Why We Don’t Know How Much Land Women Own

Slow progress

All datasets do, however, highlight a steady though slow increase in WLR. This could be due to regional contexts, especially the historical, socio-cultural and agrarian relations that define women’s role in society and farming, but recent legal and institutional reforms too may have helped–the Hindu Succession Act amendment of 2005 empowers the daughter to assume legal rights in ancestral property by birth; policy changes to recognise joint titling by women farmers; institutional incentives such as stamp duty reduction/waiver for registering property in a woman’s name. The cause-effect relationships, however, continue to be academically contested and realigned.

In 2015-16, women’s ownership of land, independent or otherwise, was estimated to be 28.3%, according to NFHS-4. Nearly 50% women in Arunachal Pradesh and Bihar owned land alone or jointly, the highest number, while 9% did in Himachal Pradesh, NFHS-4 data show. Rural India appears to be more gender equitable on WLR at 31.4% than urban India (22.9%).

Women’s land ownership data are yet to be released in NFHS-5 for 2019-20. Instead, the fact-sheets provide data for women’s ownership–independent or otherwise–of a house and/or land. This is bound to be higher than land ownership.

On average, about two in five women (41.6%) own a house and/or land, alone or jointly, according to the recently released data from the first phase of NFHS-5 for 2019-20. Among 17 states and five Union territories for which results have been made available so far, Karnataka leads at 67.6%; the Andaman and Nicobar Islands had the least at 15.8%.

While NFHS-5 has only released limited data so far, in terms of averages, it shows a 2.6-percentage-point increase in women who own a house and/or land (39% to 41.6%) when compared with NFHS-4 data for the 32 states and six UTs for which data are now available. Other datasets show similar increases–for example, the Agriculture Census data showed a 1.1-percentage-point increase between 2010-11 and 2015-16.

How to fix this

To monitor its progress towards SDG targets for 2030, India started reporting SDG indicators in 2018. On SDG indicators relating to women’s land rights, India’s reporting falls short of the standard set by UNSTAT’s metadata, the UN’s information repository on data related to SDG indicators.

For example, Indicator 1.4.2 on ‘Ending Poverty’ is reported differently in NITI Aayog’s SDG Dashboard. Instead of sex-disaggregated data on the proportion of adults with secure land rights, it reports ‘Percentage of households living in kutcha houses’. For ‘Gender Equality’ Indicator 5 a 1, it reports ‘Percentage of female operated holdings’ using the Agriculture Census data. It should instead have reported, by sex, the proportion of total agricultural population that owns agricultural land using other datasets that provide more periodic and reliable gender disaggregated data.

NFHS and other datasets can improve SDG reporting of WLR in India if their methodology is aligned with the SDGs’ and their design and collection made gender-sensitive, Shipra Deo of Landesa told IndiaSpend.

The Agriculture Census excludes agriculture labourers, cites the gender of the head of the household only, considers land holding to be different from land ownership, and does not include forest land.

There is a clear case for clearer definitions that must be consistently used across relevant national datasets, for improving WLR reporting, said Rita Sinha, former secretary at the Department of Land Resources, Government of India. Such consistency, she underlined, is imperative for well-informed policy to ensure gender parity in land ownership and also important for appropriate reporting of SDG Indicators.

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