Hands that harvest security from agricultural lands

Hands that harvest security from agricultural lands

While presenting the Union Budget in the Parliament earlier this year, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram had emphatically declared: "There is nothing that can stop India from becoming the third largest economy in the world." But agriculture and land rights activists do not see that happening till women farmers are not recongnised and given their due.

Here's why the empowerment of this workforce is so critical to the success of India's growth story: With six out of ten people engaged in farming, the agriculture sector is the largest employer (Ministry of Agriculture, 2012). Of these, 80 per cent are women - as compared to 63 per cent men - most of whom are neither legally nor socially recognised as farmers.

According to agricultural scientist-economist and Rajya Sabha MP, M S Swaminathan, "Women and youth farmers will determine the future of Indian agrarian and rural economy. But even though more women are taking to farming - with men migrating to urban areas for work - they do not have land titles."

As per Landesa/Rural Development Institute (RDI), an international non-profit working on securing land rights for the poorest in states like Odisha, Karnataka and Andra Pradesh, among others, an estimated 20 million Indian families are both poor and landless, while many more do not have secure legal rights to the land they occupy and farm. This lack of access and control over land pushes families, especially women, deep into a poverty trap with no way out of it.

Of course, there is enough evidence today to demonstrate that when women are given ownership of land there are far reaching positive outcomes not just for them and their families but even the community at large. According to Sanjoy Patnaik, Director of RDI Odisha, "We have seen that even small plots of titled land can enhance a family's food security, nutrition and health. Increased access to government programmes, augment existing income and result in better social capital."

That's exactly what has happened for a few families in the Kharibandh hamlet of Ganjam, a coastal district in Odisha. Getting ownership of land to live and grow food has turned out to be a truly life changing experience for the tribal community here, which had struggled for livelihood and food security for three generations having no legal rights to the land on which they mainly produced rice through share cropping.

Three years back, facilitated by RDI, 13 households of the Sabar tribe received titles to 400 square metres each (0.1 acres) of government homestead land under the state's Vasundhara scheme. In 2003, the Government of Odisha had conducted an enumeration that established that there were more than 2,50,000 landless families in the state. Based on this, a homestead plot allocation programme was launched in 2005-06.
In 2010, when the select Sabar families got their 'pattas' (proof of land ownership), the women formed a self-help group (SHG) and converted the allotted land into flourishing vegetable gardens.

Rabibari Sabar, a 52-year-old widow, is a happy woman today. In her plot of land - that she irrigates with the help of a collectively owned foot pump that pipes pond water into it - she cultivates seasonal vegetables interspersed with lush coconut and papaya trees. While she uses the produce to feed her family, last year Rabibari also managed to put aside Rs 1,500 by selling tubers and spinach at the local 'haat' (village market).

For the poor, a land title is the fastest way to a secure future. Almost everything, from collateral for bank credit, legal proof of caste, income, residence, eligibility for government housing schemes, admission to schools and colleges, and even for applying for bail for an imprisoned relative or friend, is dependent on this status.

Therefore, simply owning legal documents to their property has brought about amazing motivation and socio-economic transformation. The Sabar women farmers also have access to other government benefits. Elaborates a state revenue official, "With a title to their land, former female sharecroppers now get cash compensation of Rs 8,000 to 10,000 for each seasonal crop loss - a crucial benefit they could not access previously."

Like Kharibandh, Chilipoi, another village in Ganjam, is better off ever since people there became landowners. For instance, though the village suffers from chronic water shortages, thanks to the land ownership papers that the women farmers here possess, they are eligible for a 50 per cent government subsidy on a bore well. In addition, a third of Chilipoi's households have already moved from mud huts into safer concrete homes, which they are entitled to as landowners under a federal housing scheme for the rural poor.

Unfortunately, Kharibandh and Chilipoi are small islands of progress in women's land entitlement in India. The larger reality is quite disturbing. National Advisory Council (NAC) member Dr N.C. Saxena sees the oppressive patriarchal mindset as the main obstacle in women's struggle for securing land rights. "Patriarchy weighs so heavy on the minds of women that they find it very difficult to go against their sons, husbands and brothers, who end up taking away their land entitlement," he remarks.

This, despite the 2005 amendment to the Hindu Succession Act 1956, which enlarged the rights of daughters and brought them at par with sons. The Act gives women equal rights over agricultural land as well as other parental property. "Sadly, a telling indicator of the inherent bias that prevails in society is that ever since 2005 not a single official communication from the central government has been issued to the states that are largely reluctant to implement the amended law and replace diverse discriminatory legal clauses that still prevail. Political leaders deem it as a radical step that would not go down well with the male vote bank," observes Saxena.

Hopes of catalysing change in the status of women farmers had been pegged on The Women Farmers' Entitlement Bill - that seeks access to water, credit and inputs for women farmers - submitted by M.S. Swaminathan as a private member's bill in Rajya Sabha in May 2012. But now it seems that this bill will lapse because it has not been taken up for discussion.

Nisha Agrawal, CEO, Oxfam India, a rights-based organisation that is working on land rights issues, feels that laws apart, if rural women themselves come together to demand their entitlements it would give a major impetus to the women's land rights movement. This too is not a faraway reality today. Says Stephanie de Chassy, Head of Social Policy and Governance Advisory Team Oxfam GB, "It is becoming increasingly evident that supported by local collectives, women are summoning the courage to demand their land rights from immediate male family members."

Presently, even though they are responsible for 60 to 80 per cent of India's total food production, only 9 per cent of rural women and overall 2 per cent women actually hold the ownership title of the land they so painstakingly till. Hopefully, the future will see more of women landowners like Rabibari Sabar ushering in good times for themselves and their communities.

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