The Case for Land Reform in India

A farmer works in a cabbage field in Tripura, India. (Jayanta Dey / Courtesy Reuters)

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

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