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Whither empowerment? Failure to make Gujarat women rightful owners of land

By Rajiv Shah 
A recent study, “Contextualizing Women’s Rights and Entitlements to Land: Insights from Gujarat”, by Meera Velayudhan, senior policy analyst, Centre for Environment and Social Research, published in “Social Change”, a Sage Publication, has said that lack of asset ownership has curtailed women‘s bargaining power in Gujarat, even as depriving them from the benefits of development programmes. This deprivation, it points out, is particularly evident when government schemes for development of land are scrutinized. “These schemes relate to irrigation, land development (watershed) or agricultural credit where possession of land is mandatory”, it says, citing the instance of a survey in Ahmedabad of a lift irrigation scheme requiring an average investment of Rs 12,000 to Rs 18,000, which revealed that 100 per cent beneficiaries in six schemes were men.
The study underlines, “Since women lacked ownership of land in their namesake they are unable to gain benefits a major part of their expenditure. This is compounded by the fact that a gender based classification is not maintained by government departments. Even where the government promotes a group approach for building and managing assets at village levels such as user groups for check-dam lift irrigation societies and canal irrigation societies, a precondition for membership to these groups is ownership of land. Lacking land titles, women are unable to participate in their meetings or cast their votes because land ownership is a prerequisite for the membership of piyat khedut mandali (farmers’ irrigation society). Therefore, women are deprived of a role in decision-making processes at village level.”
The study finds women of backward communities to particularly vulnerable. “Women from the pastoral communities, Maldharis, are losing many of their traditional skills which not only enabled their control over resources but also contributed towards regeneration of pastures and grasslands. They face the brunt of severe hardships and insecurities owing to migration, debt and lack of livelihood sources”, the study says, giving the instance of how in 2010 forced migration took place of 100 Maldhali families from Zinzinwada village in Surendranagar district owing to harassment and atrocities by upper caste Darbars, in particular sexual and physical abuse of Maldhari women. “An increasing number of Maldhari women are working as domestic workers cities such as Ahmedabad. Also, depleting pastureland means lack of fuel and fodder which now have to be purchased from the market and also add to the women’s domestic burdens”, the study adds.
The way the implementation of land reforms in Gujarat has been carried out indicates, according to the study, “that not more than 35 per cent of households have actual possession and cultivate land while only 2-3 per cent land has been re-distributed among single women, mainly widows”. Worse, the women who own land “face stiff opposition from upper caste landed interests and others and in addition lack technical and other support, particularly from the state.” A survey by the Behavioral Science Centre, Ahmedabad, on the Land Ceiling Act covering three blocks of Banaskantha district showed that 213 families have been given land. “However, these are not in joint names of spouses, as per a Government Regulation of 1989. Instead, ‘family’ was seen as the unit of resource allocation, titles were given to individual men, perceived to be heads of the household”, the study points out.
Coming to the tribal areas, the study says, there are innumerable cases of widows being branded as witches (dakan) to take away their property. Unmarried daughters are given land by parents, but the land given is often less than that given to sons. Kinship systems and varied cultural notions of ‘family’ also define vulnerabilities among women. The study cites a survey by Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) in 25 villages of Mandvi block which identified 309 widows in 25 villages, pointing to the impact of changing family structures on adivasi women’s entitlements. “While community support systems were on the decline the perception of male being the head of the family and providing support had yet to take strong roots. The decision on women entitlements to assets (land and other forms of property) were mainly left to the community’s traditional decision making bodies — the punch (mainly male) and to local practices”, the study points out.
Further, the study says, in many areas, varsai, or inheritance, has not been conducted for up to two or three generations and cases of corruption by revenue officials are evident, depriving widows and other single women in particular of their due share in land. “Fewer women participate in gram sabhas and hence there is a lack of awareness about procedures for regularizing forest land. In many areas, varsais have not been conducted for up to two or three generations and cases of corruption by revenue officials are evident, depriving widows and other single women in particular of their due share in land. Fewer women participate in gram sabhas and hence there is a lack of awareness about procedures for regularizing forest land”, the study says.
Women’s efforts to take control of and save environment have also not been easy, the study suggests. The Tree Growers Cooperative formed by women, supported by NGO Mahiti, demanded 1,000 hectares of coastal land from government to grow piloo trees and rejuvenate mangroves. “The entire process of filing the application took three years. The application lies with the government and the delay is linked to the Kalpasar project for which land is reserved in the Bay of Kharnbhatt. The struggle of women continues in Dholera, which is now part of Special Investment Region (SIR) spread over an area of 87,933.77 hectares”, the study says, adding, “The trend in industrial development in Gujarat has shifted from industrial clusters to SEZ and SIRs and supported by Dedicated Freight Corridors (DFC), a central government proposal, With the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor touching 18 of the 26 districts of Gujarat, these areas are the main drivers of land acquisition in Gujarat.”
The study believes that a major impact of commercialisation is that cash earned always goes to the hands of men folk, who generally they spend it for their own indulgences. “We have innumerous cases where earnings from jira (cumin) is used to redeem debt or could be used for purchase property (which is in the name of men) bikes, jeeps, putting money in banks, purchasing of ornaments etc. Women feel that commercialisation has increased disparity within the household. Women are no longer involved in the decision making process and are excluded from benefits ultimately”, says the study.
Gujarat is known for its ‘silver corridor’, an industrial belt from Saurashtra to central Gujarat and golden corridor, in western Gujarat, where 20 per cent of total land is proposed to be used for industrial purpose. While all this has to displacement of families, changes in land use pattern impact livelihoods of women, with compensation packages that do not give any explicit entitlements to women. The situation is particularly full of concern for women, who, according to a Working Group for Women and Land Ownership (WGWLO) survey covering 11 districts and 23 villages in Gujarat, own 11.8 per cent of women owned land. What particularly makes these women vulnerable is the fact that, out of this, 47.3 per cent are widows — “suggesting that it is only after widowhood that women hold land ownership”, the study says.
Yet, the fact is, the study emphasizes, property and asset ownership by mothers has led to better outcomes for survival education and health of children than assets owned by fathers. This is evident from a research on marginal farmer households in Kerala, which, says, the study, shows that “the mother’s cultivation of a home garden (the output which she controlled) had a consistently positive effect on child nutrition. Access to and control over productive assets such as land can strengthen women’s ability to manage economic shocks and social risks. Land is a particularly critical resource for women when the household breaks down in cases of male migration, want abandonment, violence, divorce, polygamous relationships, illness (such as HIV/AIDS) or death. Secure property rights can also help women avoid mitigate the impacts of violence, in particular domestic violence.”

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