In India, a title to land can literally be a passport to security. Everything from bank credit to legal proof of caste, income, residence, eligibility for government housing, admission to schools and colleges – and even bail for a jailed relative or friend – depends on holding land titles. In this report from the eastern Indian state of Odisha (formerly Orissa) Manipadma Jena of the Women’s Feature Service in New Delhi, describes how a piece of paper can change family life dramatically among the very poor.
It takes a walk of 20 minutes through fields of bleached paddy stubs left from the last harvest to reach Kharibandh hamlet, home to tribal people in Odisha. As we approach the village, something unusual catches the eye: a row of bramble-barricaded plots, green with fruiting vegetable plants, near a long row of mud and thatched huts.
In July 2010, all the families in Kharibandh received land titles to plots of one-tenth of an acre under a state homestead program for landless rural families, a project managed by an Indian nongovernmental organization, the Rural Development Institute. Under Odisha land laws, women can be either sole or joint owners of a plot. They now crowd local government offices, asking to join the project.
The women of Kharibandh started working quickly. Sauri Sabar, 53, said: “Because the houses stood on unclaimed private land, we women, who had formed self-help groups, decided to use our entire plots to grow vegetables.”
Even though her family is large – she has a son, his wife and their two small children living with her – Sauri said there was no need to buy vegetables from the market. The garden now produces tomatoes, brinjal (a small eggplant), indigenous beans, papaya, green chilies and root crops. During gaps between the vegetable harvests, highly nutritious leafy greens are always there to fall back on. Not a square centimeter on Sauri’s plot remains unused. Even the coconut trees are circled by potato plants to help the family tide over the lean seasons.
Three eggs go two ways
These stories abound. Everywhere are signs that the nutrition levels in the hamlet have risen. Champa Sabar, 30, owns a rooster and three hens, which ensures a daily tally of three eggs. Her sons eat half of them and half are hatched and raised for sale. “A three-month-old-bird sells for 300 rupees [about $6], and I use that money for my older son’s school expenses,” she said. Most of the young children in the hamlet now go to school.
The women have not rested on their land titles. With technical guidance from the Rural Development Institute, they are turning organic household waste into compost. Two pedal-powered pumps provided by the institute pipe water from a pond. The costs of such projects are small; the results are huge.
“Our homestead development program,” said Sanjoy Patnaik, the state director of the Rural Development Institute, “demonstrates that even small plots of land can enhance a family’s food security, improve nutrition and health, increase access to government extension services and programs, augment existing income and result in better social capital.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.