Despite constitutional provisions to empower women, one critical area where they continue to be denied their full rights is inheritance of agricultural land. Shipra Deo , director for Women’s Land Rights at Landesa, spoke to Rudroneel Ghosh about it:
How are women in India being denied their right to inherit agricultural land?
Most of the existing Indian laws don’t provide equal rights to women to inherit agricultural land. And even when there are laws that have progressive provisions in this regard, they are not effectively implemented, and women continue to be denied their rights. Under the current scheme of things, there is an overwhelming maze of laws that govern inheritance provisions. There are personal or religious laws enacted at the national level, there are also state revenue laws enacted by each state. As per the Constitution, succession is part of the concurrent list, meaning both states and Centre can legislate on this aspect. But agricultural land is a state subject, which takes succession of agricultural land into the states’ domain. The northwestern states – Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Delhi – have the most regressive inheritance provisions that explicitly prefer male descendants over females. In these states, even when a woman gets land, her rights are limited, which means she often loses the rights if she remarries or if she doesn’t cultivate land for a specific period.
Is there resistance to reforming inheritance laws with respect to agriculture land?
Yes, certainly. Haryana is a classic example where the state assembly twice attempted to take away the progressive rights given to women through personal laws such as the Hindu Succession Act. It could not do so because the amendment was rejected by the President of India. Another example is from UP, where since 2016, unmarried daughters are primary heirs equivalent to a son, but married daughters are not. In effect, this means that a daughter must choose between inheriting land from her father and getting married. When we approached officials, there was a strong resistance to giving married daughters equal rights.
Why do you think many states have this regressive approach?
The land reform principle popular at the time of Independence was ‘land to the tiller’ and lawmakers – then and now – continue to see the tiller as male. But even this doesn’t hold true. Statistics tell us that women constitute around 65% of all agricultural workers, but only 14% of all operational landholders.
In addition, many argue that because daughters move to other villages after marriage, allowing them to inherit their parents’ land will lead to fragmentation of agricultural lands. But such concerns are not raised in the case of sons who migrate to urban areas or to other countries. These are double standards emanating from patriarchy. The people responsible for making and implementing these laws often carry these biases.
Could you elaborate on the procedural impediments to women registering agricultural land even where this is allowed?
In many places where daughters can inherit agricultural land as per law, their names are still not entered into the records because of the responsible revenue officials’ biases. This bias is woven into the social fabric, and daughters are not expected to claim their share. They are subject to extreme backlash and ostracisation if they choose to assert their claims, though many times women and girls themselves don’t know that they can inherit and own land.
How do we get around the patriarchal mindset that is preventing equal inheritance of agricultural land?
First and foremost, we need to recognise women as independent individuals, in word of law as well as in spirit. Today, most land laws do not pass the test of gender equality. There is a need to review all land laws with a gender lens and identify areas where there is either overt or covert discrimination against women. The incongruences in inheritance provisions in state laws need to be addressed in states.
Legal legitimacy must essentially be accompanied with efforts to establish the social legitimacy of women’s claims. Concerted efforts are required to shift patriarchal attitudes and gendered norms expressed by government officials, elected leaders and other thought leaders in the civic space.
Could you give us examples of how equal inheritance to agricultural land has helped women?
In today’s world, land is one of the most significant productive assets, and inheritance is a central way to own it. Ownership of agricultural land strengthens a woman’s identity as an individual and gives her the strength necessary to exercise her agency. Agricultural land specifically increases her visibility and recognition as a farmer, which essentially means enhanced inclusion in the entire agriculture value chain. It increases her access to technical knowledge, government schemes, institutional credit, farming inputs, and market linkages, and has the power to disrupt the cycle of poverty and exclusion.