Whose Land Is It Anyway? (On women’s land ownership)

Whose land is it, anyway?

Kavitha Kuruganti

In a village in Maharashtra, a staggering 20 per cent of landowners are women. Are they the gamechangers or mere pawns in the system?

During a recent visit to Yavatmal district in Maharashtra for a commissioned study, I came across a couple of male farmers who claimed that in their villages about 20 per cent of the landowners were women. Having travelled in rural India for years now, and knowing that when it comes to women’s landownership, the norm is only around three to five per cent, I refused to believe their rather tall claims. Twenty per cent landownership by women is something that I have not seen in my decades of work, which had, incidentally, begun with Dalit women farmers in Medak district of Telangana. Their confident assertion, however, intrigued me and I promptly ended up going to one of the villages. This is about Tivsala village in Ghatanji block.

But first, here’s a brief background of the status of women’s work in India to put things in perspective. An overwhelming majority of Indian women recognised as ‘workers’ in official data are dependent on agriculture as their mainstay. In the Census, they are listed as Cultivators and Agricultural Labour. Many are also classified as unpaid helpers in the family enterprise under a category called ‘Self Employed’ by the NSSO (National Sample Survey Office), effectively making them unpaid tenants in their own family’s land.

Meanwhile, in the agriculture sector at present, there is a masculinisation as well as feminisation trend being witnessed in different parts of India. Yet, in both these phenomena — one, of men wielding more control than ever before, mainly due to integration with markets, and another, where women are left to run the agricultural enterprise by themselves — it’s the women who end up being marginalised without any formal entitlements as ‘farmers’. Of course, it is a well-recognised reality now that women’s invisibility and empowerment as farmers is strongly linked to their lack of ownership over land.

Much has been documented in micro-studies about the various benefits that accrue to a household, in terms of better education, health and so on, with women’s ownership over property like land. This is apart from the strategic empowerment that the woman herself could gain, for instance, allowing her a greater say in household-level decision-making. Women’s rights activists, feminist economists and others have for long been pointing out how important it is for women farmers to actualise their equal inheritance rights to land (apart from women’s control over property and assets in general). Five Year Plans of the Planning Commission have acknowledged the need to ensure women’s landownership and have promised measures like periodic updates of land records, creating awareness, special ‘inheritance camps’, computerisation of land records, and so on.

However, in a deeply-entrenched patriarchal system, not much changes on the ground. Even after debates and recommendations, the basic document on land ownership in most States does not even have a column to indicate whether a given landowner is a man or a woman. If the basic document does not contain this, there is no way to know at a larger level what the current status of women’s landownership in any given location is, unless the patwari or talati (lowest-ranking revenue officer appointed by the district collector) chooses to cull out information based on his (this is a male-dominated domain of work) first-hand information about each family in a village.

In Tivsala, I met many farmers in the village, including women who own land. We tried to list out the names of all the women landowners, and with great difficulty, estimated that about 17 per cent of its total landowners are women. A few days later, an enterprising farmer, who pulled out more accurate information from the talati, called back to share that the village has 341 pattedars in all, and 71 of them are women. That is around 21 per cent! From Pagandi, a neighbouring village, too, I received a call that out of 396 pattedars there, 59 were women — about 15 per cent.

Tivsala is a village that has a mixed social composition. Apart from Dalit, Muslim and Other Backward Classes (OBC) women, it also has families classified as scheduled tribes and nomadic tribes. Of the names that we were able to list out while sitting in the village, we started looking at each case to see why the land accrued to the woman in question. Apart from women who received land in their name because the family wanted to bypass land ceiling laws, and ones who got land due to widowhood (in equal proportion), a surprising shift had occurred in the recent past.

About five years ago, a new trend started, of men transferring a part of the land in the names of their wives, across different castes. This is done so that they can access government schemes and subsidies. The sprinkler irrigation scheme seems to be popular. These schemes can be availed only if a farmer has marginal or small holdings in the official classification. Splitting the family land allows the family to access these schemes, and this is the main incentive for the increasing land transfers in the name of women.

In addition to this, if a new piece of land is purchased by a couple, chances are high that the plot is registered in the name of the woman. Once again, pragmatic reasons like bypassing ceiling regulation and accessing schemes drive this decision. There was only one case that I came across in this village, of a father proudly announcing that he has registered his land in the name of both his daughter and son equally.

This village — and what has really changed for the women there — has to be studied more closely. I could glean that men continue to control everything on the farm front and are also in charge of marketing and income from sales, even though women put in more labour than men. Women who I met also said that this land will be passed on to their sons, not the daughters.

The impressive increase in landownership by women in a village like Tivsala was mostly for opportunistic reasons and was not in any way driven by women gaining more awareness about their rights, or men getting more sensitive about women’s due share. However, there is hope. While the transfer is happening for practical reasons, I can’t imagine how this won’t help women strategically, if they choose to assert themselves for equal rights as women and farmers.

Women’s Feature Service

(This article was published on August 22, 2014)
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