An image of the country's flag.

With a population of just over 1 billion, India is the world‘s largest democracy. Per capita income is over US $1000. In the past decade, accelerated economic growth, averaging over 7% per year, has brought significant economic and social benefits. Measured in terms of purchasing power parity, India has become the world‘s fourth-largest economy.

Against this backdrop of progress and structural change, poverty and disparities in income and human development remain major challenges. Over 400 million people remain poor, and the prevalence of underweight children is almost double that of sub-Saharan Africa. People living in poverty, minorities, women, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes (governmental classifications based on social and economic status) all have inadequate access to the resources and opportunities that would permit them to benefit from economic growth. India‘s development challenge is to make the country‘s continuing impressive growth substantially more inclusive. Among the constraints to achieving widespread participation in the growth process are tenure insecurity and inadequate enforcement of property rights.

Women‘s land rights in India are not as secure as those enjoyed by men, and less than 10% of privately held land is in the name of women. The customary land rights of tribal people have been undermined by laws and other reforms, leading to a steady loss of their land. Conflicts over forests, agricultural lands and natural resources are pervasive, and in several central and northeastern states, such conflicts have contributed to the rise of a Maoist insurgency.

Pressures on the natural resource base are increasing. Continuously falling per capita water availability and declining water quality are becoming ever more acute problems. Demands for wood, livestock grazing and agricultural land are exerting pressure on forests. These challenges are aggravated by tenure insecurity and lack of clarity in use-rights, both of which discourage resource conservation and investments to safeguard the productivity of the natural resource base.


USAID and other donors can assist India in strengthening land tenure security and property rights governance in a number of strategic ways.

  • Support measures to strengthen women’s land rights. Women have difficulty obtaining access to land, including through inheritance, and difficulty retaining rights to land. Under most past land reform efforts, women have not creceived rights on a par with men. USAID has announced its intention to focus on the needs of poor women and girls and has recognized that women‘s rights to land are significantly compromised in India. USAID and other donors could support the Government of India (GOI) in implementing a gender strategy in at least two ways. First, donors could support comprehensive research on the impact of agricultural tenancy laws, with special emphasis on the effect of such laws on women’s land tenure and livelihoods. The research would culminate with specific recommendations for legislative changes in each state or in a set of high-priority states. Second, donors could support a project to suggest specific amendments to state laws to equalize male and female inheritance rights. This could begin with research in states where rules provide for more equal treatment, with a focus on why such laws are not enforced and what kinds of public campaigns could be initiated to promote compliance.
  • Strengthen access to land-rights legal aid. In India, most poor people are not aware of their legal rights to land and property, and have limited or no ability to access courts (and land administration officials) to assert and defend land claims. USAID and other donors could support new and expanded legal aid and legal literacy programs focusing on land rights. Such programs could be modeled on the successful Indira Kranthi Patham program in Andhra Pradesh. As poor rural women and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities are perhaps least able to enforce their legal rights to land, these programs should emphasize the land rights of women and ST members.
  • Expand alternative dispute resolution. Land-related disputes dominate the Indian court system, creating backlogs that prevent just and timely resolution of disputes. USAID and other donors could support a project to create and expand alternative dispute-resolution programs to help alleviate backlog in land-related cases. To this end, USAID could build on its past projects that have focused on improving the administration of the justice system by supporting stronger community-level legal systems, training for justice sector personnel and improvements to court management (USAID 2002; USAID 2010b).
  • Improve knowledge of ST land holdings. The most recent systematically collected data estimating ST landholdings in India dates from 1961. Some scholars have attempted to estimate ST holdings since then, but recognize the limitations of such estimates. USAID and other donors could support a project to collect India-wide data on ST landholdings. India- wide data on ST landholdings would give a broad context to the numerous small studies on ST land rights and allow national tracking of ST land alienation.
  • Strengthen implementation of laws and rules intended to protect ST rights to land and forestry resources. Despite extensive and longstanding state legislation restricting the alienation of ST lands, the loss of ST land continues, and scholars and researchers disagree about the role played by legislative restrictions on alienation and the proper course of action. The controversy itself reflects the need for comprehensive local research on the impact of the restrictions. USAID and other donors could support research into the application of laws that restrict alienation of ST land to determine whether these should be amended to respond to local circumstances. Based on the findings, officials can take appropriate actions at state and local levels to enhance restrictions, shore up enforcement programs, provide for legal services and judicial education, and, where indicated, consider methods to support the diversification of ST livelihoods.
  • Support improved implementation of forestry legislation and policy. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 transferred substantial authority over forestry management to local ST communities. However, most states have not yet effectively implemented the law to this end. In other cases, local residents continue to violate provisions of the law to secure forest resources for household livelihood. USAID and other donors could support research on the impediments to implementation of the Forest Rights Act, with particular focus on the needs and roles of ST forest communities.
  • Encourage the Government of India to more efficiently manage water resources. India‘s water resources are overused and polluted, leading to water scarcity and poor water quality. USAID and other donors could encourage the development of a sustainable water resources management policy that limits water for irrigation and encourages local management of water resources.
  • Encourage research on best practices for soil restoration. In India nearly half of all land is degraded due to current agricultural practices, industrialization and other factors. USAID and other donors could work with the government at the national and state levels to further understand the causes of soil degradation and identify possible remedial and preventative measures. Specifically, donors could support research on best practices for soil restoration and conservation to identify appropriate solutions, which could include conservation agricultural techniques, reclaiming brown fields, and preventing runoff from manufacturing.


To nearly all of the 71% of Indians who live in rural areas, land is the most important household asset and determinant of wealth. At both the national and state levels, the Government of India (GOI) has made significant efforts to reduce rural poverty by reducing insecurity of land-tenure and making access to land more equitable. Land reform in India has had some positive benefits, but much remains to be done.

India‘s urban population is the second-largest in the world. Across the country, millions live in slums (i.e. poorly serviced settlements lacking in tenure security) on the urban periphery. As urbanization increases, urban living standards are likely to fall as local governments struggle to meet demand for services. Residents of some slum settlements have been subject to mass forced evictions, particularly in areas slated for commercial development.

Women‘s land rights in India are not as secure as those enjoyed by men. Nationwide, less than 10% of privately held land is in the name of women. Even when land is titled in a woman‘s name, her actual control over the land is limited. Rural women in particular have little access to or control over land. A majority of rural women depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, yet their access to and control of land is extremely limited.

Laws governing forestland, as well as other reforms, have often undermined the customary land rights of tribal people. Tribes that the GOI officially recognizes are referred to as Scheduled Tribes and commonly referred to as ST communities. Land reform policies that extended some rights to ST communities have not prevented a steady loss of ST land due to land development, conservation and the illegal alienation of ST lands to non-tribal people. As a result, many families in tribal areas lack any rights to the land that they have occupied for generations.

Disputes over land and natural resources are pervasive in India. The courts are clogged with unsettled land disputes. In the eastern and northeastern states of India, conflicts over forests and agricultural lands have their roots in longstanding inter-communal, ethnic and separatist conflicts. In ST areas, disputes related to the illegal alienation of ST land to non-tribal people are common. In several central and northeastern states, large companies have purchased land and mineral rights from state governments, which has contributed to the growth of a well- armed Maoist insurgency known as the Naxalites.

Water supply problems and water pollution in India are acute. Unregulated groundwater-pumping drains public water reserves and depletes water tables. Per capita water availability in India has fallen since the country gained its independence in 1947, and will probably continue to decline. In addition, water quality is negatively affected by industrialization, agrichemicals, erosion, soil degradation, domestic pollution and wetland degradation.

The demands of human development (wood, livestock-grazing and agricultural development) have exerted severe pressure on India‘s forests. Development needs since Independence have created a large and growing demand for wood products. A shortage of productive irrigated agricultural lands in non-forest areas has led to mounting levels of forest encroachment by cultivators. India has rich mineral resources and is a major producer of minerals.Mining and quarrying accounted for 2% of GDP in 2005. Coal mining accounts for 70% of employment in the mining sector. However, the mineral sector has given rise to conflict and environmental problems.

Published / Updated: January 2011

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