How Land Reform in India Decreases Poverty


Many people would be surprised to discover that the biggest predictor of poverty in India is not the caste system or illiteracy, but rather landlessness. Landlessness contributes to social ills related to poverty as well as to conflict and creates a constraint on economic growth for the country as a whole.

India’s landless are a diverse group in terms of demographics, although they do share the characteristic of hardly having any means to escape poverty. There are 20 million poor rural families that own no land at all; they often migrate with the seasons and therefore have a hard time keeping their children in school. Millions more have no legal rights to the land they work and live on, which places them in a constant state of uncertainty and prevents them from making investments in their land that could improve their living conditions.

Although previous land reform attempts have failed, current lawmakers have recently been working to find affordable and politically tenable ways to implement land reform in India to solve some of these problems. It seems that political leaders are finally recognizing that none of India’s other problems can be addressed until the land issue is resolved because it is so deeply ingrained and entangled with other development issues.

Several initiatives, which follow different approaches, have been launched in recent years to help India’s landless. One such approach involves giving poor families “micro-plots” of land, which are about the size of a tennis court. Several states have distributed these plots to over 200,000 families, providing them with enough space to build a house, plant crops, and keep small livestock. It is estimated that the impact of allowing families to grow their own food is equivalent to adding another wage earner to the household. This helps encourage families to send their children to school rather sending them to work. This program has incredible potential for expansion because providing all landless Indian families with a micro-plot would require only 0.5% of the country’s agricultural land area.

Another approach that has been employed in two states so far is the deployment of “barefoot lawyers,” who go out into the countryside to identify families who are entitled to legal rights to their lands and help local Revenue Departments to issue land titles. The low cost of this program makes it extremely attractive (it costs only $2 to help a family resolve its land issues) and it has already helped six million families.

A third approach responds to the fact that widows have often been chased of their land by neighbors or relatives and it involves raising awareness about women’s land ownership and inheritance rights. National land inheritance laws have been changed to bolster women’s rights to inherit land. Women’s names are now listed first on Indian land titles. Research shows that there is a strong relationship between women’s land ownership and improvements in child nutrition and school enrollment as well as decreases in domestic violence.

These efforts show that, although many poverty-related problems seem to be intractable, there are ways to make tremendous progress. Land reform in India has already helped millions of people, and will continue to help others as these innovative programs expand. India’s success is an answer that other countries can follow.

– Caroline Poterio Martinez

Source: Foreign Affairs

Photo: Flickr


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