It takes a walk of 20 minutes through fields of bleached paddy stubs left from the last harvest to reach Kharibandh hamlet in India. Comprising 13 Sabar tribal households, it lies in the Khalikote block of Odisha’s Ganjam district. As we approach the village, something unusual catches the eye: A row of bramble-barricaded plots, green with fruiting vegetable plants, lying at a right angle to a long row of mud and thatched huts that are built three feet above the ground level, each having a common wall with its neighbour, typical of tribal settlements in Odisha.
In July 2010, all the families in Kharibandh received land titles to plots measuring 4,356 square feet, or one-tenth of an acre, of homestead land under ‘Vasundhara’, an Odisha government scheme for landless rural families that had been facilitated by the Bhubaneswar-based non-profit, Rural Development Institute (RDI).
The NGO works to ensure land rights for the rural poor in Odisha and elsewhere in India. This also meant that the local women got access to the land, because under Odisha’s reformed land laws, women are either sole or joint owners of the plots, depending on their marital status.
So the women got to work. Explains Sauri Sabar, 53, "Because the houses stood on unclaimed private land, we women, who had formed self-help groups, once we got our land titles, decided to use our entire plots to grow vegetables."
This has now made a significant difference to the quality of their families’ meals. Take Sauri’s example. Even though her family is large - she has a son, his wife and their two small children living with her - there is still no need to buy vegetables from the market throughout the year.
While the garden now produces tomato, brinjal, indigenous beans, papaya, green chillies and tubers, even in the gap periods between the vegetable harvests, there are always the highly nutritious leafy greens to fall back on. In fact, not a square centimetre on Sauri’s plot remains unutilised - even the coconut trees are encircled by potato plants to help the family tide over the lean seasons.
Down the dirt lane lives Rabibari Sabar, 51, with her son who works as a teacher in a neighbouring village. There is no other member in this family, so after their daily requirements are met, Rabibari is able to sell Rs. 150 worth of produce in the market every month. The extra money comes in handy to buy fish occasionally from a vendor who cycles into the village thrice a week. The vendor now has assured sales in Kharibandh as the families are able to use the money that once went into buying vegetables to get some fresh fish, which comes to them straight from Chilka Lake, only a short distance away.
Everywhere there are signs that the nutrition levels in this hamlet have risen. Champa Sabar, 30, owns a rooster and three hens, which ensures a daily tally of three eggs. She does not sell any. Her two sons, one of them a toddler, all of 11 months, gets to eat about half of the 90 eggs, or so, she gets from her hens every month. The rest are hatched. Says Champa, "A three-month-old bird sells for Rs, 300 and I use that money for my older son’s school expenses."
Her neighbour Puniya Sabar, 45, bought a milch cow and a calf just last year, and since his own children are grown up, he sells the cow’s milk to others in the community and earns up to Rs. 30 every day.
Such long-term planning and investment may not appear unusual anymore, but just one generation earlier no one in the Sabar community had even seen a school. Today, most of the young children in the hamlet are getting an education in the same area where they, just a couple of years back, had worked on farms alongside their parents.
According to the local revenue officer, Binaya Kumar Das - who incidentally was closely involved in settling Kharibandh’s land titles - one of the major reasons for children attending school is that migration from this hamlet is now down to a trickle because people don’t have to go in search of a livelihood.
The women here, however, have not rested on their land titles. With technical guidance from RDI, they are transitioning to producing organic vermi-compost, mainly using organic household waste like vegetable peels. The two pedal pumps donated by RDI are judiciously shared among them to transfer water through pipes from a nearby pond to their fields.
"The villagers thought that the soil here was saline and that nothing would grow on it, so these plots, which now support lush vegetables, were used as paddy threshing yards before the people got their land titles," says Nakula Sarbar, one of RDI’s local field assistants, who facilitated the land settlement for the villagers.
He points out that vegetable farming has made all the difference to nutritional levels. Reiterates Sanjoy Patnaik, State Director of RDI Odisha, "Our homestead development programme has demonstrated that even small plots of land can enhance a family’s food security, improve nutrition and health, increase access to government extension services and programmes, augment existing income and result in better social capital."
In fact, such positive links between inclusive land rights for women and better nutrition within families here prompts Patnaik to observe that the entire Indian paradigm of nutrition should shift to production-based interventions to be more effective.
The world over, development practitioners, academics and policy-makers are realising that when women have assets in their own name - especially secure rights to land - the consequent increase in their status and power within the community and within the household translates into better nutrition for the entire family.
There is also a growing realisation among land rights experts that the reason for malnourishment among children in India is not just because of empty purses, but specifically women’s empty purses.
The State of Food and Agriculture in the World, 2010-2011, brought out by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), categorically states: "It is estimated that if women were to be given the same access to productive resources as men, thereby increasing levels of production, the number of hungry people in the world would be reduced by 12-17 per cent."
Realising this, RDI and the district administration have joined forces to set up - at the tehsildar’s office building itself - a Women Land Rights Facilitation Centre. Puspanjali Behera, facilitator and revenue clerk at the centre explains how it functions: "It is a single-window to identify homestead-less women, assist them in applying for land, and ensure that their cases are given priority."
Passport to security
In India, a land title can literally be a passport to security. Everything, from collateral for bank credit, legal proof of caste, income, residence, eligibility for government housing schemes, admission to schools and colleges, and even for applying for bail for an imprisoned relative or friend, is dependent on it. This is why, according to Behera, tehsil offices in the area today are crowded with women seeking redressal of their land rights.