Features | December 6, 2017

Small Change, Big Impact: The one-line revolution in land rights in rural India

Esha Chhabra
Guest Author

Esha Chhabra

West Bengal, India –Suchitra Dey and her husband, a truck driver, had struggled for years to earn a living, taking odd jobs and selling vegetables. Their income was so low — about 2,000 Rs ($30) a month — that they would have to borrow money for food from friends and family.

“People used to call us rootless creatures,” she says.

Seven years ago, Dey and her family finally got a small plot of their own, in the West Bengal village of Shantinagar, or “place of peace.” Perhaps an even more dramatic change is that the 39-year-old woman and her husband have equal title to the land.

Most rural women in India lack that title. If one’s husband died, or decided to leave the family, they could be left homeless, without rights to their home.

All it took was one line on the land rights form, which the West Bengal government changed in 2009, ushering in what is being called the “one-line revolution.”

Landesa has worked in more than 50 countries, promoting what it calls “pro-poor, gender-sensitive land rights.” Giving women secure rights to land can lead to a host of benefits, many studies have shown. Family nutrition and health improve. Women are less likely to be victims of domestic violence. Children are more likely to get an education and stay in school longer. Tim Hanstad, Landesa’s co-founder, points out that land rights give women better access to microcredit, smoothing their path to income and assets.

“Land is fundamental to breaking the poverty cycle,” says Hanstad. He says the old adage about giving people fish, teach them to fish, or even equipping them with a fishing pole, doesn’t go far enough. “Who owns the pond or the water in which they fish in?” he asks. “That’s the biggest constraint many times — people are just not given the opportunity.”

This is not a new idea. In “A Field of One’s Own”in 1994, Bina Agarwal, then a professor on economic growth at University of Delhi, showed that women’s capacity to contribute to their community and country grows exponentially once they attain land.

But land rights are getting renewed attention as the key to unlocking progress on a host of Sustainable Development Goals at once: №5, gender equality; №1, no poverty; №3, good health and well-being; and №4, quality education.

Gender lens

The face of modern India is often characterized by the glitz, glam and bustle of its cities, but about two-thirds of the population, or 885 million people, still reside in the countryside, the World Bank estimates. Women play a huge role in Indian agriculture — 75% of Indian women earn a living from farming. Yet these women generally lack rights to the land they till, tend to and live on; only 13% of agricultural land owners in India are women — a small minority. In all, 57 million men and women in India own no land, formally or informally.

To address the problem of the landless, the government of West Bengal adopted in 2006 an anti-poverty program called Cultivation and Dwelling Plot Allotment. The program purchased and distributed privately owned land to landless agricultural laborers.

Landesa has worked in rural India since 2000. In 2009, the team assessed the effect of the land-distribution program to identify any needed corrections. They found a glaring problem: Women weren’t included on the land titles, or pattas in Bengali. The reason: the land title itself included only a single line for the name of the owner. That was typically the husband. Widows or single mothers might be exceptions, but even in those cases, other male family members were named on the titles.

“We realized that women were being evicted when their husbands died or if they had a quarrel,” says Gracy Middey, Landesa’s former West Bengal state director. “No one gave much thought about it.”

The government moved on Landesa’s proposal for a new land-title document in 2009. Landesa’s team set to work changing existing land titles to add the second line. With the change, women in 500,000 families were able to gain equal land rights.

“With this extra line on a patta, we have forever changed these families and their communities, a change that is generational, durable, and structural,” says Middey. “Human rights work is horridly difficult, and it takes decades to help people. But sometimes it’s as simple as drawing two straight lines on a piece of paper.”

Title wave

Landesa works in seven Indian states. Meghalaya is an exception but across India land rights is “sorry state of affairs,” says Hanstad.

Landesa started out, they picked the southern state of Karnataka because of its better governance and higher female literacy rates. In contrast, Uttar Pradesh, a massive state of 300 million people, has low female literacy rates, poor maternal health, and cultural norms that favor men over women in employment.

“We estimate that 30 to 60 percent of all small holder farmers in India do not have secure land rights, or land records,” Hanstad says, “That’s men and women. So imagine the state of affairs for women specifically, and how hard it is to compile data.”

Under the West Bengal land program, Dey and her family received one-seventh of an acre. That’s enough to grow her own vegetables and sell the surplus, doubling the family income and even letting her begin to save. Her daughter Tulsi, 17 years old, recently completed her secondary education. Because land rights are inherited, Tulsi can one day own the family’s small plot and will never have to be landless.

“I feel good that I can contribute to the family income and know that my daughter will not have to face adversities in life as I had to do,” Dey says. “I want to ensure a proper education for my daughter Tulsi. This small patch of land actually helped me to support my daughter’s education.”

The reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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