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India must push for women’s rights in land ownership

Bina Agarwal writes: Despite significant advancement in inheritance laws, only a small percentage of women own land in rural landowning households

Written by Bina Agarwal |
Updated: August 18, 2021 4:54:30 pm
The case for women’s land rights is as strong today as it was at Independence. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Seventy-five years after India’s Independence, 65 years after the passing of the Hindu Succession Act (HSA), 1956, and 15 years after the enactment of the Hindu Succession Amendment Act (HSAA), 2005, are Indian women anywhere near equality in owning agricultural land, the most important property in rural India?

The case for women’s land rights is as strong today as it was at Independence. A large global literature shows that owning land would enhance a women’s well-being, improve children’s health and education, reduce domestic violence, raise farm productivity, increase family food security, and empower women socially and politically. Gender-equal land rights is also a key target in SDG 5 on gender equality. Yet policy is far behind.

I first made a strong case for women having independent rights in agricultural land in my 1994 book, A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia, and traced inequalities in both law and practice across five countries. There was little prior research then.

In 1956, the HSA had given Hindu women substantial rights in property, but two major inequalities remained. First, the inheritance of agricultural land devolved according to land reform laws which were highly gender unequal, especially in six northern states. Second, daughters were excluded from coparcenary rights in joint family property. In 1976, Kerala abolished joint property altogether while between 1986 and 1994, four states (Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra) amended the HSA to recognise unmarried daughters as coparceners on par with sons. But the discriminatory clause for agricultural land remained. The HSAA 2005, however, following a civil society campaign that I led, brought about gender equality in law on both counts across all states.

What about practice? Until recently this question could not be answered, given a lack of gender-disaggregated data on land ownership. Neither the agricultural census nor the NSSO surveys on ownership holdings disaggregate by gender, and people often incorrectly cite gender figures on operational holdings as ownership figures. Some smaller data sets provide limited insights. Now, however, we have more answers. Using ICRISAT’s longitudinal data (2009-2014) for nine states, I analysed with two colleagues (Pervesh Anthwal and Malvika Mahesh) “How many and which women own land in India”. Our paper in the Journal of Development Studies, April 2021, https://doi.org/10.1080/00220388.2021.1887478, does not bring good news.

Before I share the results, two points are worth noting. First, to effectively assess inter-gender (male-female) gaps in land ownership we need not one but several measures such as: What percentage of rural landowning households have women owners? What percentage of all landowners are women? What percentage of women own land and how much land, relative to men? Second, we need to ask: Which women in the family own land? Legally today under Hindu law, both daughters and widows have equal inheritance rights in a man’s separate property, but daughters additionally have shares in joint family property. Although legal amendments have expanded daughters’ rights, socially widow’s rights have always carried greater legitimacy, since the time of the Dharmashastras.

In our study — the first for India — we covered both inter-gender gaps in land ownership and intra-gender differences between women.

Despite significant advancement in inheritance laws, women were found to own land in only 16 per cent of the sampled 1,114 rural landowning households, and just 8.4 per cent of all females owned land, averaged across states. Overall, women constituted barely 14 per cent of all landowners and owned only 11 per cent of the land, with an average area of 1.24 ha relative to 1.66 ha for men. These figures changed rather little over 2009-2014.

Also, strikingly, most of the landowning women had acquired land through their marital families, typically as widows and not as daughters through parents, despite the legal strengthening of daughters’ rights since Independence. Very few women were co-owners in joint family property, and over half the owners of both genders were aged 50 or more. Hence, even women who own land receive it too late in life to notably improve their well-being or bargaining power in families.

There are of course state-wise differences (the dataset did not include Kerala). Female landowners constituted 32 per cent of all landowners in Telangana but only 6 per cent in Odisha. Telangana’s success lies in a long history of government and NGO efforts to help women acquire land. N T Rama Rao, thrice chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh, introduced policies to help women, especially Dalit women, acquire land in groups. He was behind Andhra’s early amendment of the HSA 1956 to make unmarried daughters coparceners in joint family property. But laws alone are not enough. For example, in Maharashtra, which made a similar amendment in 1994, only 11 per cent of landowners are female. What we need is a change in rigid social attitudes.

Fathers fear losing control over land if given to married daughters. Daughters fear damaging family relations if they claim their shares. Policymakers say they fear land fragmentation. But relations based on gross inequality are already damaged. And ownership need not cause fragmentation if plots are still cultivated together by families, as is common in northwest India, or with neighbours.

Looking ahead, we urgently need more gender-disaggregated data on land ownership, and innovative policies to increase women’s actual ownership. Telangana’s example shows that state leadership, starting with chief ministers, can make a big difference. So can civil society. Women themselves need to raise their claims more vocally, as they did in the 1930s and ’40s. Notably, despite vast numbers of women joining the ongoing protests against farm laws, we hear barely a whisper about their claims in family land.

Also new ideas deserve attention, such as joint ownership and group cultivation (which can bring scale economies). Group farming by women is already practised in several states, including Kerala, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Bihar and West Bengal. The idea of group ownership still awaits attention.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 17, 2021 under the title ‘Her own land’. The writer is Professor of Development Economics and Environment, GDI, University of Manchester, UK

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