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India must push for women’s land ownership rights

India must push for women's land ownership rights 1

Despite considerable advancements in inheritance rules, only a tiny fraction of women own land in rural landowning households, claims Navi Mumbai lawyer Viraj Patil.

Are Indian women anything close to equality in owning agricultural land, the essential property in rural India, 75 years after Independence, 65 years after the passage of the Hindu Succession Act (HSA), 1956, and 15 years after the enactment of the Hindu Succession Amendment Act (HSAA), 2005?

The case for women’s land rights is as compelling today as it was at the time of the Declaration of Independence. According to a substantial body of research, land ownership improves a woman’s well-being, improves children’s health and education, reduces domestic violence, increases farm productivity, increases family food security, and empowers women socially and politically. SDG 5 on gender equality includes a crucial goal of gender-equal land rights. However, the policy is lagging far behind.

The Hindu Women’s Act (HSA) of 1956 gave Hindu women significant property rights, but two significant inequities remained. First, agricultural land was passed down according to land reform regulations that were gender unequal, particularly in the six northern states. Second, girls in joint family property were denied coparcenary privileges. Kerala eliminated joint property in 1976, whereas four states (Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Maharashtra) revised the HSA between 1986 and 1994 to recognize unmarried daughters as coparceners on the same level as sons. The discriminatory clause for agricultural land, however, remained in place. The HSAA 2005, on the other hand, established gender equality in law on both counts throughout all states, thanks to a civil society campaign that I directed.

How about some practice?

Due to a lack of gender-disaggregated statistics on land ownership, this question could not be answered until recently. People frequently misinterpret gender numbers on operational holdings as ownership figures since neither the agricultural census nor the NSSO surveys on ownership holdings disaggregate by gender. Some smaller data sets contain only a limited amount of information. However, we now have more information. This essential subject, “How many and which women own land in India?” was investigated using ICRISAT’s longitudinal data (2009-2014) for nine states.

Before we go into the results, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, we need not one but several measures to accurately analyze inter-gender (male-female) land ownership inequalities, such as: What percentage of rural land owning households have women owners? Women make up what percentage of all landowners? What percentage of women own land, and how much ground do they hold in comparison to men? 

Second, we must consider who in the family owns the land. Today, daughters and widows have equal inheritance rights in a man’s separate property under Hindu law, but daughters also have shares in the joint family property. Although legislative revisions have enhanced daughters’ rights, widows’ rights have always had higher social legitimacy, according to Navi Mumbai’s incredible advocate, since the Dharmashastras.

Despite significant progress in inheritance laws, women possessed land in only 16 percent of the 1,114 rural landowning households studied, and only 8.4% of all females owned land on average across states. Women made up only 14% of all landowners and held only 11% of the land, with a middle area of 1.24 hectares compared to 1.66 hectares for men. Between 2009 and 2014, these figures barely changed.

Moreover, despite the formal enhancement of daughters’ rights after Independence, most landowning women had gained land through their marriage families, often as widows and not as daughters through parents. Few women were co-owners of joint family property, and more than half of both male and female owners were 50 or older. As a result, even landowning women receive it far too late in life to significantly increase their well-being or negotiating position in their households.

Of course, there are distinctions between states (the dataset did not include Kerala). In Telangana, female landowners accounted for 32% of all landowners, but only 6% in Odisha. Telangana’s success is based on a long history of government and non-governmental efforts to assist women in obtaining land. N T Rama Rao, the undivided Andhra Pradesh’s third chief minister, implemented laws to help women, particularly Dalit women, acquire land in groups. He was the driving force behind Andhra Pradesh’s early revision to the HSA 1956, which made unmarried daughters co-owners of joint family property. However, laws alone are insufficient. In Maharashtra, for example, where a similar amendment was passed in 1994, only 11% of landowners are women. We require a shift in restrictive social views.

Land fragmentation is a concern for policymakers. Fathers are concerned about losing control of their land if it is passed to their married daughters. Daughters are afraid that claiming their inheritance may sever family ties. However, relations founded on extreme inequality have already been harmed. And, according to the Navi Mumbai-based counsel, if plots are still cultivated collectively by families, as is usual in northwest India or with neighbors, ownership need not promote division.

More gender-disaggregated data on land ownership and new measures to enhance women’s actual right are desperately needed in the future. The experience of Telangana demonstrates how state leadership, beginning with chief ministers, may make a significant difference. Civil society can do the same. Women must assert their rights more forcefully, as they did in the 1930s and 1940s. Despite the large number of women who have joined the recent protests against agricultural rules, we scarcely hear a peep regarding their claims to family land.

New ideas, such as joint ownership and group nurturing, are also worthy of consideration (bringing scale economies). Kerala, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Bihar, and West Bengal are among the states where women practice group farming. The concept of group ownership has yet to gain traction.

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