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Hernando de Soto has called international attention to the lack of property rights in developing nations, resulting in the single greatest deterrent to economic development. But recognizing this isn’t enough. “De Soto’s approach to making change has had limited success so far,” remarks Barun Mitra, President of the Liberty Institute in New Delhi.
“De Soto has written books,” says Mitra, “spoken at lofty forums, advised heads of state, suggested ways of changing the law to recognize the property rights of the millions of poor. But this approach has invariably run into opposition by powerful sections of society who have so far benefited from the prevailing lack of clear titles.”
Frustrated by the lack of impact from academic conferences, Barun has decided that a real and practical demonstration of establishing property title among the vast population of rural farmers is the only way to prove the value of these ideas. Such proof will not only win over and empower the rural poor, but will captivate the interests of social and political leaders across the ideological spectrum.
BUILDING THE FOUNDATION
On a Sunday morning in January 2014, three hundred farmers came from miles around Sagai village in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Most of them left their homes at 6:30 AM walking, riding busses, and sharing rides on jeeps to gather in time for the noon meeting of the Action Research in Community Health & Development (ARCH) center based in Gujarat.
Farmers were returning questionnaires to help calculate their needs for solar powered irrigation systems: How deep the well? How high the elevation? How distant the field? What kind of crop? Previously, without title to their lands, such planning and investment would have been unthinkable. But land titles have been secured in recent years by the ARCH team: Trupti Parekh, Ambrish Mehta, and Rajesh Mishra.
Before ARCH, these farm families had been desperately poor and terribly abused. Life was at the lowest imaginable state of existence. Control of their lands had been taken by the British colonial administration for a nature preserve and, with Indian independence, authority was transferred to a national Forest Department. Centuries of traditional land use was swept aside by government officials.
“The people lived in squalor. They hovered around fires in the bitter cold of winter for lack of clothing, blankets, and shelter. They scrounged for roots to eat. Their huts were straw and demolished at the whim of Forestry officials,” explained Trupti on our four-hour journey over rudimentary mountain roads to Sagai from ARCH headquarters in Baroda.
“These people were constantly beaten by Forestry officials and the local police,” she continued. “They had no rights to use the land or the woods: no bamboo, no teak, no crops, no wildlife. They were treated as encroachers on their own land. Forestry officials would fine them, force them to do labor for the government, wreck their homes and fields, seize their livestock. They were treated as subhuman.”
Trupti (a lawyer) and Ambrish (a science graduate) and Rajesh, soon after completing their university studies, came to the region with socialist zeal, inspired by the writings of the late Jayprakash Narain in the late 1970’s. Narain admonished educated youth of the day to work at developing rural India. So these scholars gravitated to the ARCH health clinic founded by Anil Patel and his wife, both British educated physicians dedicated to rural service.
Their passion for the poor today is as strong as ever, but their ideals changed radically in favor of property rights and the market. They took the time to investigate what the farmers, themselves, wanted and needed.
In a strange twist of events, Trupti, Ambrish, and others at ARCH alienated many other NGO’s in a cause surrounding the famed Sardar Sarovan Dam project on the Narmada River. Instead of opposing dam construction, Trupti and Ambrish spent years meeting directly with the tribal villages.
The valley, destined to be engulfed by a new reservoir, offered poor land, a meager subsistence, and no formal title to lands. Earning a law degree to aid her efforts, Trupti and the ARCH team pushed back against the political/administrative establishment and won preferred compensation for the farmers on much superior terms, authorizing and implementing relocation to larger and more fertile lands with clear title.
The successes of ARCH lost them the support of the World Bank, Oxfam, and other international agencies, but won a stellar reputation among tribal populations. ARCH didn’t give in to pressure from international donors. The ARCH team believed that the new property rights approach was crucial to the villagers—and accommodated much needed water and electricity needs in the region as well.
Word spread and the villagers from Vandri and adjoining southern villages journeyed over the mountains to meet with Trupti, Ambrish, and Rajesh. Could they help win a humiliating battle with officials in the Forest Preserve?
The ARCH team organized villagers, advising them not to cower, not to give in to the authorities, as they had long been accustomed to doing. Instead, they should and could push back firmly, but peacefully and non-violently.
Confrontation came to a head in the early 1990’s when forest officials confiscated six buffalos belonging to the villagers. Led by Trupti, a hundred farm families gathered and marched to the government office where the buffalos were being held. Encamped in front of the building, she demanded that the officials prove the legality of taking the buffalos or return them.
Informed that the official in charge was away, Trupti declared that the official must reply by wireless before 4PM or it would be assumed there was no legal authority. The deadline passed and, with forestry subordinates afraid to resist the crowd, the buffalos were restored to their owners.
A few days later, Trupti and three of the villagers were arrested for robbery of public property and disturbing public order. A conviction could have meant up to 10 years imprisonment. After one night in jail, the authorities released them and Trupti began a fury of legal action. The court sided completely with Trupti and the villagers, acquitting them and declaring that the forestry officials had no case at all.
ARCH was key to a national awareness campaign for survival and dignity. The mobilization of hundreds of thousands of people across India underscored the importance of forest dwelling communities to political leaders in the country. This set in motion passage of the Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA), studiously constructed with input by the villagers, ARCH, and other organizations. The FRA gave families the right to own land that they tilled as of December 2005 and the right to use non-timber forest resources.
The first step of implementing the FRA was to insure a rule of law and the security of villagers from arbitrary action by the authorities. Labor and product could no longer be confiscated without legal resistance. Even in planning a road, the authorities had to obtain prior approval of the village assembly, Gram Sabha. The village assembly was empowered to assess claims of the families and communities, to map and document rights, and to forward findings to the authorities for a final decision.
The next step was to establish proof of the land title. Ambrish’s technical skills established a simple and sound method of surveying with hand held GPS devices, plotting coordinates on satellite maps by Google Earth. In the past six years they have trained village leaders to use the GPS and document land claims in 250 villages.
Barun Mitra’s Liberty Institute has joined the effort, lending support in the provision of GPS plotting devices, building the Right to Property web platform for processing information and generating reports. The website Righttoproperty.org was put up by Kenli Schoolland, Director of Development for ISIL. Together, ARCH and Liberty Institute have conducted training sessions in different states over the past couple years. The expense of this operation has come in at roughly $1 per title.
In the preliminary stage of certifying these titles, forestry officials have attempted to deny many claims and to reduce the acreage allocated by as much as 80%. Undeterred, ARCH is successfully reinstating the claims, with the support of satellite images. In a recent case, ARCH and a few local people successfully persuaded the High Court in Gujarat to order the government to review all 130,000 claims which had been rejected.
What has all of this meant to the villagers? It has transformed their lives. There is no food shortage now and government subsidies are no longer necessary to prevent widespread starvation. They have adequate food production, they are selling surpluses to other regions, and their incomes have risen dramatically. Food security at home has meant that homes are now able to send family members to work outside the village to earn cash income.
The villagers now have title to their land. Even though the FRA does not allow them to sell the land to people outside their community, they are secure in protecting their investment with fencing to protect against wildlife, with lofts to protect against water damage and rodents, and with brick double-wall construction (so much better than straw) to protect family and livestock against severe heat and cold of the seasons. With title, the law protects them from forced labor and the confiscation of produce and livestock.
They can now protect their bamboo stands from officials and marauders from distant villages. Insuring against a tragedy of the commons, green (young and premature) bamboo can be allowed to grow three or more years to a substantial size that earns a good price as construction material. Leaves from various forest plants are now protected so that they can earn cash for such articles as cigar wrappers, serving plates, and roofing materials. Incomes have risen dramatically and have been invested in farm equipment, seeds, fertilizers—and education.
Twenty years before only a handful of children in the whole village area went to school. Even for those who could go to a government school, it didn’t seem worthwhile since teachers often only showed up a few times a month to collect a salary. The future was bleak, indeed, for kids in such remote villages.
Now all families send their children to schools, both boys and girls. And most go to private schools because the government schools aren’t trusted to teach the kids properly. They might pay 10,000 rupees ($160) a year for education in local language. Some others prefer to spend as much as 14,000 rupees ($230) a year, for education in English medium. A growing number of families can now also afford to send their children for higher education in quality private schools in more distant locales, seeking professional courses such as nursing or computers, spending as much as 100,000 rupees ($1,600) a year.
Education brings dramatic change to the income potential of a farming family. Many of them get the skills to earn a much better living and return income to the family. One family reported that their daughter studied to be a nurse and plans to come back to live and serve in their village.
Not only does education help them to learn more about farming, but educated kids can now help their families in negotiations with buyers and sellers in the markets instead of relying on others. When there are health problems, they don’t have to hire outsiders to explain symptoms, diagnoses, and remedies. They even have enough income to pay one of their own to teach the littlest kids the basics of arithmetic and writing.
One farmer, Aarsi, informed the meeting that his father had been electrocuted by a broken power line. Previously, such an incident would have been dismissed by the authorities as unimportant. Now there is every reason to believe that they can legally seek compensation and accountability from the state electricity authority.
At the recent meeting in January, Trupti asked the people gathered, “Do the authorities treat you any differently now?” There was a widespread rumble of agreement. “When we go to their office now,” said one, “they ask us to sit with them, and they offer us water.”
Barun explained, “The offering of water is a normal sign of respect among equals. They were never treated as equals before. There has been a sea change in attitudes—not only among the authorities, but among these rural people as well.”
A SEA OF CHANGE
“From the initial 25-30 villages,” said Barun in a press release from the Liberty Institute, “largely in the Narmada district of Gujarat, covered under this initiative (GPS survey) in 2010-11, there has been a continuous increase in demand from villagers in other districts of Gujarat. Currently, nearly 200 villages are being covered under this initiative, and measured and documented over 40,000 individual plots, and a few hundred community rights claims.
“To meet the growing demand, with the help of friends, additional hand-held GPS devices are being procured. In some instances, satellite images from the National Remote Sensing Centre, in Hyderabad, are also being purchased, to augment the imagery available through Google, and other publicly accessible sources. Requests are coming in from other states too, where some of the grassroots NGOs are expressing their interest to learn about this initiative, and undertake similar work in their own areas.
“This is truly a people’s initiative, driven by demand from the grassroots, where the local people are directly participating in collecting the information, learning to use the GPS, in a transparent and accountable manner.
“Most importantly, this is an open platform for anyone in similar situation to join hands, and adopt this initiative to know, document and claim their own assets, and be empowered as free citizens of India.”
You can make a tax-deductible contribution to this initiative through ISIL:
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For more information, please contact:
Liberty Institute 4/8 Sahyadri, Plot 5, Sector 12, New Delhi – 110078. India. Email: info@LibertyInstitute.org.in, Tel: 011-28031309
Websites: www.InDefenceofLiberty.org | www.EmpoweringIndia.org | www.RighttoProperty.org
Action Research in Community Health (ARCH), Baroda, Email: email@example.com