WOMEN'S RIGHT TO PROPERTY SHOULD BE
CENTRAL TO INDIA'S LAND REFORMS
From the Economic Survey 2017/18, the Government of India highlighted a growing trend of feminisation of agricultural labour. Among other reasons, more men migrate to cities in search of higher incomes, therefore an increasing number of women are in multiple agricultural roles like cultivators, entrepreneurs, and labourers. Deeply held societal, legal and institutional biases limit women’s ability to inherit assets and property. Women constitute over 60 percent of the agricultural labour force of the country yet hold only 13.96 percent of agricultural land as per the Agricultural Census 2015/16 .
When women don’t have a legal claim to the land they cultivate, they lack control over resources, the production process and income. There is a range of benefits of increasing women’s ownership; women have a higher propensity for using income for the benefit of the household. Further, ownership of property brings a sense of security, self-confidence, increases bargaining power and increases public participation. Economically dependent women are subject to violence in natal and marital families. Research suggests that the probability of propertied women being physically abused is reduced from 49 percent to 7 percent due to an increase in her bargaining power.
Another form of women’s exclusion is that states recognise only landholders as farmers. Precluding women from coverage under the definition of “farmer” withholds their access to central, state government benefits like Kisan Credit Cards, input subsidies, and crop insurance schemes. Systemic exclusion and a limiting definition curtail women farmers access to inputs from existing schemes that will increase their productivity and agricultural output.
In MASUM’s work with rural women in drought-prone areas around Pune, Maharashtra, we address these issues by focussing on strengthening women’s economic self-reliance. We’ve learnt that women’s ownership of land is a complex issue because it requires a change in how our society and decision-makers form expectations of women and their role in society. As mentioned, there are legal, societal and institutional barriers.
Legally, the Hindu Succession Act recognises a women’s right to a share in the family property, but the revenue codes of many states don’t provide equal treatment for men and women’s rights to agricultural land. This unequal treatment is evidenced by states like Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, by not allowing daughters and sisters to inherit agricultural land. Delhi gives inheritance rights to widows over agricultural land, but not daughters. Such discriminatory provisions are observed in many revenue codes across states. As agricultural land is a state subject, the revenue codes hold primacy over the Hindu Succession Act when it comes to succession. This has been held by the Allahabad High Court in a judgment in 2015.
Gender bias affects local institutions. For example, the patwari visits the plot to determine eligible successors upon death of the landowner and reports to the tehsildar to register mutation. We have observed that due to their biases, patwaris and tehsildars usually neglect women successors’ claims, even if they are legally valid under the state’s revenue code. Further, mutating land to a woman’s name requires multiple journeys to the tehsildar’s office and is a long, bureaucratic process.
In 2007, MASUM campaigned to convert ownership of households to joint ownership between husband and wife based on a progressive GR in Maharashtra and coined the term ‘GharDoghanche’. This campaign was replicated by NGOs throughout the state and 9000 households secured joint ownership. Despite these huge gains in joint homeownership, taking on land ownership is still challenging. Here are some legal changes that could positively affect women’s rights.
Firstly, the term ‘farmer’ should be defined legally to include cultivators. This will allow increased recognition of women’s contribution and pave the way for women farmer’s access to government inputs. The MS Swaminathan report from the National Commission for Farmers offers a broader definition of ‘farmer’ as a person actively engaged in the economic and/or livelihood activity of growing crops and producing other primary agricultural commodities.
Additionally, as suggested in the Women Farmers’ Entitlements Bill, 2011—women in agriculture should be issued a Woman Farmer Certificate which can be used as evidence in administrative and judicial proceedings and would allow women cultivators to access government benefits reserved for “farmers” including input subsidies and cash benefits. This will decrease production costs and increase income potential for women farmers.
Secondly, the Supreme Court should make efforts to remove discriminatory laws under the individual state revenue codes and bring them in consistency with the Hindu Succession Amendment Act, 2005, for countrywide applicability. Even though the Allahabad High Court gave primacy to the state revenue codes in 2015, the clash between legislation under the concurrent list (succession rights) and one under the state list (agricultural land) is a legally complex one that should be reviewed by the Supreme Court. Maharashtra has taken steps to alleviate bias by allowing widows of farmers who commit suicide to inherit agricultural land, demonstrating that progressive change is possible.
Thirdly, land record updation schemes need to have in-built gender justice components. For example, the recently launched Swamitva Scheme by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj to map inhabited land ownership in rural India should incorporate gender justice by requiring joint property registration between husband and wife.
Property ownership by women can transform their role and position in society. It is a cause that our policymakers must get behind as India mulls new land reforms.
This piece was first published by CNBCTV18.com on August 13, 2020