An initiative aimed to pull tribal communities out of their nutritional poverty in Yeotmal district, Maharashtra has demonstrated how allotment of tiny homestead lands can transform lives

Will ten cents of land for each of the landless and near-landless households transform the poverty scenario in rural India? The soon-to-be-tabled National Right to Homestead Bill proposes to seek legislative approval for providing no less than 4,360 sq feet plot (10 cents) to each of the 31 per cent landless and 30 per cent near-landless households who own on an average mere 215 sq ft piece of land. Once enacted, the ambiguity regarding the size of homestead allotment prevailing across the States will be made uniform with an aim to make landlessness ‘history’ in the country.

While ten cents of land could be a fortune in urban areas, it has the potential to transform rural life in more ways than one. Studies have shown that a rural household, in addition to enhancing its social status, can derive multiple benefits from ten cents of land entitlement. In addition to a place of residence, a house-cum-garden plot can improve nutrition through home-grown grains and vegetables with some surplus to make a small income. In addition to ensuring household food security, it can help reduce food subsidy and cut down on rural-urban migration as well.

Over the course of the last three years, an initiative in tribal-dominated Yeotmal district in Maharashtra has demonstrated what homestead land can do to transform nutiritional insecurity amongst women and children. “Within the constraints of average landholdings, small plots of 200 sq ft have been used to grow as many as 10-12 crops during summer and winter months,” says Tarak Kate. Though the number varied across seasons, as many as 1,500 such home-gardens were raised during the last monsoon in 33 villages of Ghatanjee block of the district.

With support from the Union Department of Science & Technology and Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, the initiative aimed to pull the Gond, Kolam and Banjara communities out of their nutritional poverty. Given their anaemic status, it was clear that despite being bestowed with reasonable quality of land, the poor tribals were consuming far less than the prescribed 2,400 calories a day to stay afloat the official poverty line. Given the abject poverty in which the tribals survive, the nutirional imperative of establishing home-gardens cannot be over-emphasised.

After a year of regular consumption of green vegetables, over 70 per cent women and adolescent girls reported an increase in their haemoglobin count. “Not only did home-garden help improve households’ dietary intake by four kg vegetables a week, it helped in monthly savings of no less than Rs. 2,500 worth of vegetables,” says Mr . Kate, under whose leadership the project was convceived and implemented by Wardha-based Dharamitra. While some families have been able to sell the surplus harvest, few households have adopted it as a gainful activity.

This small initiative has demonstrated what land rights activists have been voicing for quite some time — that a plot of 0.38 acre can help meet 90 per cent food and nutritional requirements of a household. “If scientifically managed under congenial conditions, a plot of 0.25 acre will not only suffice to meet household nutritional needs but can generate a small surplus for the family to erase its below poverty line tag,” asserts Mr. Kate. However, the quality of land and access to water holds the key for getting most out of a homestead land.

Despite space contraints, the villagers could grow as many as 12 different crops like bitter gourd, ridge gourd, bottle gourd, common beans, pumpkin, maize, cow pea, cluster bean, cucumber, brinjal, tomato and chilli during monsoon and a set of crops like fenugreek, spinach, ghol, amaranthus, lady’s finger, cowpea, beet, radish, carrot, coriander, onion and ambadi duringwinters. Without the convergence of institutions, both governmental and non-governmental, providing technical back-up and resource inputs, homestead land will fail to fulfill its desired functions.

Though land is a State subject, it is critical how the Centre and the States work between themselves to acquire suitable land to address the twin objectives of resolving the issue of landlessness and nutritional poverty. Simply allotting homestead land to targeted population may not suffice for fighting poverty. As has the initiative demonstrated, the Centre and the States need to cooperate in facilitating convergence of various Central and State-sponsored welfare programmes at homestead clusters and create common facilities in the vicinity of such clusters.

Though much will depend on the quality of homestead land and the enterprising nature of its owners, development of homstead clusters across selected pockets in the country will ease pressure on mandatory distribution of food across the country. Conversely, asserts Mr. Kate, such homestead clusters could contribute surplus to the national kitty.

(The writer is with the Ecological Foundation)

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