Agricultural land rights for women

Also, share in joint family property; new bill passed

Published: Friday 30 September 2005

-- (Credit: Shyamal)women's rights received a shot in the arm with the Hindu Succession (Amendments) Bill, 2004, passed in the Lok Sabha on August 29, 2005, which guaranteed over 400 million Hindu women in India equal rights over agricultural land and joint property in the Hindu Undivided Family (huf). The bill grants women coparcenary in huf; they have equal rights even in their grandfathers' properties, which was denied to them earlier. The bill was approved by the Rajya Sabha on August 16, 2005, and awaits the President's approval.

"This is a landmark legislation as it allows women access to her and her family's livelihood through ownership over agricultural land," says Shalu Nigam, a legal expert with the Centre for Women and Development Studies (cwds). The Hindu Succession Act, 1956, denied women's claim over agricultural land through succession to prevent fragmentation of land and avoid complications in fixation of ceilings and devolution of tenancy rights. Based on the medieval Hindu 'Mitakshra' system, it gave primacy to male linear descendants in the male line of descent.

Being lucrative property in rural areas, agricultural land was always a male privilege. Even when communist West Bengal tried land reforms in 1977 by distributing land to the landless, it did not consider women. "This was because...women were not considered land-tillers. Thus, although they did most agricultural work, they had little right over agricultural property," explains Indu Agnihotri, senior fellow, cwds. The situation was worse in states like Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu Kashmir, where tenurial laws were completely against women. But the new law will override all discriminatory state laws. In southern states, the laws favoured women slightly; Kerala had abolished the huf property system.

Bina Agarwal of New Delhi-based Institute of Economic Growth, who has campaigned for the amendment, believes it will bring gender justice and improve women's socio-economic status. Earlier studies have shown that gender inequality in agricultural land is a precursor to poverty in rural areas. "As women had no rights over farmlands, they had little say in mortgaging and its other uses by the male," points out Agnihotri. This endangered their livelihood, increased domestic violence and compromised care for their children.

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