Giving Women Greater Access to Land: The National Policy and the Measures taken in Odisha
Dr. Sarat Parida
Lecturer in History, Government Women’s College, Sambalpur, Odisha
For centuries, Indian families that traditionally remain strongly patriarchal, women have occupied a position subordinate to men. In patriarchal families especially in India, women have always been expected to render service for the men and the family, the question of her rights and her claim especially on landed property in the past has received mute response in society. In twentieth century India has seen several movements on the question of land such as the Tebhaga and Telengana movement1 and in these movements though substantial number of women participated the struggle was not for their land rights. In fact, the idea and initiatives for providing women greater access to land and strengthen their land rights is relatively a recent development. In mid eighties of the last century the question of women’s land rights came to draw the interest of the academia in the country. However two movements, the Bodhagaya Peasant Movement in Bihar propelled by Chatra Yuva Sangharash Vahini in 1978 and Shetkari Sangathana’s Movement for farmer’s right launched in Maharashtra in 1980 gave a thrust to the issue and brought to focus the question of women’s claim to land.2 In fact, empowerment of women for placing them on par with men hinges among other things on their right to hold and inherit property. Unfortunately the property laws especially relating to land that prevail in the country are male biased and women’s title in land has been subsumed to be that of the husband.
WOMEN AND AGRICULTURE
Land especially arable land is a crucial asset for rural families in India. In fact it is the main livelihood sustaining asset for majority of rural household depending on agriculture and the most valuable source of security against poverty. A large percentage of India’s rural households estimated to be in the range of 30 - 35 per cent were virtually female-headed3 by the turn of the last century owing to widowhood, marital breakdown or male migration to urban and industrial centers. A substantial percentage of female workers in different countries of the Asia are now engaged in agriculture and allied occupation. In our country around 78 per cent of all female workers and 86 per cent of all rural female workers are engaged in agriculture.4 In rural India women participate in almost every aspect of agricultural work ranging from toiling of the field to sowing, weeding and harvesting. In certain households women also process the produce and often market the produce by selling them in the market. However, they lack effective and secure legal rights to land. According to Agricultural Census data (Govt of India, 2003) women own only 7 per cent of the total agricultural land in the country.5 In future female-headed household are expected to increase in number owing to changing societal values and rapid urbanization. The joint family system is fast disintegrating; marriages are less stable today, kinship support system less reliable and rural to urban migration gaining momentum. In female-headed households women generally bear the burden of earning livelihood for the family. But lack of effective land rights places rural women especially engaged in agriculture in a disadvantageous position from different perspective including her standing vis-a-vis with men. Moreover lack of effective land rights restrains women to cultivate the land efficiently as most find it difficult to access credit in the absence of collateral. On the other hand it is argued that strengthening the land rights of women workforce in agriculture would reduce the risk of absolute poverty especially in landless families by putting check on the conduct of recalcitrant male heads and help women to obtain credit from institutional and private sources.6
The Constitution of India guarantees the fundamental rights of all citizens for equal treatment under law (Article-14) and non-discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste and sex (Article-15).7 The Constitution also directs the state to make special provision for women, children and other vulnerable sections of people viz. the socially and educationally backward classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In this context the National Commission for Women set up in 1992 to review the constitutional and legal safeguards for women and to recommend remedial measures has repeatedly urged the necessity of eliminating the gender-bias from our laws. This paper intend to examine the legal provisions made at the national as well as the state level to provide women access to land and the hiatus that exist in law and implementation.
The land reforms policy formulated at the national level after independence however not paid much attention to facilitate women’s access to land. But a shift in the government approach came to be perceived after the eighties and the policy pronouncements made in the subsequent plan documents increasingly reflected the commitment of the government to improve women’s access to land. Making a definite beginning in this direction a policy statement in the Sixth Five Year Plan (1980-85) declared that the government would endeavour to give joint title to spouses while distributing agricultural land and home sites.8 Going a step ahead and recognizing the equal share of sons and daughters in parental property, the Eighth Five Year Plan (1992-97) directed the state governments to give 40 percent of ceiling surplus land to women alone and the rest jointly to both spouses.9 The National Perspective Plan for Women (1988-2000) gave a thrust to the public discourse on ‘women and land’ which was in the air since the eighties. In fact its recommendations made the issue of women’s access to land as the most crucial question in the field of land reforms. It recommended that the allotment of government wastelands, government land, ceiling surplus land, village common land and developed house sites should invariably be done in the name of women or joint names of the husband and wife. 10 Subsequently the New Agricultural Policy 2000, the National Policy for Empowerment of Women 2001 and the National Farmers Commission 2006, all have stressed the need to espouse the cause of women farmers and to strengthen their land rights for the sake of food security and material wellbeing.11
Land reforms being a state subject under the federal set up, the Government of Odisha under the prodding of the Planning Commission and the Central Government have enacted a number of land reform laws since independence. It has implemented some laws effectively to a certain extent especially in the field of tenancy reforms to benefit the sharecroppers and in the distribution of ceiling surplus land among the landless. However, the land reform laws have largely failed to target women in the state. The 59th round of National Sample Survey found that in 2003 around 9.6 per cent of women in Odisha lived in households that were absolutely landless.12 In this context an examination of the laws enacted by the Central Government as well as by the Government of Odisha to take care of the interest of women would help to form an idea concerning women’s access to land in the state.
DIFFERENT MEANS TO ACCESS LAND
Generally there are three different means through which women could gain access to land, namely; inheritance, government transfer and the market. For the bulk of Hindu population of the country, the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 prior to its amendment in 2005 generally governed the rights relating to intestate succession i.e. inheritance in the absence of will. It was the first law in independent India to address gender inequalities in the area of inheritance among the Hindus. The Act as amended in 2005, entitles a daughter to inherit family property including agricultural land on par with the son. Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 allows an aggrieved wife to stay in the house of the husband but it does not bestow the right to equal ownership of land unless the land is owned separately with title deeds clearly specified.13 The Orissa Land Reform Act, 1960 exempts ‘persons under disability’ and ‘privileged raiyats’ from the restriction of leasing out the land to tenants. Person under disability includes widows or unmarried women or women divorced or separated from her husband by a decree or order of a court. This provision allows female heads of households to lease out their land for cultivation when leasing is otherwise prohibited.14 Thus, the law allows only female heads of household to exercise control over land but for other married women living with their husband control over land is subsumed under the family. Again the law does not mention the order of devolution of tenancy land whether it would be according to personal law or would follow a different order. Hence this provision is open to interpretation. The definition of ‘family ‘as provided in Orissa Land Reform Act relating to fixation of ceiling on land holdings also reflects gender inequalities in the law. The Act defines the ‘family’ as the individual and his/her spouse and their children whether major or minor. Later the law was amended to include married daughters whereas a childless widow is not considered to be a member of her deceased husband’s family.15 However, the Orissa Land reforms Act appears quite progressive from the aspect that it allows land gifted to a daughter on the occasion of her marriage to be excluded from the computation of the ceiling area of the father.16
The state distributes land as a measure of social justice in various ways viz. taking away land from landowners owning more land than the prescribed ceiling limit and distributing the same among the landless, in resettlement schemes as compensation for lands lost due to displacement and as a poverty alleviation measure. The Government of Odisha in 2002 decided to allot at least 40 per cent of government waste land kept for agriculture and house site purpose, ceiling surplus land and bhoodan land, to widows, unmarried women, victimized women and women living below the poverty line. The government also stressed that at least 40 per cent of this land should be allotted to women belonging to Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes.17 However it is seen that the land laws in different states recognizes men as the head of the household and therefore land given by the government to the landless poor in different states has largely been given to men. In addition, adult sons often get special consideration especially in the distribution of ceiling surplus land and counted as separate one. But by contrast, unmarried adult daughters get totally excluded in most states, since they are not considered as members of their natal families. It is pertinent to note here that Kerala is the only exception where both unmarried adult sons and daughter were counted as separate units. Judging from this perspective, the Orissa Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy, 2006 appears quite progressive as it states that unmarried daughters/sisters more than 30 years of age are to be treated as separate families. Further physically challenged persons, orphans who are minors, widows and women divorcees are also to be treated as separate families.18 The Scheduled Tribe and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers’ (Reorganization of Forest) Act, 2006 provides for joint title deeds for husband and wife to land given under this Act 19 The National Rehabilitation and Resettlement policy, 2007 has also declared to allot land or houses to the affected families under the policy in the joint names of wife and husband.
Some state level studies undertaken in the past20 has revealed that the market obviously is not a promising and viable source for improving women’s access to land as sale and purchase of agricultural land is very limited. The situation emerging in Odisha relating to the sale and purchase of land too shows no deviation from other states. In fact, a survey conducted in the two districts of Cuttack and Dhenkanal found that only around 5-7 per cent of village land was sold or purchased over the 30 years period from 1965-95.21 Further limited financial resources in the hands of rural women often constraint them to purchase land from the market which is not always readily available for purchase. However, Andhra Pradesh has taken some notable steps to improve women’s access to land. The Government of Andhra Pradesh is now providing subsidized loans for land purchase to poor women. The recently launched land purchase programme of the government of Andra Pradesh in partnership with civil society organizations as a part of its Indira Kranthi Patham(JKP) project is helping landless female agricultural labourers to purchase land.22 Besides the market, another viable option which could improve women’s access to land to a certain extent is the land obtained on lease. Though most Indian states have legally banned leasing out of agricultural land, informal and insecure leasing continues. The 59th round of NSS data indicate that about 11.5 per cent rural household in India lease in land which account for nearly 7.1 per cent of the total area.23 However land obtained through lease or purchase are means of secondary nature to improve women’s access to land.
Thus it appears that women enjoy certain land rights in statute but in practical field significant and persistent gaps exist between women’s legal rights and their actual ownership of land. This is largely because of the patriarchal outlook and deep-rooted gender-based social norms and customs that strongly prevails in our country and ran deep into our culture. In fact, women’s right in land in our country is shaped by personal law, marital and inheritance pattern and religious practices which in turn limit the scope of exercising the legal rights of women to land. The Hindu Succession Act as amended in 2005 though allow a women to share parental land, this provision is hardly taken advantage of by women owing to cultural constraint. But though social values, norms and customs in India stood on the way of women and their effective land rights, improving their access to land would certainly cast positive effect on women’s and their family welfare, poverty reduction and women’s empowerment. Ironically, the bulk of women in rural and urban areas are largely unaware of the various rights given to them in the land laws that are current in the country. In this context strengthening the land rights of women and providing them greater access to land largely depend on a variety of programmes viz. social mobilization for change in attitude toward women, pro-women policies in the agenda of land reforms and reforms in the legal system.
1. Tebhaga movement was witnessed in Bengal and Telengana movement in Andhra Pradesh.
2. Agarwal Bina, Gender and Land Rights Revisited: Exploring New Prospects via the State, Family and Market, Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 3, Nos. 1and2, January and April 2003, p. 185.
3. Desai Neera and Thakkar Usha, Women in Indian Society, New Delhi, 2001, p. 39.
4. Agarwal Bina, Are We Not Peasants Too? Land Rights and Women’s Claims in India, Seeds, No.21, 2002, p.2.
5. Haque T. Improving the Rural Poors’ Access to Land in India, p.11. Retrieved from http://indiagovernance.gov.in/files/improving-rural-poor-access-to-land-t-haque.pdf.
6. Paydar Naveed, Linking Land Rights to Livelihoods: Towards Upholding Women’s Property and Inheritance Rights in the Developing World, Mini-Conference Paper, 2012, Indiana University. p. 5.
7. Basu DD. Shorter Constitution of India, New Delhi, 1981, p. 26 and 53.
8. Agarwal Bina,(2003) op. cit., p. 186.
9. United Nations Development Programme, Status Report - Land Rights and Ownership in Orissa, New Delhi, August 2008, p.25
10. Government of India, Committee on State Agrarian Relations and Unfinished Task of Land Reforms, Ministry of Rural Development, Vol. I, Draft Report, New Delhi, p. 107. http://www.rd.ap.gov.in/IKPLand/MRD_Committee_Report_v_01_mar_09.pdf.
11. Rao Nitya, Women’s Access to Land-An Asian Perspective, Expert paper, UN Women, Accra, Ghana, 20-23 September 2011, p. 3.
12. Haque T. op. cit., p. 5.
13. An Advocacy Guide to Understanding Women’s Access to Land Rights in South Asia, Paper submitted by Dhaatri Resource Centre for Women and Children, Samata to International Land Coalition and IFID, Rome, March, 2010, p. 17. Retrieved from http://ebookbrowse.com/advocacy-guide to understanding-land-rights-of-women-in-south-asia,pdf.
14. Government of Odisha, Land Tenure and Land Reforms in Orissa, Cuttack, 1962, p. 135.
15. Mearns Robin and Sinha Saurabh, Social Exclusion and Land Administration in Orissa, India. Policy Research Working Paper 2124, the World Bank, South Asian Region, Rural Development Sector Unit, 1999, p. 15.
16. Ibid. p. 16.
17. Patnaik K and Patnaik PP. Land Alienaion and its Dimensions: A Study of Scheduled Districts of Orissa, New Delhi, 2011, p. 47.
18. The Orissa Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy, 2006. Retrieved from http://orissa.gov.in/e-magazine/orissaannualreference/OR-Annual-2009 /pdf, p. 314.
19. The Gazette of India, Extraordinary, Part-II, Section-1, Ministry of Lawand Justice, New Delhi, 2nd January, 2007.
20. A study conducted on the sale and purchase of agricultural land in U. P found that only 4.1 per cent of land had been sold over a thirty years period from 1950s to 1980s. Agarwal Bina (2002), op. cit, p.13.
21. Mearns Robin and Sinha Saurabh, op. cit, p.28.
22. Hanstad Tim, Haque T. and Nielsen Robin, Improving Land Access for India’s Rural Poor, Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai, Vol. XLII, No. 10, 2008, p.53.
23. Haque T. op. cit, p.6.