Workers in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Picture: REUTERS/DANISH SIDDIQUI
Workers in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Picture: REUTERS/DANISH SIDDIQUI

Bangkok — A groundbreaking project that secured land rights for thousands of indigenous people in India won a top global prize on Monday, highlighting the difficulties that lower-caste communities face in claiming land despite laws in place to benefit them.

The project, which began in 2000 and is run by human rights group ActionAid India, with Indian non-profits Koraga Federation and Samagra Grameena Ashrama, was named a gold prize-winner at the World Habitat Awards for its work with the Koraga tribe and nine other indigenous communities in southern Karnataka state.

It helped secure thousands of hectares of land for the communities, and assisted nearly 20,000 people to access state grants to build homes, according to a statement from the global charity World Habitat.

While indigenous people in India are entitled to state and federal welfare schemes, entrenched caste bias and a lack of awareness had denied the communities their rights, said Nandini Krishnaswamy, a regional manager at ActionAid India.

“Land is essential to their identity, their tradition and their livelihoods. Yet they have historically been marginalised and denied land despite enabling laws because of a lack of political will and hostility from upper-caste people,” she said.

“By asserting their right to land and housing they also gained access to education, food security and health, and can live with dignity,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

India banned caste-based discrimination in 1955 but centuries-old attitudes persist — with more than half the country’s lower-caste population landless, census data showed.

India’s 104-million tribal people — also known as Adivasis, or “original inhabitants” — make up less than 10% of the population, and are among its most impoverished.

While several Indian states have laws to give them land, few have done so, according to land rights activists and leaders.

Besides applying for state grants, the ActionAid project also helped more than 2,500 families get land under the Forest Rights Act, which aimed to improve the lives of tribal people by recognising their right to inhabit and live off forest land.

Many states have been slow to implement the law.

The project highlighted the need for a “multifaceted approach” to the issue of the right to housing, said Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, and a judge on the awards.

“This project truly demonstrates the centrality of the right to housing to health, dignity and security,” she said.

A project in Spain’s Catalonia region that renovated empty homes for people hurt by a lack of affordable housing also won a gold prize. The two winners will receive £10,000 each.

Established in 1985, the World Habitat Awards are organised by World Habitat and UN-Habitat, the settlements agency.

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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