Padmini Swaminathan

Understanding Women’s Land Rights: Gender Discrimination in Ownership edited by Prem Chowdhry,New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2017; pp 413,₹ 1,095.

The book under review is part of the series on Land Reforms in India, a project entrusted to the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, by the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India. The specific objectives of Understanding Women’s Land Rights edited by Prem Chowdhry include (i) a historical review of the land systems and of formal and customary laws in existence, from a gender perspective; and (ii) an assessment of the conditions on the ground, of the extent to which women actually own land. The volume begins with an introduction by the editor and thereafter covers 14 states of the Indian union.

The introduction provides a competent overview of the different themes emerging from the findings from each of the 14 states. Using these themes (rather than discussing each state-specific chapter seriatim), first, it is highlighted what is common among the states and what is particular to a state, reserving comments on the volume as a whole for the end.

Do Women Need to Own Land?

The association of ownership and control of land with empowerment and security is a recurring theme in almost all the chapters. Further, most chapters also emphasise the fact of an overwhelming majority of women workers participating in one way or the other in agriculture, with only a minuscule percentage among them owning any land. Not having ownership rights over resources such as land denies women farmers access to various government programmes and services, since the default beneficiary “farmer” in all such cases happens to be the male. Again, given the demographic reality of a larger proportion of women (than men) being reported as widows in census data, and a larger proportion of adult women surviving longer than men, it goes without saying that for such women, ownership and effective control of some property, either in the form of land or an ancestral home, becomes essential for decent survival.

Legal versus Social Recognition

All chapters uniformly endorse the point that despite the amendments to property laws to bring about gender equality in inheritance, whether by the centre or at the state level, and irrespective of aspects of religion, caste, class and region, the deep-rooted bias against conferring ownership rights over land and property to women has persisted. The authors have approached the problematic from different angles. The result, however, is the same: an across-the-board reluctance to formally confer ownership of land that is legally and rightfully due to women.

Ritu Dewan’s discussion of women and land rights in Goa assumes significance in the light of the assertion that “this is the only region in India where women are guaranteed equal property rights” (p 107). Even so, Dewan concludes—based on an elaborate examination of Agricultural Census data that deals with operational holdings (and not ownership)—that “women do not get equal property rights even in a region that legally guarantees them an equal share in property” (p 113). To explain why guaranteed legal equality has failed to translate into gender equality in property holding, Dewan argues for a comprehensive understanding and interrogation of several interrelated laws from a gender perspective. Alongside, she also suggests a situational analysis of the context in which these laws are operationalised/not operationalised/half-heartedly operationalised, to produce the kind of adverse outcomes that one finds even in a state that is touted as a legal model for gender parity in property holding.

Itishree Pattnaik brings together a range of complex issues in Chapter 6 on Gujarat, the intertwining of which makes it difficult to lay the blame (of women’s poor share in landownership) solely on indifferent/non-implementation of laws, amended to give women equal inheritance rights. Thus, in Gujarat it was found that (i) land was transferred to women when women became widows; (ii) several transfers took place to avail of tax benefits and registration fee exemption; (iii) transfers enabled households to escape the Gujarat Agricultural Lands Ceiling Act, 1960; and (iv) transfers could be merely “verbal” and/or could be “recorded.” An important observation made by Pattnaik, and in several other chapters as well, is,

It is doubtful whether the ownership has translated into authority/control, including decision-making about the use of land. Thus ownership and control are two different things and should not be used interchangeably. (p 145)

E Revathi’s study of Andhra Pradesh again endorses the fact of women being given land, “either to circumvent the land ceiling law or to obtain benefits as farmers from different government programmes” (p 47). Revathi’s approach has been to explore whether the level of socio-economic development has a bearing on women’s access to land from their family. She finds that

the divergence in the source of land accessed through the family (natal and marital) in the irrigated and dry land is more related to culture and geography than to socio-economic development. (p 47)

Even if women on the ground are aware of their legal rights relating to inheritance or about government resolutions such as Maharashtra’s Ghar Doghaanche Abhiyan (joint ownership of the house by both husband and wife), the translation of awareness into registration remains a struggle, as detailed by Dewan in her study of land rights in Maharashtra.

Land Rights in Tribal Societies

Rimi Tadu’s exploration of land relations among the two prominent but diverse tribal communities of Arunachal Pradesh, namely the Apatanis and the Nyishis, at once makes clear that there is recognition of women’s prominent role in the agricultural economies of tribal communities, even if control over land is vested in men as per tribal customs. Tadu’s nuanced discussion of how the status of tribal women needs to be situated and studied as an integral part of the day-to-day functioning of their societies, is critical to our understanding of why the call for formalising tribal customary laws together with superimposition of market-led modernisation could worsen the present “status” of women, apart from increasing the precarity of their existence.

That ownership of agricultural land among tribes is ruled by tribal customary laws under which women lack any right to own land, is a theme that is emphasised also in the chapter on Chhattisgarh by Ramesh Sharma. In addition, other customs that conferred better “status” on tribal women have eroded extensively and have been replaced with regressive practices; replacement of “bride price” with dowry being one such indicator and systematic denial of access to common property resources, being another. While the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006 recognises joint entitlement and ownership, “it is however silent on the issue of entitlement of single women whether through divorce, not getting married or widowhood” (p 191).

M N Karna’s exploration of women’s land rights in Jharkhand documents the diversity of practices among the 32 groups into which the tribal population is broadly divided. The author has studied three districts representing three different sociocultural groups, that is, three tribes. Irrespective of the fact that each of these tribes has differential experiences of the processes of modernisation, what binds them together is their reluctance to register land in the name of their womenfolk. Interestingly, the author notes, “most of them (the tribal men) have taken resort to their customary practices while rejecting the statutory land rights to women” (p 206).

Saroj Arora’s exhaustive study of the status of women’s access and ownership of land in Mizoram brings out how, despite being high on social development indicators, Mizo women had been denied inheritance rights by their customary laws. After years of struggle, the enactment of two important laws—the Mizo Marriage, Divorce and Inheritance of Property Act, 2014 and the Lushai Hills District (Village Council) Act, 2015—has brought in some semblance of gender justice, though the outcomes remain to be tested. Similarly, the study by Sridhar, Arora and Khunenchu Magh of gender and land relations in Nagaland provides readers with a comprehensive account of the socio-demographic profile, social history, administrative structure and inheritance patterns among some of the Naga tribes, as well as the initiatives taken by the state for women’s development. However, the story relating to women’s ownership of land is the same as elsewhere in the country. Naga women are not allowed to inherit ancestral land; land is inherited by male descendants and in the absence of a male heir, the land goes to the nearest male kin of the same clan. Naga women have use rights to their father’s clan/community land, but no independent right of ownership to the land that they cultivate or reside on. Women are not allowed to be members of a clan or khel(representing several clans) council (pp 289–90).

Access to Land in Special States

Abha Chauhan’s study of the land question in Jammu and Kashmir, and Sohel Firdos’s study of Sikkim highlight, among other things, how women in these two states lose their basic rights on marrying a “non-state subject.” Additionally, in the case of Sikkim,

who is a Sikkimese woman is a question that is asked every six months as the state asks a woman to prove that she is unmarried every six months (unmarried certificates have a 6-month validity) or marry a Sikkimese man to earn a living or get state benefits. (p 330)

To undermine a progressive decision made by the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir in 2002 to not deny women of their permanent residency on marriage to a non-state person, a bill was moved in 2004. The law as it stands today does not deny women permanent residency on marriage to non-permanent residents, but it “deprives the children of such women of all privileges that children of the state subject possess and enjoy” (p 162).

Thwarting Access to Land

Kanchan Mathur’s discussion of the persistence of inequalities in access to land in Rajasthan, Ranjani Murthy’s study of the situation in Tamil Nadu, and Indu Pathak’s chapter on Uttarakhand, provide us with further dimensions of how women are denied access, ownership, and control over land through several official measures of omission and commission. Thus, for example, Mathur notes, “notwithstanding legal enactments put in place for enabling women to access land rights, effective rights are contingent on two factors, the socio-economic conditions (namely, pressure on sisters to relinquish their share of land in favour of their brothers) and the role of the implementing agencies,” and that “one of the biggest challenges encountered in analysing gender issues pertaining to land rights has been the lack of sex-segregated data” (pp 315–16).

Murthy’s chapter, among other things, points out how policy notes of land-related departments and state-initiated schemes aimed at women’s empowerment do not specifically address the theme of women’s land rights in their training programmes, in their orders and/or in the manner in which land data is collected and presented. The Uttarakhand chapter again endorses the point made by Mathur that, while

it is appreciable that the Government of Uttarakhand had initiated the digitalisation of land records … and computerisation of record of rights has been completed, gender-wise segregated data about ownership on agricultural land, distributed pattas by state government to women … are not available properly in the government records. (p 399)

Contribution of the Volume

There is no doubt that this voluminous work covering 14 states brings together rich information, and gives readers a sense of the historical context and social relations governing rules of inheritance and division of property, and land, in particular, among household members. It clearly brings out that women continue to be discriminated whatever be the social class, region or religion to which these households belong.

However, many of the chapters are heavy and long on reporting, while their analytical content is extremely poor. The lack of an analytical framework to situate the details contained in the chapters constantly leads to the question: What exactly is the significance of these details? What is the author inferring from these anecdotes? Equally significant from an analytical point of view is the need to differentiate women’s right to land in her capacity as an equal citizen from the need to give them ownership and control over land since an overwhelming number of them presently work in agriculture. The larger question not examined by any of the authors is the state of agriculture in the country, and how many farming households want to continue with farming. In this context, the question not canvassed by any of the chapters is: How many of the women want land because they want to continue working in the agricultural field, or is it that their requirement for ownership and control over land is a demand for economic and social security?

Several puzzling but interesting questions that arise from the different chapters, however, remain unarticulated by the authors. For instance, most of the north-eastern states have very high levels of literacy among both men and women and yet there is no interrogation of why this important endowment has failed to lead to any sort of empowerment through membership in village- or clan-level decision-making bodies, getting rid of oppressive and regressive customary practices, etc. In the absence of such an interrogation, asking for improving women’s literacy levels to make women aware of their rights, rings hollow. Several chapters in the volume make a number of assertions that are not backed by evidence or relevant references. The volume also needs to be edited for language and typographical errors.

Padmini Swaminathan ([email protected]) is a visiting professor at the Council for Social Development, Hyderabad.