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What about roti, kapda aur zameen?

Will this be the year that India finally begins to deal decisively with rural landlessness, an issue that has dogged the country's development almost since independence ? India has the largest concentration of rural poor on the planet and landlessness here is the best predictor of rural poverty - better even than either caste or illiteracy. But, finally, a series of events may be coming together that could at last lead to a decisive commitment to deal with the land issue, both at the state and Union levels.

On the one hand, we see critical challenges that test rural society today, such as record prices for basic foodstuffs, and recognition by the central government that several of the nation's districts are now under the influence of 'left wing extremism' (LWE), with land-based grievances a key source of the extremists' appeal.

And, on the other hand, we see that a number of states have started making renewed progress on this front, using promising new approaches to solving the problem of rural landlessness. Two of the most important (often overlapping) of these are the allocation of small house-andgarden plots in ownership to the landless poor, and the use of community-based resource persons to assist revenue officers in ensuring that poor families receive both patta (formal title) and secure possession of land previously promised to them, but never securely allocated.

Research shows that house-and-garden plots can bring about a positive difference in many a setting. Among the programmes that have been dramatically successful at a large scale are the small 'auxiliary' plots and 'dacha' plots allocated to Russian workers, which today occupy only about 6 per cent of arable land, but yield over 50 per cent of agricultural production in Russia.

Small plots could also be previously found in a variety of settings in rural India. A plot of onetenth or one-fifteenth of an acre can, for example, provide nearly all of a family's vegetable, fruit and dairy needs. Local sale of small surpluses from the plot can yield cash income equivalent to what an adult worker would earn as a labourer in a year. Ownership of even a small plot of land also gives the family status and dignity within the community, bargaining power for their wage labour, increased access to credit and access to a variety of government programmes not available to families that lack an address.

Most states either have enough public land to provide house-and-garden sites to virtually all their landless rural families, or can afford to acquire sufficient amounts of private land from voluntary sellers at prevailing market prices.
It is probably not surprising then that the Eleventh Five-Year Plan includes a strong call for distribution of such plots. And programmes to provide completely landless families with this essential tool they can use to literally 'grow' themselves out of extreme poverty are now underway in a number of states.

A second important new approach to giving secure access to land to the rural poor is a 'home grown' approach that was born in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, and could serve as a model, even in LWE-affected regions. In Odisha, the government has supported a programme in which village youth from poor families are trained to serve as 'community resource persons' (CRPs) to play a key role in helping below-poverty-line families obtain patta to land. In AP, the government has trained and funded paralegals to help belowpoverty-line families obtain possession and ownership of land previously promised by the government, but never provided.

A word of caution is in order, however. First, there is the need to make sure that the wife's name is also on the patta. Second, the need to ensure that house-and-garden plots are large enough to allow families to plant a garden. This is crucially different from a traditional 'housing' programme, in that many of the most important livelihood benefits depend on distribution of a parcel of land which extends at least two or three thousand square feet beyond the footprint of the house, so as to allow the family to engage in significant activities. Extensive research indicates that one-tenth of an acre (10 cents) should be a target, and 6 cents (2, 600 square feet) should be an absolute minimum.

Third, where the government allocates new land (rather than regularising title to land that families already occupy), it should be allocated in clusters to at least 10 families since this allows the government to provide common facilities. Fourth, where the government will acquire private land at market price, it will be important to monitor that land prices are not artificially inflated. Fifth, it will also be important to facilitate convergence with related government programmes, such as ones offering improved inputs, credit and technical advice.

Decisive government support - both state and central - will be essential if the present momentum is to grow and problems such as those just listed are to be avoided. But the combination of formidable challenges described at the beginning, together with the now-certain knowledge that there are workable solutions to India's rural land problem, should provide the best chance yet seen for pro-poor tenure reforms to succeed.

The writer is founder, Landesa

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