Surrounded by sun-drenched paddy fields interspersed with jackfruit and banana trees, Sanakusupadu is a hamlet in Odisha’s tribal-dominated district of Rayagada. Here, almost every married woman owns land.

No matter how small the holding, land documents of the 62 households in this village bear the names of the women landholders alongside those of their husbands.

Shanti Zilakara points to the second box on the laminated sheet of yellowing paper in her hand. Her name appears in the ownership section, followed by her husband’s, Ramchandra Zilakara. “This is our land—mine as well as his," Shanti says proudly. Like many people in the remote reaches of rural India, Shanti does not know her date of birth or approximate age.

A Scheduled Tribe girl in Rayagada, a district with a tribal population of 56%.
A Scheduled Tribe girl in Rayagada, a district with a tribal population of 56%.

Arguably, the paperwork that the women of Sanakusupadu brandish is emblematic of equality rather than truly representative of the power dynamics between men and women in the state. Odisha is certainly an outlier when it comes to women’s ownership of houses—as is borne out by data gathered in the fourth round (2015-16) of the National Family and Health Survey (NFHS). Odisha is also among the top three states for land ownership by women.

According to the NFHS, 63% of women and 85% of men in the state own a house alone or jointly, compared to the national average of 37% for women and 65% for men. The NFHS also reports that 47% of women, and 69% of men, in Odisha, own land alone or jointly. The national average stands at 28% for women and 49% for men.

Ground realities, however, point to a less rosy picture. The Zilakaras own 0.7 acres of land, part of an allotment made by the government in 2010, under the The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (or Forest Rights Act). Joint titling is mandatory in such cases—which means the names of both husband and wife are included as owners in the title deed. Joint titling, whether of forest land or revenue land, is aimed at protecting the rights of women. This is a significant move in a country like India, where just 12.8% of women own land, though they account for 32% of the agricultural labour force and contribute an estimated 55-66% to farm production. The average size of their land-holdings is 0.93 hectares (ha) compared to 1.18 ha for men. The overall average land holding is 1.15 ha.

Powerless and Dependent

“Land and property rights have been consciously used over historical periods to keep women powerless and dependent, to demean their autonomy, self-determination, equality and personal security," said Govind Kelkar of Landesa at the India Land and Development Conference held in Delhi in February. Landesa is a Seattle-based organization that works on land rights globally. “If land is there in the woman’s name," she continued, “an extensive range of power comes with it."

In India, women primarily own land through inheritance. Since inheritance is governed by customs and customary laws, many of which are skewed against them, there is a gap between titular ownership and actual managerial control over the land.

In Rayagada, 70.28% of working women are agricultural labourers, while 12.75 % are cultivators.
In Rayagada, 70.28% of working women are agricultural labourers, while 12.75 % are cultivators.

In the hilly terrain of Sanakusupadu, women know what joint pattas are, and are familiar with at least some of the broad benefits that come with it, though, unlike Shanti, not all of them really understand the need for such equality. “If my husband dies, I will get the land," says Shanti. “And if I die before him, he will get the land. It’s only fair." Ironically, the document in Shanti’s hand only has a photograph of the husband, though no such provision is mentioned by the government.

Secure and equitable land rights of women is an important aspect of the post-2015 sustainable development goals (SDGs) of the UN. It is considered to have a potentially transformational role in the achievement of four of the 17 SDGs, including ending poverty, ensuring food security, achieving gender equality, and empowering women. Land is a state subject in India, so success, whether in terms of statistics or ground reality, is determined by the steps state governments take.

Odisha’s gender story

In the 1980s, the Odisha government started formulating progressive, gender-equitable policies like the homestead land grants programme, and mandating joint titles when settling government land and ceiling surplus lands to landless families. In the late 1980s, under the administration of chief minister J.B. Patnaik, a series of circulars were issued to settle government lands and house sites in the names of both wife and husband. Similarly, it was mandated that for forest rights, recognized under the Forest Rights Act, the names of spouses were necessary. The state government also made provision to allot land in the name of vulnerable women—widows, unmarried and divorced women, and women living below the poverty line.

In the hilly terrain of Sanakusupadu, most women know what joint titling is and are aware of the need for land ownership.
In the hilly terrain of Sanakusupadu, most women know what joint titling is and are aware of the need for land ownership.

“The spike in the numbers (NFHS figures) could be because of the homestead land grant," says Pranab Ranjan Choudhury, convener of the Centre for Land Governance, Odisha. “Odisha has shown some improvement over time. And this should be looked at through multiple angles—policy, institutions, ground reality and data. In terms of policy, Odisha has done quite well, on the women and girl child policy, the state agreeing to include gender in land records, reduction of stamp duty, becoming a pioneer in implementing the joint patta system."

Choudhury says the state has not been able to create many institutions, but has supported initiatives by different civil rights groups and NGOs. “Even though they agreed to incorporate gender in land records, and grant homestead titles in the name of single women, there is no mechanism to monitor if women are getting possession, whether women are getting less or more land," he says.

Traditionally, single women have not been able to avail themselves of benefits under various schemes. To address their rights in land allocation programmes, the state established women’s land rights facilitation centres (now known as women support centres, or WSCs) in 2010, in partnership with NGOs like Landesa and Action Aid. Following a pilot project in one sub-district, the programme was extended to seven districts, with 88 WSCs. The Landesa website states that as of last year, nearly 200,000 single women have been identified in more than 7,500 villages in four districts. Of these, 21% have been found eligible for land titles, either through inheritance or the homestead allocation programme.

Choudhury says both the state administration and the Central government have the right intent. But on the ground there are gaps in terms of public awareness. “We aren’t just talking about land, we are dealing with patriarchy," he says. “When it comes to land ownership in the country, there is a huge gap in data, in terms of the methodology used, and how data is presented vis-à-vis land ownership," Choudhury adds.

Does land ownership mean women empowerment?

There are different databases for gender-disaggregated land data, such as NFHS, India Human Development Survey (IHDS), population census, agriculture census and socio-economic caste census. These databases record different kinds of information on land rights, women’s land rights in particular. Yet each seems to tell a different story.

“Different surveys ask different sets of questions and are done by different agencies," says Manas Ranjan Pradhan, assistant professor, International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai. Pradhan was one of the 10 coordinators for NFHS-4. “We need to analyse the design and representativeness of those surveys. For NFHS, the results are just based on what the respondents have said. We don’t check revenue records. But NFHS is the most scientifically done survey in India and the chances of discrepancies are minimal."

Ownership has different meanings in varying contexts, from the name on a title deed to the person who controls family land. “All this looks good on paper," says Asha Hans, a former professor in the department of political science at Utkal University, Odisha. “But beyond that? We need to ensure that policies are implemented well and result in real ownership. And then we need to see that ownership translates into empowerment of women."

As Amrita Patel, state coordinator, Odisha State Resource Centre for Women, says, things have been changing due to the cumulative effect of multiple things at multiple levels. “Land ownership…empowerment are very intangible things. But how do we capture impact (of schemes meant for empowerment)? It is the large-scale data sets that give us a feel of what is happening on the ground. In the case of Odisha, there is focus administratively to ensure joint titling and house-building assistance in favour of women. Odisha need not necessarily create more institutions or new schemes, but we need to ensure universal implementation of all we have in place so that the benefits reach the last mile," says Patel. Odisha still has a long way to go.

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