One of the most difficult subjects on which to talk to a farmer's widow is the issue of land title. It is not as if women are not willing to talk on this all-important subject. But in-laws inevitably take over the conversation at that point, forcing the widow into a passive silence.

Land rights and women have never made an easy combination. The traditional system of land rights, which is still followed in the rural areas despite all the legal provisions granting women equal rights, gives women only sustenance, or at best custodial rights in favour of minor sons, not ownership rights. In recent times, more and more land has come under women's cultivation as, in a country-wide phenomenon, men from the rural areas are migrating in search of work. In Vidarbha, the process that is now officially known as the 'feminisation of agriculture' is taking place on a traumatic scale. A spate of farmer suicides in the farming community is leaving an increasing number of women suddenly, and without preparation, dependent for livelihood on land they do not have a title to.

Illustration: Farzana Cooper

According to the figures collected by Kishor Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, nearly 30 per cent of farm widows have been displaced from their lands altogether. Most of those who remain do so on in a state of perpetual land-insecurity. Of both these categories a large percentage is that of younger women, whose rights are the most vulnerable due to the lack of grown-up sons in whose name they can make a socially acceptable claim.

While the pressures of culture and family economics are still strongly against women's title to land, increasingly, women are coming out to assert their rights. The reasons are not hard to understand. "There was certainly a time when women would have been conditioned to prefer the security of the family fold to independence," says Gajanan Amdabadkar, independent activist, who has been touring Vidarbha visiting farm families for the last two years. "But now the pressures of modern life – especially concern for the education of children, are forcing women to consider cultivating their lands independently and earning an independent income," says Amdabadkar. There is very little open rebellion yet, but a silent tussle between the prevalent system and these women is definitely on in the region.

The most common ruse for denying land rights being adopted by families against widows appears to be denial of right to cultivate the land. Male members of the marital family taking over the cultivation of the widow's share of the land is a common occurrence.

"I have to cultivate my land, or I will lose it," says Shobha Bodkhe, her young face already etched with deep lines of perpetual anger and exhaustion. "After my husband died, I was distraught and penniless. My elder brother-in-law sowed the entire eight acres of family land and collected the crop. He gave me nothing at all."

"Let them (the government) scrap the registration fee for us farm widows. That will benefit us more than their packages."

 •  Tale of three widows
 •  Whose family? Whose land?

Shobha, who lives in the Nimgaon village (tehsil Nandura) of Buldhana district, knew that if she was not to be driven out of her land completely, she must cultivate it somehow. So, in the previous season she borrowed money from her brother and planted soy and corn on the three-and-a-half acres of family land that her husband had been cultivating. Once she asserted herself, the family agreed orally to let her cultivate the land, but is shying away from the paperwork.

After Manorama Ahir's (village Naygaon, district Buldhana) husband died, the same thing happened to her. "My brother-in-law sowed cotton and tur on the entire land, but at harvest time I got just 4 kg of tur. So this time I sent my son to tell him that I am sowing my two acres well in advance," she says.

In the miniscule tribal village of Dubhati in Yaotmal district, tears stream down tribal farmer Sumanbai Atram's face as she reveals that her brother-in-law has taken over two of her four acres of land and has forced her to accept a share-cropping arrangement for the same. "I bought the seed and the pesticides, but he will take away half the crop." The four acres of land that her husband was farming are registered in her father-in-law's name, and she is scared that she might lose her land, partially or fully.

In Sai Kheda village in the same district, Rekha Gurnule's three brothers-in-law are running from pillar to post to get her a job -- as an anganwadi assistant, as a montessory teacher, tailoring assistant - anything. Asked what she would like to do with her share of the 16 acres of family land, this mother of two can only cast an apprehensive glance at her brother-in-law Prahlad. And then Prahlad takes over the conversation.

But claiming a clear title is a very different matter from merely cultivating land. And here things get tough. Land records are a major problem. In Vidarbha, while the process of 'nuclearisation' of farming families has happened at a rapid pace at the ground level, with informal agreements between brothers about property division in place, land records are very often a generation, and in fewer cases, two generations behind the ground situation. In all the above-mentioned cases, the land is not registered in the name of the deceased farmer but in his father's. This makes the process of proving and claiming rights very complicated for the farmer's widow, while making it easier for the marital family to resort to all sorts of delaying tactics to retain control of the land.

Corruption among the ranks of the revenue officials does not help things. According to Maharashtra government regulations, a woman can register herself with the patwari (village level land records official) as co-owner or heir (in case of widowhood) of her husband's land. But it is not uncommon for families and officials to form a nexus against the widow. A clear title, feel women, is an absolute must for security.

Says Shobha, "I have been trying to register myself with the patwari for a whole year now, but he keeps putting me off. He is a friend of my brother-in-law."

"I did register my claim with the patwari," says Manorama, "But I don't feel secure. Men have contacts. My brother-in-law can easily bribe the patwari to tamper records, and I won't even find out."

But the biggest deterrent to getting a clear title on land is the prohibitive cost of registration. This part can be so intimidating that even women whose land is registered in their husband's names prefer to get the title in their son's names instead of their own. Says Kusum Ingle of Kanheri Sarap village in Akola, "Just a month before he committed suicide, my husband spent Rs.10,000 getting his share of the land transferred to his own name. Now if I get it on my name, then in future there will be more expense transferring it on my sons' names again."

Vandana Shende of Bhar Umdi in Yavatmal, who is barely 26, is getting her land registered in her three-year-old son's name to avoid the same 'future expenses'.

When talked to, both women admit that such a step will make their own claims insecure when their sons are grown up. But partly due to cultural attitudes and partly due to lack of knowledge of legal options, they feel 'compelled' to take the steps they are taking. Have they considered a joint title with their sons? "Maybe I should consider that," says Kusum, "The problem, Tai (sister), is that no one tells us that we have options."

But the more aware among these women say that the expense is worth it. Says Manorama, "My in-laws tell me to wait till my son is grown up and then register in his name to avoid expenses. But how will I cultivate the land meanwhile? Without a clear title I can't get a crop loan."

Shobha agrees, "My in-laws want to register my land in my little son's name, but how will that help me get credit to continue cultivation, or to get a separate ration card that I need?"

The issue of land rights for women, according to Vijay Jawandhia of the Shetkari Sanghatana, has become quite lopsided due to unevenness and lack of proper coordination in legislation. "On the one hand daughters have been given rights in their fathers' properties, and on the other, the rights of wives on husbands' lands are still not clear. At the ground level this can mean clashes of interests in which women turn out to be the losers," says Jawandhia.

Interestingly, the case of Manorama Ahir demonstrates this phenomenon very clearly. She said that her brother-in-law threatens to reduce her share of land by settling his sister's claim if she demands registration. "He uses my sister-in-law to keep me in check, though he can't afford to give her the land," says she, shrewdly.

While the road to clear land titles is still rough for farmer widows of Vidarbha, the awareness is growing. Increasingly, women are choosing independence over the security of the family fold. Says elderly Bhagiratha Kondbaji Shende, whose husband committed suicide two years back, "I have divided my land into three equal shares, keeping one for myself. Who knows, my sons might sell the land." And yes, she has her demands of the government too, "Let them scrap the registration fee for us farm widows. That will benefit us more than their packages."