KONGARAGIDDA, India. -- Poorly educated and with few resources, Kanasari Veeraswami had no way of proving he was the lawful owner of a small plot of land left to him by his father in Telangana.
Local government officials had told him the handwritten documents he had were not acceptable. For 10 years, he lived in fear of losing the four acre (1.6 hectare) small-holding and could not access any government subsidies to grow his crops.
That was until three youngsters from his own village, trained in a state programme to assist in land matters, came to his aid.
"This is my land; I have been cultivating it for many years, but the government didn't recognise me as the owner," said Veeraswami, 60.
"I couldn't even get bank loans, and had to borrow only from the moneylender at very high rates of interest," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as he pulled out a sheaf of tattered papers from a plastic bag, the ink fading and edges yellowing.
Across India, about 56 percent of rural households are landless, according to government data. In Andhra Pradesh, that figure is two-thirds.
Telangana, where Veeraswami's village of Kongaragidda is located, was carved out of Andhra Pradesh two years ago. It is estimated at least half its rural households are landless.
Even those who own land often do not have the documents to prove it.
Their plight is made worse by patchy official data: while land surveys are required to be carried out at least every 30 years, the last survey in the state was in the 1940s, said Sunil Kumar, state director at Landesa, a land-rights advocacy.
"A person can only be considered a land owner when he has a title deed with his name, when his name is in the state land records, and he has physical possession of the land," he said.
"But most people are unaware of their rights, of how to use the law, or they have tried and failed and given up," he said.
Landesa has identified 75 potential problems related to land ownership in rural areas. Most households have at least four of them, ranging from errors in the title deed to boundary disputes and encroaching government land.
Of the 105 families in Kongaragidda village, most are indigenous people who have long been discriminated against and deprived of land. Only about 10 percent have all the documents for the land they cultivate, Kumar said.
Poor farmers like Veeraswami are often harassed by local officials who demand a bribe to correct or issue new documents, he said. Their only other alternative is to go to the court.
Matters related to land and property make up about two-thirds of all civil cases in India, according to a study by Bengaluru-based Daksh, a non-profit group that campaigns for better governance. Most litigants are poor men belonging to so-called lower castes, with only basic education, it said.
They lack the awareness and the resources to seek legal aid. In Telengana, they are being helped by the state programme that trains college-educated young people from villages as paralegals to provide basic assistance in land matters.
In addition, Landesa trains three people as community workers in each village - always including a farmer and a woman - to conduct surveys, verify records, mark boundaries and help with documentation.
"Initially, they were reluctant to share information - maybe they thought we were going to take away their land," said Usha Ram, a community worker in neighbouring Kannayapally village.
"Now that they understand the importance of updating records and having their names on the title deeds, they don't want to leave even an inch of land unregistered," she said.
Telangana and other states are racing to digitise land records as part of the national land records modernisation programme.
Scheduled to be completed in 2016 with a budget of 56 billion rupees ($841 million), the project will now conclude in 2021 at a projected cost of 110 billion rupees.
The challenge is not just digitising ageing manual records, but ensuring existing records are accurate first, Kumar said. That requires door-to-door surveys and physical verification of boundaries by the community workers.
In the Telangana villages where surveys have been completed and records updated, Landesa found that well over half the existing records were inaccurate, Kumar said.
"This is why involvement of the community is key: you can ensure that the records are accurate because the community is aware and is involved," he said.
Small discrepancies can be fixed in a few days, and most matters can be settled with a village council meeting, avoiding lengthy legal procedures, he said. New handheld GPS devices to map the land will help speed up the process.
Government officials have backed the community-led effort, updating records and issuing new titles quickly, Kumar said.
After a decade of uncertainty, Veeraswami will finally get a title with his own name on it.
"It has taken a long time, but now I don't have to worry about losing my land or getting my dues," he said.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Ros Russell; Thomson Reuters Foundation.)
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