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KHAMMAM, India, May 2 (AlertNet) - It was a deal struck almost 40 years ago by a poor, illiterate Indian farmer, driven by desperation after a drought wiped out his crops and left his family close to starvation.
The agreement: 10 acres of land, the size of four soccer pitches, for a mere 10 kg (22 lbs) of sorghum grains.
"My father-in-law pawned the land for food," said Kowasalya Thati, lifting the hem of her grey sari and stepping into the muddy field of rice paddy in Kottasuraream village in the southern region of Andhra Pradesh.
"When he returned the grain later, the land owners refused to give it back. They claimed it and we had no document to prove otherwise. For 28 years, we had to work on the land we once owned. Without land, we had nothing ... not even enough food. It's a miracle we got it back."
Kowasalya's family is one of hundreds of thousands who belong to India's 700 listed tribes who are at last gaining legal titles to the land they have lived on for generations, thanks to a legal aid scheme run by the Andhra Pradesh government with international advocacy group Landesa.
In the scheme, which is likely to be rolled out nationally, young people often armed with only a secondary-level education are drawn from mud-and-brick villages and trained as paralegals, then sent out to help people to understand their rights and secure title, or "patta", to their land.
For most tribal and landless families, that simple piece of paper means an end to a constant fear of hunger.
"Land is the most important factor of production," said Pramod Joshi, South Asia director of the International Food Policy Research Institute.
"It helps ensure food security for the poorest of the poor. It has been shown in many regions that if the poor have land, they are in a better position to feed themselves."
Despite a slew of "pro-poor" policies, India's economic boom has largely bypassed India's tribes, who make up more than 8 percent of its 1.2 billion population, living in remote villages and eking out a living from farming, cattle rearing and collecting and selling fruit and leaves from the forests.
Social indicators such as literacy, child malnutrition and maternal mortality in these communities are among the worst in the country.
Neglect by authorities and a Maoist insurgency in the tribal belt in central parts of the country have further exacerbated their plight.
But the biggest threat, activists say, has always been to their land. A lack of documents proving ownership of the land means that many are treated as criminals, exploited by wealthy land owners and money lenders, moved off their farms in illegal land grabs, or face extortion by officials.
Due to the lack of ownership papers, they are also deprived of credit from banks and government services providing help to poor land owners, making it impossible to invest in the land, boost their farm production and ensure their food security.
India passed a law in 2008 to improve the lives of these groups by finally recognizing their right to inhabit the land their forefathers settled on centuries before.
But four years on, activists say the Forest Rights Act has been poorly implemented and that tribal communities still are not fully aware of their rights.
Around 15 million families remain landless. Another 28 million families -- many of whom are tribals -- have a tenuous claim to their land because they do not have the "patta".
In Andhra Pradesh's Khammam district, a fertile region filled with lush rice, cotton and chili fields, trainees learn how to spot land issues and resolve disputes through land surveys, case investigation and working with the revenue department.
"I am enjoying this job as I am from a poor family myself and I understand their problems as my own," said Krishnaiah Modugu, 30, who has worked as a paralegal for six years and helped 1,300 families gain "pattas".
"It makes me happy helping the poor secure what is rightfully theirs," said the former primary school teacher from Basavapuram village.
Four hundred villagers like Krishnaiah are working as paralegals in the state, going from one dusty village to the next, attending meetings and listening to people's stories of land lost through exploitation, abuse and indebtedness.
So far, the rural paralegals have helped deliver more than 300,000 "pattas" to families like Kowasalya's.
"The community-based paralegal model has emerged globally as a cost-effective solution to the problem of access to justice for rural communities," said Gregory Rake, Landesa's India country director.
Landesa says there are plans to bring these barefoot lawyers to other states in the country. A similar scheme is already running in India's impoverished state of Orissa and will aim to provide half a million poor families with security over their land.
"Land is their most important asset, yet many do not know their rights over it," said V.N.V.K. Sastry, former director of India's Tribal Research and Training Institute and a government advisor on tribal development. "These schemes should be made available in all regions which have large tribal populations."
Now that Kowasalya's family owns their sprawling rice and cotton farm, they earn 10,000 rupees ($195) a month, compared with 2,000 rupees ($40) before.
More importantly, Kowasalya is able to keep up to 80 kg (176 lbs) of rice in reserve each year, ensuring her family won't go hungry in the event of a poor harvest.
She also is no longer reliant on unscrupulous moneylenders who prey on the poor, charging massive interest rates. She can apply for cheaper loans at commercial banks and has access to public schemes offering cheap seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.
"Before we worked for a daily wage. When we had work, we ate. When we didn't, we skipped meals. Most of our meals were broken rice with chili powder, sometimes vegetables," she said as she sieved a pile of rice for lunch for her husband and three children at her brick-and-corrugated-iron-roofed home.
"Since we got our land back, we no longer have to worry about food."
(This story is part of a special multimedia report on global hunger produced by AlertNet, a global humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation.)
Editing by Tim Large and Sonya Hepinstall