Plots

Research done by RDI has demonstrated that even one-tenth of an acre can provide significant benefits to landless families by providing them sufficient space to grow food, build a house, keep animals, etc. RDI advocates for government to allot homestead plots to the 17 million landless rural families in the country.

Legal Awareness

In addition to the 17 million rural landless families, there are at least another 40 million families in India that have been denied legal rights to the land they have been living on for generations. If the latter group were to become aware of their rights and were provided some knowhow on how to claim these rights, land ownership among the poor could increase substantially. RDI helps train community organizers in land related legislation, who then help make poor families aware of their rights, equipping them with the tools necessary to secure legal rights to their land. This protects such families from eviction, and also allows them access to credit and government services, improves their incentives to invest and leverage land as a real resource. The scope for using such approaches in collaboration with the government is substantial. RDI is active with these approaches in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.

Farm Land Leasing

Since the 1960’s, farm land leasing has been largely banned in India, even though informal and unrecorded tenancy is quite widespread. Research clearly shows that tenancy restrictions negatively impact agricultural efficiency and equity. Adopting more reasonable regulations for farm land leasing could greatly improve farm land efficiency, while providing greater access to land for many poor families.

Women’s Right to Land

Over the years, RDI has found that land ownership in the hand of women tends to have an extraordinary ripple effect on the overall economic and social health of a community. When family nutrition and health improve, children are more likely to get an education and stay in school longer, and women are less likely to be victims of domestic violence. Advancing women’s land rights is an uphill struggle, but one that must be taken up in India and elsewhere.


In rural India, an estimated 15 million families are both poor and landless. Scores of millions more lack secure legal rights to the land they currently occupy. Traditional poverty alleviation efforts will largely bypass these families – unless the families obtain legal rights to land. With land as a foundation, the rural poor are better able to use the building blocks of education, healthcare, clean water, nutrition and access to credit to bootstrap themselves out of extreme poverty.

Previous attempts to promote development through broadening land ownership using traditional sized farms produced mixed results in part because there wasn’t enough land available or enough money in the government’s budget.

In partnership with Landesa, national and state governments in India have developed another path towards the same goal: micro-plots. These house and garden plots, which may be as small as tennis courts, can be effective anti-poverty tools. These plots allow families to produce most of the fruits and vegetables they need; also, sell excess produce, providing a small income to supplement their earnings as wage laborers. This extra income enables parents to pull their children out of the fields and place them in schools. Micro-plots also reduce malnutrition and boost health. Also, they are small enough.

Homestead plots or micro plots are being promoted in three States – Karnataka, West Bengal and Odisha in collaboration with the State governments. With this initiative more than 430,000 families are now landowners.

Paralegals bring Legal Aid to women in Andhra Pradesh

Investing in a woman’s land rights creates an extraordinary ripple effect that spreads to her family, village, and beyond. However, in much of the world, while women help shoulder the burden of food production—women produce nearly half of the food in the developing world—they often don’t have secure rights to the land they farm. Although they till the fields, they are often barred from inheriting or owning those fields. This puts them at risk for losing that land if they lose their husband, father, or brother because of illness, violence, or migration. Losing the land often means losing their source of food, income, and shelter.

Known as the “rice bowl of India,” Andhra Pradesh is one of India’s poorest states. Almost half the population lives in poverty and almost half the children of Andhra Pradesh are malnourished. Fourteen percent of rural households in the state are completely without land. Often these families stay with relatives, live on their employer’s land, or squat on government or other vacant land.

Shakti’s Story

Strengthening rights for women and girls . . .

Shakti beams with pride as she holds her patta – the title to her land. Before she became a landowner, she was among the poorest of the poor, a landless laborer earning only $1 a day and – struggling to provide even one meal a day for her family. In her rural village in the Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh, she had few options. She worked as a seasonal agricultural laborer, when work was available. When it wasn’t, she worked as a stone crusher, a physically exhausting and dangerous job. She owned only one sari and could only afford to feed her children rice gruel. When Shakti attained secure land rights, all of that changed.

In partnership with the Andhra Pradesh government and the World Bank, RDI designed a land purchase program that works like microlending. Qualifying small self-help groups of the poorest villagers – mainly women – are eligible to receive government grants to finance purchases of land available on the market. Shakti and other landless women in her village applied collectively for a loan to buy a plot of land. With assistance from local paralegals, the women negotiated with sellers and split the land parcels among themselves.

Today, Shakti has new status in her village and in her home. She has control over the income from the land, and can now provide three meals a day with vital micro-nutrients for her children. Even better, Shakti can now afford to send her children to school and give them a brighter future of opportunity.

“Namma bhoomi,” says Shakti, pointing to the fields behind her. Her daughter, now literate and studying English translates. “This is our land.” For Shakti and her family, a little land went a very long way.

Woman, trained as paralegal, facilitates sangha meeting
Woman, trained as paralegal, facilitates sangha meeting

Many of these women live on government-owned land or land whose ownership is unclear. Often, their families have lived in such a precarious situation for generations. These women can’t securely invest in their plots to improve their harvests because they don’t own the land and can be evicted at any moment.

The Indian government is working hard to rectify this – creating channels through which these women can apply to gain ownership of the government land they currently farm. Unfortunately, many of these women lack the information or legal guidance to process their application.

An ambitious new campaign aims to bring land rights, stability, security, and opportunity to 43,000 poor and landless women and their families in the State of Andhra Pradesh, India. This new program, created through a partnership between Andhra Pradesh Mahila Samatha Society, RDI-India, and Landesa aims to bridge this gap.

The program, which began in November 2010, trains paralegals to identify and help poor landless women. In this new program, paralegals help landless woman through the application process to gain ownership title to the land on which they currently reside. The paralegals walk her through each step required to receive full ownership rights to their parcel. So far, 244 paralegals have completed their training and begun work in their villages. By March 2012, RDI’s goal is to train 430 paralegals, who will work in 4300 villages to help identify and support 43,000 women through the patta (title) application process.

Gains till now

Secure land rights has changed the situation fundamentally. Investment on land has increased the harvest, thus improving the family’s nutrition and health. Also, these women can now afford to send their children to school. When distributed broadly, secure land tenure becomes a fundamental building block for the development of sustainable, prosperous and peaceful societies. As many as 280,000 formerly poor landless families have become landowners in Andhra Pradesh.

The innovative Community Resource Person model, first developed in Andhra Pradesh, has provided quick and low-cost implementation of legal aid work and has become a model for land distribution programs in other Indian states.

T Haque
E-mail: drt.haque@gmail.com

Gregory Rake
Rural Development Institute (RDI)
2nd floor, #53 Lodhi Estate,
New Delhi, India,110003
E-mail: gregoryr@rdiland.org
Website: www.rdi-india.org