BlogLand Rights

Jul 31 2013

Helping the Invisible

More than 17 million rural families—children, women and men—across India are invisible.

They are invisible to the government and to society because they do not own any land.

They do not appear in any government records and that means they cannot access a wide variety of existing and new government services.

In fact, they cannot even access the government services created specifically to help the poor. Government programs such as free boarding school, government work cards (that guarantee 100 days of paid work each year), and agricultural extension services, and funds for the homeless to build a home – all of them are out of reach to the landless because they more often than not require proof of residence .

By simply working to provide these poorest of the poor with legal title to a small plot of land, Landesa and its partners are demonstrating important results on the ground and helping the battle against extreme poverty and hunger.

When farmers gain legal title and rights over the land they farm, they can begin making long term investments in their land that allow them to increase their harvest, boost family nutrition and income, and pay school fees. This is, in large part, what attracts governments to partner with us and why we believe that partnering with both governments and non-governmental partners is critical to addressing generational poverty. But there is another, equally important benefit of our work – families gain an important human right.

I was reminded of this when I came across a fascinating paper by Elisabeth Wickeri and Anil Kalhan from the Institute for Human Rights and Business following a presentation by Salil Tripathi, Director of Policy, during a panel hosted by the Asian Law Center on Myanmar he shared with our founder, Roy Prosterman at the University of Washington School of Law.

Widkeri and Kalhan explain, “Access to land is important for development and poverty reduction, but also often necessary for access to numerous economic, social and cultural rights, and as a gateway for many civil and political rights.”

When I read the paper I was immediately taken back to my visit, last year, to West Bengal to see Landesa’s micro-plot project.

Through this project, more than 200,000 formerly landless and destitute families across 11 Indian states have gained legal rights over a plot of land about the size of a tennis court. On this land they can build a small home and grow a garden. Several families told me  that for the first time they have enough food to eat, their children are attending school, and they also felt pride. Yes, these people remain very poor, but the title now gives them a chance and most have embraced the opportunity.

Once they gained a land title, they also told me – they can participate in their communities on an entirely different level. They can speak at village meetings, they can access and use water resources, and I saw that many were building more permanent homes because they did not live in fear of eviction.

Unfortunately, as Widkeri and Kalhan’s paper also documents, the international human rights framework has been slow to codify the right to land.

Ironically, in addition to our work, the global land rush is also helping to change this.

As Widkeri and Kalhan also point out, “Forced evictions, particularly those carried out through violence or coercion, tend to intensify violations of interrelated rights, including the right to water and the right to health, and can also lead to increased social inequality, social conflict, and segregation. Forced evictions from land, whether in rural or urban areas, therefore tie land access to a number of underlying human rights.”

It is my hope that in some small but powerful way, our project and others like ours will help the international community recognize the fundamental importance of land rights as both a cross-cutting poverty alleviation tool and a human right.  By ensuring that land rights are included in the post-2015 Millennium Development goals and become a focus of other important and timely initiatives supported by governments, foundations and the private sector, we can not only improve the lives of millions of people today, but influence the human rights framework of the future.

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