Gen­der gap in land own­er­ship

Leg­is­la­tion and gen­der-based agri land al­lot­ment would help


Women com­prise over 42 per cent of the agri­cul­tural labour force in the coun­try, sig­ni­fy­ing in­creas­ing fem­i­ni­sa­tion of agri­cul­ture, and yet they own less than 2 per cent of its farm land. Ac­cord­ing to the In­dia Hu­man De­vel­op­ment Sur­vey (IHDS), not­with­stand­ing laws en­sur­ing women’s rights to agri­cul­tural land, most such land is owned by ei­ther men or un­di­vided fam­i­lies. The IHDS, a na­tion­wide panel sur­vey cov­er­ing 41,554 house­holds in 1,503 vil­lages and 971 ur­ban neigh­bour­hoods across In­dia, in two waves (200405 and 2011-12), is jointly or­gan­ised by the Univer­sity of Mary­land and the Na­tional Coun­cil of Ap­plied Eco­nomic Re­search (NCAER).

It is also the first large-scale sur­vey ad­min­is­ter­ing ques­tions on ac­qui­si­tion and own­er­ship of agri­cul­tural land.

The IHDS finds that 57 per cent of ru­ral and 9 per cent of ur­ban house­holds own any agri­cul­tural land. What is of greater con­cern is that 83 per cent of the agri­cul­tural land is re­port­edly in­her­ited by male mem­bers of the fam­ily and less than 2 per cent by their fe­male coun­ter­parts, with the re­main­der be­ing ac­quired through other means. A re­gion-wise dis­ag­gre­ga­tion of the data shows per­sis­tently low fe­male own­er­ship of farm­land in all the re­gions rang­ing from 28 per cent in the hills, to only around 8 per cent each in the east and west.

The IHDS find­ings are sub­stan­ti­ated by the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum’s An­nual Meet­ing at Davos in Jan­uary 2018, which re­ported that In­dia is one of 15 coun­tries in the world, mostly lo­cated in South Asia, Latin Amer­ica and sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa, where the preva­lence of pa­tri­ar­chal tra­di­tions pre­vents women from en­joy­ing equal own­er­ship rights to prop­erty. Iron­i­cally, most of these na­tions sub­scribe to the UN’s post-2015 Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals (SDGs), es­pe­cially In­di­ca­tor SDG 5.a.1, which seeks to aug­ment women’s share as rights-bear­ers of agri­cul­tural land by types of ten­ure.

The nu­mer­ous bar­ri­ers in land own­er­ship that In­dian women face in­clude lack of le­gal aware­ness about their in­her­i­tance rights, their re­luc­tance to claim prop­erty from hos­tile fam­ily mem­bers, and the skewed im­ple­men­ta­tion of laws fu­elling gen­dered so­cial dis­crim­i­na­tion. One of the pri­mary rea­sons for this is the me­di­a­tion of women’s land rights in In­dia through var­i­ous per­sonal laws and cus­tom­ary prac­tices rather than through le­gal dis­course. “The prop­erty rights of the In­dian woman de­pend on which re­li­gion she fol­lows, if she is mar­ried or un­mar­ried, which part of the coun­try she comes from, if she is a tribal or non­tribal, and so on,” ar­gues Shruti Pandey, PIL lawyer in the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court, and for­mer Na­tional Di­rec­tor of the Women’s Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive of Hu­man Rights Law Net­work, In­dia. Pandey con­tends that the prop­erty rights of In­dian women are not only im­mune from Con­sti­tu­tional pro­tec­tion but also vastly dis­crim­i­na­tory and ar­bi­trary, with women be­ing as­signed much lower shares in fam­ily prop­erty than men. A no­table ex­cep­tion is the Civil Code in the state of Goa, de­rived from Por­tuguese laws, which has unique pro­vi­sions en­sur­ing joint own­er­ship and equal share in each other’s prop­erty for mar­ried cou­ples, and a stip­u­la­tion that daugh­ters can­not be given a lesser share than sons. Al­though the Goanese code is of­ten touted as a model for a po­ten­tial Uni­form Civil Code across the coun­try, it too does not trans­late into ac­tion on the ground.

Ac­tivists ar­gue that the co­nun­drum of gen­der-based land own­er­ship can be tack­led through sim­ple so­lu­tions. One in­stance is an on­go­ing part­ner­ship be­tween the West Ben­gal Gov­ern­ment and the Lan­desa Ru­ral De­vel­op­ment In­sti­tute, work­ing to se­cure le­gal land rights for poor­est fam­i­lies. They found that merely en­sur­ing suf­fi­cient space in land cer­tifi­cates to en­able list­ing of both hus­bands and wives as own­ers had a huge im­pact, lead­ing to the in­clu­sion of women in a ma­jor­ity of the land ti­tles in the state. Such schemes could lead to a rip­ple of pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ments for women such as en­hanced de­ci­sion-mak­ing power, bet­ter child nu­tri­tion and house­hold food se­cu­rity, im­proved ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment for girls, and even the con­fi­dence to counter do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and abuse. Po­lit­i­cal tools such as leg­is­la­tion and gen­dered al­lot­ment of agri­cul­tural land would cer­tainly help. But the real change will come only when the women them­selves stand up to claim their right­ful own­er­ship of prop­erty and the wide-rang­ing em­pow­er­ment it brings.

The au­thor is edi­tor, Na­tional Coun­cil of Ap­plied Eco­nomic Re­search. Views ex­pressed in this ar­ti­cle are per­sonal.

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