The most powerful predictor of poverty in India is surprising. It isn't caste. And it isn't illiteracy. It is landlessness. More than 20 million poor rural families across India own no land, and millions more lack legal rights to the land they work and live on. Landlessness contributes to many of the social ills associated with poverty: malnutrition, illiteracy, conflict, child marriage, and women's disenfranchisement. It thus casts a shadow over the prospects of both individual families and the nation.

So who are the landless? For the most part, India's rural landless are day laborers and tenant farmers. Demographically, the landless population spans ethnic groups, age, and geographic location. The rural landless work for a variety of employers, from individual landlords to large corporate farms, and usually have no way to escape grinding poverty. Neither do their children: rootless families often migrate with the seasons, keeping their children out of school and in the fields to supplement family income.

A second landless group, farmers who tend and live on small plots of land that they do not officially own, is no better off. Studies show that there are tens of millions such farmers who lack legal ownership of their plots. Many of India's tribal communities, for example, have worked on the same farmland for decades but lack a secure title. Accordingly, many of them are hesitant to make long-term investments in their land. Costly projects, such as planting trees or building a well, a greenhouse, or a permanent residence, are unthinkable because these farmers cannot be sure they will be around to reap the benefits. Such farmers are doubly challenged. Without a legal title, they often cannot obtain government credit or enroll in poverty alleviation or agricultural extension programs -- state initiatives that are meant to help them.

A variety of studies capture some of the potential benefits of secure land rights, such as a 60 percent increase in agricultural production and a 150 percent increase in family income. The impact on women is particularly dramatic. A study in Kerala, India, found that when women have legal control over land they are seven times less likely to experience domestic violence.

The link between land and conflict, although not as intuitive as the connection to poverty, is also significant. In 2009, India's National Crime Records Bureau determined that 12 percent of all murders in the country were related to land disputes, most of which stemmed from ambiguous land titles. The drive for land has fueled Maoist violence as well. Insurgents have kidnapped government workers and attacked government troops demanding land rights for the poor.

Finally, land issues are a serious constraint on India's economic growth. Poor land laws and large swaths of land under clouded ownership distort the land market. Investors are, for good reason, reluctant to buy land of uncertain provenance. This clouded ownership severely restricts the availability of land prime for investment and development. In Andra Pradesh, for example, 20 percent of land parcels have clouded ownership. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, ambiguous land ownership and laws cut an estimated 1.3 percent off India's yearly GDP growth.

The problems associated with landlessness have been known for some time. After India became independent in 1947, land reform was at the top of the agenda. Most states, at the national government's request, limited the size of individual farms and planned to distribute land to the poor. Poorly written and designed laws and programs (some of which called for providing each landless family with full size farms) and opposition from large landowners conspired against these plans and most were quietly abandoned. This unfortunate outcome convinced a generation of policymakers that there was no affordable, politically feasible way to help the millions of rural Indian families without land rights. Today, however, government officials increasingly recognize that landlessness is intertwined with a host of other development problems. Policymakers now understand that they will not make headway on those issues unless they address landlessness and land rights first. As India's minister of rural development, Jairam Ramesh, said in a 2011 speech, "at the core of the development issue lies the issue of land."

Thus, state and national officials, in partnership with international nongovernmental organizations, have begun to develop successful, politically feasible, financially affordable, and market-friendly programs that are transforming anti-landlessness and poverty alleviation efforts. Three of the most promising initiatives involve micro-plots, "barefoot lawyers," and improved women's land rights.

Over the last five years, a handful of Indian states have provided more than 200,000 families with micro-plots: tennis-court-sized plots of land. Last month, in the state of West Bengal alone, more than 10,000 landless rural families gained rights to their own little slice of India. These plots provide families sufficient space to grow food, build a house, keep small livestock, and earn other income. Other, less tangible, benefits include economic security and independence, incentive to invest, and access to credit.

Already, hundreds of thousands of families are growing their own food, sending their children to school, accessing government services to improve their land, and farming more sustainably. Research has found that these small plots can even help rural laborers negotiate better wages, as they are no longer dependent upon their employer for a place to live. Furthermore, the financial impact of the food produced on the small plots is equivalent to adding one wage earner to the household. On their climb out of extreme poverty, these people have also forged a positive relationship with their government and a stake in it -- no small achievement in a developing country. The micro-plots program is remarkably scalable. Providing micro-plots to all of India's rural landless families would require less than .5 percent of the country's total agricultural land, at minimal cost to the government.

Another promising program is unique to the states Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. The governments of both have trained armies of so-called barefoot lawyers -- legal aid and community resource workers who fan out across the countryside and raise legal awareness, identify poor families who are entitled to legal land ownership, and aid local Revenue Department officials in issuing land titles. Through this program, helping one poor family resolve its land issue costs the state only two dollars. Barefoot lawyers have already helped six million families confirm their legal rights, spurring regional investment and economic growth.

A final innovation is including women's names on land titles and making women and girls more aware of their rights to inherit land. There is a strong correlation between women's land ownership and better child nutrition, higher school enrollment rates (especially among girls), and reduced domestic violence. The state of West Bengal has been a leader in this effort. Two years ago, recognizing that widows were often chased off their land by greedy relatives or neighbors, the state government decreed that women's names would come first on pattas -- the government documents used in the micro-plot program. Recent changes in national inheritance laws, meanwhile, have also bolstered women's right to inherit land.

As the Indian experience shows, governments, too often written off or sidelined in development efforts, can be valuable partners. With increased pressure for agricultural land worldwide and growing concern over food security, it is vitally important that NGOs such as Landesa, which I head, partner with governments to support, further implement, and expand the promising, innovative solutions that India is pioneering. Micro-plots, barefoot lawyers, and improved women's land rights can address existing poverty and prevent future poverty, within India and beyond. Rooting out poverty is difficult, but in the case of India, at least, addressing landlessness has already improved the lives of millions and has sparked inclusive and sustainable economic growth.

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  • TIM HANSTAD is CEO of Landesa, an international organization that partners with governments to help secure land rights for the poor.
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