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Poor Get A Stake In India's Booming Economy


As Americans debate how to revive their economy, nations in the developing world are looking for ways to keep their growth going - including India, where the government promises to help some of its poorest people, who live in remote areas without services or even official identities. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports on a program that starts with a tiny piece of land.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Arahita Pradhan knows the value of land. He and his family were evicted from their own land more than 40 years ago, when the Indian government needed space to build a dam and irrigation project.

ARAHITA PRADHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Pradhan is 65 now, a lean, dark-skinned man. He still recalls the day when he and his fellow villagers were packed into trucks and moved to a remote wilderness.

ARAHITA PRADHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: There was nothing there, he says. Although they'd been promised land, new houses, and schooling for their children, they were dropped in the midst of some wild scrubland with nothing.

ARAHITA PRADHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: In the early years, Pradhan says, people built huts from branches, and dug roots for food. They eventually built a village of mud-brick houses, but they never felt that it belonged to them. He says the people always feared that another truck might come to take them away.

Pradhan's village is called Chillipoi, in the eastern Indian state of Odisha - or Orissa, as it used to be known. Although the state can provide land title to the landless, officials in the remote areas didn't have the experience to run a successful land-allocation program. The key to land ownership is a one-page title document called a putta, a deed of title.

ARAHITA PRADHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: The plot of land is tiny, barely large enough for a small house and a backyard garden for fruits and vegetables. But it's an address, and if you have an address that belongs to you, you can get political identity papers, access to credit, and eligibility for government help programs. Without an address, you literally don't count.

Things have changed for Chillipoi. It was one of 12 villages chosen for a pilot program by a Seattle-based humanitarian group called the Rural Development Institute, also known as Landesa.

SANJOY PATNAIK: Our prime focus is securing land to the world's poorest. And as you see, this village displaced for 40 years without titles, no food. So these are the people who actually need the kind of facilities and support that Landesa is providing.

FLINTOFF: That's Sanjoy Patnaik, the state director for RDI. His group helped make up for the lack of capacity in the government by hiring young men from the village, and training them to help people through the process of acquiring title to their land. So far, 19 families have received title papers to their homesteads.

In about a week, they expect to receive title to a second piece of agricultural land that will give them some economic independence. In the meantime, Chillipoi has a feel of a bustling place where people have a lot of projects under way. Jambu Pradhan says that since they got title to the land, the village women have formed a cooperative.

JAMBU PRADHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: They each chipped in 10 rupees a month - about 20 cents - and got a loan to lease a cashew nut orchard.


JAMBU PRADHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Pradhan says they made money on that deal, and went on to dig a big fish pond and build an earthen dam. She's 56, with long, gray hair and sinewy arms. She smiles as the younger women splash about in the pond, where they expect to start harvesting the first fish in the spring.

JAMBU PRADHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: She says the women never would have started these projects unless they believed that the land is theirs and can't be taken from them. Sanjoy Patnaik says the next big challenge for the project will be to scale up the pilot programs into an operation that can provide land title for up to 18,000 families. It remains to be seen whether a system that works well on a small scale can be amplified to handle much bigger numbers.

The state government of Odisha apparently thinks it can be done. Just last month, the state agreed to back the project to the next level. Corey Flintoff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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