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Three-quarters of a century since India won its freedom, gender equality remains a distant dream. In acknowledgement of how far we must go, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked for an attitudinal shift across the country in favour of ‘Nari Shakti’—or women’s power—in his national address on 15 August. “Respect for women," he said, “is an important pillar for India’s growth." For women’s empowerment to prove substantive from an economic point of view, what matters are not just avenues of income defined by job opportunities, but also control over assets. This is especially so in the context of mass deprivation at the grassroots level. As the economist Hernando de Soto alerted us in The Mystery of Capital, legal ownership of land can make all the difference between poverty and the ability to escape it. What works in general applies all the more to women living in India’s countryside who often find their agency constrained by weak command over the farmland they till. This is why the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals require us to track the status of women’s land rights. Sadly, though, the real picture on this remains unclear.

We have little by way of reliable and up-to-date data on land control by gender. Released last year, the fifth round of the National Family Health Survey for 2020-21 reported a drop in the country’s women aged 15-49 saying they owned a house or land (either solely or jointly) to less than a quarter from over a third back in 2015-16. But not only does this survey club all forms of property and title rights together, its thin-slice sample and response variations put its statistical validity in doubt. Independent studies have thrown up even lower numbers. For a wide estimate, we must go back to the Census of 2011, which had dismal figures. About 98 million women were found to be engaged in agriculture and allied activities, with most working as labour rather than cultivators. Land-owners were a small subset of the latter, with less than 13% of Indian farmland under female ownership. This reflects a patriarchal scenario in which land-owning men migrate to cities, leaving their farms for womenfolk to work on. Note that almost a third of rural households are estimated to be headed by women. For them to exercise legal authority, however, the land they sow needs to be registered in their name. At the very least, it would help them obtain credit.

Land possession remains largely dependent on inheritance and property rights for women have been a long battle against our traditional patterns of patrilineal succession. A pre-1947 reform effort sought to assure widows a share in estate legacies, while the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 laid down equal distribution of property among all inheritors, irrespective of gender, as the broad majority norm. This law was amended in 2005 to specifically grant sons and daughters equal rights to joint-family property. Among Muslims, an age-old provision often prevails by which sons get twice the share (on an avowal to provide for their sisters if need be). In either case, acquired land can still be passed along as willed by its owner. Disputes usually involve ancestral estates. But not all go to court, with women cheated of their due typically put under heavy family pressure to grin and bear it. The social dynamics that come into play over land contribute hugely to female deprivation. Unfortunately, reformist moves have achieved little in rural India. This is a vital part of all that we must fix if we are to empower women.

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