"Maika bhi paraya, sasural mein bhi parayi, mera hai kya?" (My parents' home is not mine and I am a stranger in my in-laws' home, what is mine?). This simple question came from Indravati Devi of Gorakhpur, at a convention on women's land rights and livelihood security at Lucknow. And the social activists and legal luminaries who had taken the stage under the banner of the Bhoomi Adhikar Manch - a people's organisation of women, small and marginal farmers and landless people, to impart technical know how on the issue - had no answers.

In a state where 50% of the population owns only .01% of its natural resources for livelihood purposes, Indravati's question is one that many women are asking. In her case, the early death of a drunkard husband left her with three children and no source of income. The in-laws threw her out, and she claims her constant appeals to the district administration bore no result. Indravati's logic is simple: "My in laws might not consider me a part of the family but my children are. My husband's share of the land must accrue to them".

Shiela Singh from Mahoba managed to overcome her defiant in-laws to wrest her dead husband's two bighas of land. And despite the fact that the land she was given stood 20 kilometres from the village, Singh succeeded in earning a living from it. "When my husband died, my second child was in the womb, and my father-in-law declared it was illegitimate. The police too threatened me but I stuck it out thanks to a supportive father. Today my son and daughter are adults and I intend to will them an equal share of the land", she says with quiet pride.

Bina Agarwal, professor of economics, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi and author of A Field Of One's Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia (Cambridge University Press, 1994) maintains that the issue of land ownership for women is more than just a cry for equality. There are overriding practical considerations too.

The issue of land ownership for women is more than just a cry for equality. There are overriding practical considerations too.

 •  The Great Betrayal

"Men migrate from villages in search of jobs, and come back only during the harvest season. Thus the women who do all the work, take decisions and shoulder all responsibilities, have actually no rights. In our villages, it is the women who are the real farmers, yet ownership rests with men. There are so many practical problems that flow from this. For instance, if the woman wants a loan for water or seed or implements, the official machinery will deny her this on the pretext that she is not the owner. Also a woman pays far more attention to the land with an eye always on saving the earnings, whereas left to themselves men would spend a large part of the income. The world over, studies have proven that if resources are with women, the benefits that flow to the family are far greater", Agarwal explains.

M A Khan, convener of Chaupal, a 35-year-old voluntary organisation working in Sonebhadra, a naxalite-troubled district of eastern UP, says both historical factors and present circumstances have conspired to keep women away from land ownership. "Being a tribal area, land rights here were governed by custom and usage, which were women-unfriendly. With naxalism, hundreds of men were jailed or killed. Their women, illiterate and exploited, were left without any land. When they demanded their rights from the administration they were branded naxalites and jailed. There are huge tracts of lands for which no ownership records exist. Even land which was donated under bhoodan went back to those who donated it as they were the ones who knew how to claim the land.” Khan lists village exogamy, customary relinquishing of property in favour of brothers, patriliny, and dowry as some of the most common reasons, which have kept women away from land ownership.

Pushpa Singh, national general secretary of the Ekta Parishad, a Bhopal-based two-decade-old organisation that has built a movement of Dalits and tribals across 11 states to fight for 'jal, jungle aur zameen' (water, forests and land) echoes the parishad's rally cry: "Aadhi duniya naari hai, zameen pe daavedari hai" (Half the world is female, it has rights over land). "If a woman can run a country just as well as she can run a home, what sense does it make to deny her land rights? So far 270 land reforms laws have been enacted, but lack of implementation means there have been no reforms", Singh points out.

Constitutional expert Jayant Verma, Oxfam Trust trustee and secretary of Samvad, Society for Advocacy and Development, Bhopal, believes the crux of the problem is that the balance of powers lies in the favour of the executive. "Forget for a moment the issue of men and women and look at the Land Acquisition Act 1894 which states that if the state wants to acquire a person's land it can do so. Even the compensation is to be decided by the government. It's much like legalized dacoity. The list of ironies in our judicial system is countless. For instance, Public Interest Litigation is supposed to be a people-friendly tool. Does that mean that in normal course, our courts are not guardians of people's interests?”

These criticisms, however, do not take away the government's realisation of the need to remove gender discrimination in accessibility and ownership of resources, including land. The Ninth Five Year Plan (1997-2002) for instance emphasised the need for gender-friendly changes in land laws and stated "(there must be) preference to women in the distribution of ceiling surplus land and legal provisions for protecting their rights on land".

However, existing land ownership laws in most states are discriminatory, and though the recent Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005 does away with the gender discriminatory clause on agricultural land, its greatest failing is that it is applicable only to Hindu women. For instance, among the Muslims, even though the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937 gives daughters and widows property rights, agricultural land is kept away from its ambit. Moreover, merely well-intentioned legislation does not bring in results. For instance the Ministry of Rural Development's instruction that 40% of agricultural land settled under land reform programmes should be exclusively in the name of women and in the remaining cases, the allotment may be jointly in the name of husband and wife, is not being followed.

Thus in UP, only five, two and 15% of women of the high, middle and lower castes respectively own land. And interestingly, 60% of the high caste women get a share in the land only because the family wishes to avoid the land ceiling. Many expert suggestions have been made to remedy this state of affairs, among these are the amendment of tenurial laws with explicit provisions to ensure land to women, particularly the widowed and unmarried, enforcing accountability of officials responsible for land reforms, appointment of women functionaries at the grassroots level and in the agricultural department, and the easy availability of loans to enable women to purchase land in their own name.

Until such reforms are actually implemented, Indravati's question will remain unanswered.