Who owns the pond?  

    by Sathya Raghu V. Mokkapati
    Thursday, 8 March 2018 10:30 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A woman farmer drinks water from an earthen pot in a wheat field on the outskirts of Ajmer in the desert Indian state of Rajasthan, April 4, 2015. REUTERS/Himanshu Sharma

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

What can be done to improve women's access to land?

“Everyone thinks that I am worthless; had I inherited that land, people would have shown me respect,” I recall my grandmother saying, with pain in her voice, when she was in her 70s and I was 14-years-old.

Her father gave property to my grandfather (his son-in-law), but not to her, his own daughter, and it always bothered her, up until the day she died. The disparity in land ownership  influenced the power dynamics and decision-making process in their home. If she was the owner or co-owner, she would have been involved more actively in key decisions. She once said, “If women were given equal rights in land, they couldn’t be thrown out or beaten up. Land couldn’t be mortgaged or sold without our signatures.”

My grandmother, like many other women, believed that land ownership has more to do with dignity than just wealth. And sadly, her plight is a familiar story for many women farmers who account for a third of the workforce in agriculture, but less than 10% of the land owners. If land is owned in the name of a man, then the loan will be given to him. Documents will be signed by him. A woman working the land is clearly the one with less power and this can create dynamics for domestic violence.

Improved control over assets such as land can have powerful consequences for women’s autonomy and well-being. It helps them get access to credit, have economic independence, choice, dignity, greater economic security for the family, and better chances of nutrition and education for kids.

WHAT DO THE LAWS SAY?

In India, the Hindu Succession Act was amended in 2005 to grant equal rights in inheritance of land, including agricultural land, to men and women but this was applicable only going forward. Then, on 2nd February 2018, the Supreme Court in India gave an historic judgment stating that all women will get equal rights in inheritance, even if they were born before 2005.

The court concluded there should be no inequality whatsoever in the rights and liabilities between men and women regarding inheritance. However, agricultural land rights have more complications, as Allahabad High Court gave a ruling in 2014 saying that regulations regarding agricultural land should be decided by the state and that parliament has no power to enact in this regard. States like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala in India included women rights for inheriting agricultural lands, but many others have not created such provision. The recent Supreme Court judgment does not explicitly talk about agricultural land.

This leaves questions about agricultural land ownership and inheritance.

WHAT MORE SHOULD BE DONE? 

I believe that there are four key steps which can take us to gender equality in land rights.

Firstly, all existing properties including agricultural lands, which are held largely by men, should be transferred from single ownership to joint ownership with women in the family. Today, such a transfer of land attracts payment towards property registration fees and taxes, popularly called as stamp duty, of about 10% to the government. This should be waived off and such transfers should be made mandatory. Without this, agricultural subsidies should not be granted.

India can look to various African nations that have already taken on gender equality. The Ethiopian government issued land title deeds in the joint names of spouses in 2003, for instance. In Rwanda, land reforms in 1999 gave women equal land rights that have helped reduce inequalities.

Secondly, regulation is only as good as its implementation. Regulation is just a technical solution. The real question is whether intentions on papers change the lives of women. No doubt, a massive behavioral change is needed to truly make a difference. Government and NGOs should partner to sensitize and create awareness about land rights and educate women on why they are important for them to move out of poverty and men on why it benefits the whole family to empower women. To have widespread land ownership changes there must be effective center-state coordination. More NGOs like Landese, which helps poor, rural women and men gain secure rights to land, need to monitor whether results reach last mine.

Thirdly, uniform land rights should be implemented across all religions. While regulation for Hindu women holding land got better over time, Muslim women farmers, who are bound by Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937, are not seeing sunny days yet. Muslim women only get one-third of the estate while the men get two-thirds. Many states exclude Muslim women from rights in agricultural land, contrary to their rights under the Shariat, which is Muslim Personal law. There is no reason why Muslim women should be deprived of good regulations. Matters relating to women have to do with human rights and dignity, not just faith.

And finally, there should be fast-track courts at every district level to ensure that matters relating to women and land rights are resolved in a timely manner. Courts should acknowledge that strengthening women’s land rights is a shared responsibility.

Land is not just an asset, it also is an opportunity for people to pull themselves out of poverty. If you give a woman a fish, you feed her for a day; if you teach a woman to fish and you feed her for a lifetime. But who owns the pond? Definitely not my grandmother, but perhaps the next generation of women will.

Sathya Raghu V Mokkapati is the co-founder of Cosmos Green.

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