A singular approach or a one-track solution is not possible to address the issue of women’s land rights in India. This was the basic conclusion that emerged from the two-day National-level Workshop at Jamshedpur (Jharkhand, India) in October 2017 as a part of the Commitment-Based Initiative on Women’s Land Rights of International Land Coalition. The workshop was hosted by Swadhina.
The National Workshop gave an excellent scope to inspect and understand the basic flaws, challenges and scope of implementation of women’s rights over her land in India. Having representatives from the indigenous community, farmer’s rights initiatives, land rights organizations and local government representatives, the workshop provided an excellent and in-depth study of the women’s land rights situation in India. Not just discussions, the workshop was enriched by in-depth presentations from different organizations working on the issue of land rights and social justice.
The socio-legal challenges: As veteran land activist Jagat Narayan well explained in his opening remarks, land rights for women cannot be judged from a single perspective. It needs to be analysed from religious, constitutional /legal and social perspective. He said that in India, women’s land or property ownership is guided by the laws which is religion-dependant. Hence the rights of a Hindu woman differs greatly from that of a Muslim woman and vice versa. In this context he clearly explained the differences in ownership as per the provisions in one’s religion. He felt that there is a strong need to reanalyze the laws based on the current context where women are to be treated as equal citizen’s of the world.
Echoing his feelings, most of the participants felt that the differences in legal rights based on religion often made it challenging to build awareness – making it difficult to explain different legal rights to different set of communities.
Mariam Masih of Samekit Jan Vikas Kendra, who works with indigenous women’s groups explained her helplessness saying that often discussions about granting equal rights to women, especially land rights, lead the communities to believe that the social worker has come to instigate the women against their communities or custom.
Social Conditioning: Panchayat leader Sukurmoni Hembram said that land rights of women was often curbed by social reasoning which is based on social conditioning. Since a girl is ‘given away ’in marriage with a huge dowry, it is often argued that the dowry is given ‘in lieu’ of land or property with the expectation that she will not return to her parents house to claim her property. In fact this is often the reasoning put up by the male relatives of the girl’s family that she cannot claim her share because it has already been sold away to arrange for her dowry.
Social activitist Lalita too emphasized on the need to look into addressing the problem in a holistic manner rather than focus only on legal rights. ‘ It is often the women who express their reluctance to claim a share of their husband’s property or her father’s piece of land’, she explained. Whatever is theirs is mine as well – is the common argument put up by them. Hence when the same woman is widowed or left by her husband, she cannot counter argue her own explanation since she is socially conditioned to believe that it is her destiny to be dependent on the men-folk.
Land rights of Indigenous women- custom versus need: One thing that emerged as a whole was that the issue of land rights among indigenous communities should be looked at with utmost care and with a perspective beyond the legal parlance. David Murmu, having been a tribal voice for years, explained how the indigenous rules of land ownership was originally developed as a means to protect the tribal land from being vested to non-tribals. He explained that the tribal land laws focus on protection of land as a community, hence back then the issue of separate land demarcation or rights for women was not seen to be necessary since the question of survival and food security was the responsibility of the total community. The obstruction to separate land rights to women was a means to protect the scheduled area for the tribals. However with changing times, it is essential to find out how widows and single women could be protected within the purview of customary land laws.
Yashoda Mardi, a tribal grass-root leader pointed out yet another challenge of tribal land laws – absence of proper documentation. “ The khatiyan is often in the name of the great grand father and there is no change of name done in the land document so technically even the man is not the land-owner as per papers, so the question of division of land of claiming the land in the name of the woman comes to a dead-end solution”.
Land Documentation and records- a big hurdle: Vijendra representing organization BJSA from Uttar Pradesh highlighted the issue of absence of proper land documentation and land records. In rural areas, land demarcations, land boundaries, land ownerships are often a matter of verbal understanding rather than any written records. Either the land documents are not available or are lost over the period of time. M.A.Khan from FES, Odisha was of the same opinion. “Most of the land divisions do not have any written records, in such circumstances it becomes extremely challenging to earmark land for women or even for families.” Additionally, he felt that the land records maintained by the government departments are also not adequate or accessible. This poses a huge challenge in case of redistribution of land of commons too. A lot of land for redistribution among the landless and women’s groups is often available but due to the absence of proper information as well as lack of proper documentation, the distribution policy is affected. A system of proper maintenance of land records would ensure that the women would be able to access data on available land for collective use.
Land acquisition and compensation: Land acquisition for welfare purposes often benefit the men-folk rather than women. Apart from the fact that it leads to displacement which affect the women more, the compensation is often beneficial for the men rather than the women.
Being associated with Social Audit, Jagat Narayan explained how the different rules and regulations were often unknowingly gender discriminatory. He cited an example where a woman was the land owner but when her land was taken by the government for welfare purpose, she was offered a compensation. But since did not have a bank account or the requisite documents to have a bank account, the money went to her husband who had a bank account. So, inspite of being the legal owner, the technical challenges prevented her from getting what was rightfully hers.
Recognition as women farmers: Jacob Nellithanam, long associated with farmer’s rights initiatives, throwing in a debate as to whether owning a land legally would actually translate into land rights of a woman ? Or is it merely a power entrapped in documentation ? When we are talking of women’s land rights, are we also thinking of her recognition as farmers ? He said that when we are talking of equal land rights in an indigenous situation we need to be cautious that we do not disturb their farming techniques. He gave examples as to how the tribal communities, where majorly women do the farming, are falling prey to the modern system of growing cash crops rather than food crops. This is against the tribal culture. He felt that along with their right over their land, women should be empowered and recognized as farmers. This would enhance their decision-making power and they would then be able to protect their indigenous agro-system, including protection of their seeds.
Those present also felt that recognition of women as farmers is long due. Adequate support to women farmers, granting schemes exclusively for them and helping them improve their productivity and decision-making power are important.
Mariam Masih, drawing from her own experience of working amongst the tribal communities and helped more than 300 women have their kitchen garden, said that encouraging women to have their own kitchen garden was a very emphatic way to point out to the society how successful women can be in farming. It is a small but symbolic gesture of social recognition of women as farmers. She also placed the inclusion of women in village gram sabha and farmer’s committees, co-operatives and groups to be important step towards a gender-inclusive agricultural system.
Steps towards a gender-balanced land and agricultural system: The discussion and feedback from the participants presented a number of steps to ensure a gender-balanced land and agricultural system.
1) There is a need to revisit and analyse existent land laws to find out possible scope of incorporating the rights of women within the structure.
2) There are laws but definite lack of awareness on the laws as well so awareness is the key to ensure that the laws are implemented as well.
3) In the same lines, there is a need to strengthen advocacy at the macro level so that there are genuine efforts on behalf of the local government and administration to ensure that right to land for women are adequately protected.
4) A wide study -reaching to different communities, different contexts and encompassing different strata of the society- must be undertaken nationwise so as to analyse the actual reach and implementation of land laws, land and property related schemes which directly benefit women.
5) There is a need to improve the land documentation process – tying loose ends, helping families locate their land documents, maintaining a proper data-bank of available land for redistribution, land of commons available for collective usage of women and most of all, ensuring that common people, especially women have access to that information.
6) Efforts should be made on behalf of the government so that land-ownership is always considered joint and for that compulsory marriage registration process must be strengthened.
7) Rights of women should be tied to other social processes so that ‘’ownership’’ and women can be visualized as a socially-acceptable terminology – like having housing schemes for women, electricity connection in the name of women etc.
8) Encouraging more village women’s groups, encouraging inclusion and participation of women in village collectives and decision-making bodies like Farmer’s Groups, Co-operatives and regular participation of women in Gram Sabha where major decisions are taken.
9) Changing the social mind-set is not easy but certain rectifying actions can be taken like encouraging allotment of a piece of land in the name of the girl during marriage instead of giving dowry. This would provide her a financial protection, as well as stop vices like dowry system.
10) Emphasising the role of women as farmers – adequately supporting them and helping them have access to knowledge and monetary power.
11) Forming a network of NGOs, CBOs , like-minded groups which work on the issue of land rights to come together to help strengthen the gender perspective of land rights and develop a collective workplan.
The workshop concluded with the pledge to continue with activism on the issue, using this platform to continue with this network of NGOs, activists and local government representatives.