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Discourse on Women’s Land Rights Needs Change of Lens

By Sanjoy Patnaik

The bulk of contemporary global literature on women’s land rights, largely emerging out of the work by practitioners and researchers at country level in the last two decades or more, has primarily focused on two key factors; a) why women need land and b) what are the key barriers to women getting land. Broadly, this body of literature has dealt with hypotheses relating to what happens when women get or don’t get access to land and data on the extent of women’s engagement with and contribution to the farm sector globally in terms of the percentage of women owning land and contribution to the family food basket as compared to men, listing out a host of deprivations like lack of access to credit, absence of agricultural training and extension, procurement, support price and so on. Some of this literature has consistently reiterated how land to women had resulted in better school enrolment, increased access to food and family income and reduced incidences of domestic violence. Besides, there is growing concern over the poor execution of property inheritance laws and provisions that is largely responsible for women not getting ownership over family land.

The hypotheses carry the presumption that tenurial security over land is a pre-condition to farm sector growth and productivity, including a range of benefits and entitlements provided by government like access to housing, credit, caste and residential proof and so on. Land, therefore, is a gatekeeper right that triggers a range of benefits and entitlements. There is also another perspective of considering land as a necessary condition for many services, implying that a number of entitlements don’t flow without land ownership.

Over the last one decade, such literature has been successful in creating a big constituency of practitioners advocating land tenure reforms as the key mover of agrarian growth in the developing world, but it has been slow in facilitating larger policy action due to absence of credible evidence. This poverty of evidence can be attributed to a number of factors including the lack of adequate and qualitative evidence building research at the country level which makes available global literature on women’s land rights repetitive and predictable. What appears to be a stiff challenge to country level evidence building research is the convergence of multiple development institutions, programmes and finance at the village level making attribution of growth to land ownership difficult.

There are a handful of women’s property rights advocates globally using more or less similar language and arguments by generously borrowing from each other making such literature extremely predictable. The literature that circulates in the global women’s property rights space is strangely uniform in its strengths and limitations. Often, there is either dearth of critical data or a visible mismatch between the available data and the claims presented. For instance, Bill Gates believes that Green Revolution (GR) 2.0 is about technological solutions within the farm sector that would benefit approximately 500 million small and marginal holders globally. He also stressed that GR 2.0 would become inclusive by integrating growing gender concerns in farm sector. Here it makes perfect sense to propose and dovetail arguments around why land tenure security for women could be crucial for the success of GR 2.0.  There is, however, a data deficit to even infer that small and marginal farmers, especially women, may not be able to take advantage of the available technological innovations if they don’t own land.

A recent Landesa – Cadasta blog on women land rights, an extremely well written piece, makes a strong case for land tenure security for women as a precondition for agricultural productivity and increased income.

‘Without secure land rights, women often do not have the security, opportunity, or incentive to invest in their land to improve their agricultural production and their lives. Without land rights, they often cannot access formal credit, agricultural training, and other programs. Women work the land as agricultural laborers instead of farming as owners or managers who invest in tools and other inputs to maximize output over the long-term’. (Opinion: The Green Revolution reboot: Women’s land rights, 2nd July 2018).

Inherent in this postulation are two assumptions; a) that the benefits of GR 2.0 can be best enjoyed by the small and marginal holders if they own land that will enable increased access to credit, training, extension and so on and b) land tenure security would lead to the success of GR 2.0. Theoretically, such an assumption is correct and carries strength. But let’s see what actually happens on the ground.

In India, for instance, state and national governments have been very smart in delinking land ownership from a number of benefits and entitlements to ensure they reach an increased number of targets faster and without much procedural hassle. For micro-capital generation, thrift and credit societies and self-help groups are pumped in with huge amounts of resources to enhance decentralised access to credit, though with a relatively high interest rate. Similarly, nationalised banks are asked to create soft loan slabs and create provisions for credit disbursements to small and marginal holders without collateral security. Moreover, conscious efforts are being made to increase the outreach of rural credit network by strengthening the Primary Agricultural Cooperative Societies (PACS). Rural banking outfits like NABARD are forming Joint Liability Groups to ensure that people without land have access to credit. Provision for agricultural training and extension services are made by the state agriculture department and by a plethora of bilateral and government livelihood programmes, where land ownership is not mandatory. While state and national governments do recognise the importance of and need for women owning land, they don’t necessarily link it to faster growth than the pace at which land reforms has moved since independence in 1947.

Moreover, the hypothesis of land ownership causing increased agricultural growth needs a serious re-look because; a) consistent slow rate of farm growth, b) fast shifting of workforce from farm to non-farm sector, and c) increased corporatisation of the farm sector. It is important to note that the ongoing debate around increased feminisation of agriculture largely relates to women getting engaged as agricultural labourers where land ownership is desirable but not mandatory. The proposed and pending Women’s Farmers Bill and the women’s property rights collectives in the country advocating an enhanced role for women in the farm sector do not strongly weave in land ownership into women farmer discussion either. Secondly, low agricultural productivity, coupled with increasing opportunities of job and allocation of homestead plots in urban spaces, is expected to further accelerate the rural-urban migration, causing a corresponding shift of work force from farm to non-farm sector. In a high migration scenario, women who stay back should own land. But mere land ownership without increased productivity may not make much sense. Thirdly, growing corporatisation of the farm sector for increased production using leasing reforms and contract farming provisions entirely delinks productivity from ownership. While answering a common question, ‘Can corporates wait to invest till the unfinished task of land reforms is achieved?’, states have smartly opted for short term and faster gains like increased income, possibly from off-farm sources, than waiting to increase production after attaining land reforms.

Globally women don’t easily inherit land whether it is Niger, Nicaragua or India, though all these countries have a host of elaborate property inheritance laws. It is evident that the presence of strong patriarchy turns progressive laws into a liability for women. There is hardly any country where it is mandatory to have family land jointly titled in the name of both spouses. While rural women hardly purchase land, the only lands that are jointly titled are the homestead parcels, invariably the size of a tennis court or even less. Whether owners or not, women work as farm labour both in the homestead and bigger farm fields saving family money that would have been otherwise spent as labour payment. Similarly, the savings made through production of vegetables from home gardens that goes straight to the kitchen is often invisible. If at all surplus vegetables are sold in local markets, the money so earned usually goes into buying eggs that men and boys consume. Therefore, a man’s income is his personal income whereas a woman’s income is family income. Moreover, in the above scenario, income from land flows if women own land but does not stop if women don’t own it. There is very little data available to show the comparative rise in income between land owning and land using women.

Last but not the least is the question of attribution. Considering the wide range of public investments done though multiplicity of village/community institutions in rural areas, the arguments attributing women’s empowerment to land ownership do not look strong. Increased income and awareness either through the mushroom growth of women’s self-help groups (SHGs), enhanced outreach of wage work (MGNREGA) and increased presence of last mile players could be the reason for increased school enrolment. Besides, land ownership is no more mandatory for caste and residential proof in tribal areas. The sub-district land revenue officer (Tehsildar) or the local Sarpanch (head of village council) are empowered to issue such certificates on submission of an affidavit for the claim. The provision may be a little cumbersome but has been made part of the public service provision to be addressed faster.

The objective behind the arguments made above is not to even remotely suggest that women don’t need to own land. There is a growing body of knowledge that proves that land ownership is crucial for women to lead a dignified life. But I think it is time to look back and ask whether the body of evidence created to make a strong case for women’s land rights is strong enough to withstand challenges from non-believers. It is time for practitioners and researchers to nurture a feeling of dissatisfaction and hunger for more data, smart analysis and validation of existing data and increased engagement in large scale country level action research for developing game changing hypotheses and arguments for enhanced policy action enabling land ownership for women faster and smoother than it is now.

The author carries an experience of more than two decades in forest and land tenure space and served in different capacities to advance land and forest rights in India, till recently was the India Country Director, Landesa.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same).

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