Category Archives: Sustainable Cities

Socio-cultural impediments to tribal women’s right of inheritance | Blog4Land by PRRC

Socio-cultural impediments to tribal women’s right of inheritance | Blog4Land by PRRC



According to Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others; No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” The Human Rights Resolution 2005/25 calls for women to have equal access to, and ownership of, land. It also promotes the idea that everyone should have the same opportunity to own property and live in decent housing in order to reach their full potential. One of the most contentious rights is the right to property, particularly the right to inherit property, because it is linked to a country’s political, economic, cultural, and religious beliefs. Less than 2% of women in rural India inherit landed property. (Lahoti, 2016)

While women on the one hand have always been in the disadvantageous position in owning land or any type of property, tribal women in particular are structurally and socially deprived of this right. For instance, the Girasias, a tribal group in Rajasthan, use the fact that women relocate from their natal villages to their affinal villages after marriage to justify the lack of property ownership by women. (Unnithan,1997)

In primitive tribes, it is considered taboo for women to touch or use the plough. This deprives them of control over the means of production—the land. For instance, the traditional norms in the Oraon and Ho tribals of Jharkhand prevent women from holding the plough, thus denying them access to land. Here the role of taboo becomes evident for the lack of access to land for women. (Kishwar, 1987)

The tribal tradition or, to be more accurate, customary tribal law is one of the many issues that affect tribal women in Jharkhand. As per this customary law, that lineage, not an individual, owns the property in many indigenous tribes. Individual families are allowed to use the property, but it cannot be sold or otherwise transferred outside of the family. Due to this custom, it is viewed as inappropriate and at odds with the tribal ethos for women to express their desire for a share in land ownership. 

Marrying indigenous women is one method used by non-tribal people to obtain tribal land. This fear has been instilled in the minds of the tribes that inhibit them from transferring land ownership to tribal women. To corroborate this, K.S. Singh highlights the high rate of alienation of tribal land among the Hos of Singhbhum through marriage to tribal women. He also points out that often after such transactions the tribal women are deserted by non-tribal men. (Singh, 1988)

The economics of land size is also connected to opposition to women’s property rights. Arguments in favor of women’s entitlement will cause more land to be divided and fragmented, which will have a negative impact on the viability and efficiency of farms. (Xaxa, 2004)

According to a study by Shil and Jangir (2021), there are three different types of land ownership for tribal women: joint pattas on land, inherited property, and land purchased in their names. The findings revealed that 20 women (33 %) of the 59 married women in the sample from the rural West Tripura district have inherited property. 25 women, or 42% of the total, have been given joint pattas of forestland. Nine women (15%) remain in the Khash territory. None of the women have purchased land. This shows that the purchasing power of tribal women is very low and it is costing them their economic independence.

Women inherit different sorts of landed property, which also reflects gendered norms. Typically, women’s part of parental property is inferior land (Agarwal, 1994). Land is more likely to stay in the hands of the natal family in communities whose girls are permitted to marry within the immediate family or cross cousins. As a result, it is common in these communities for girls to inherit less property or to be required to work in the fields (Agarwal, 1994)

While positive changes on gender parity are taking place in non-tribal societies and mainstream media, the information on gender in tribal societies is scant. Given that some tribal communities like Lenape and Hopi are matrilineal, while others like Gond and Ho have a strong patriarchal influence, this diversity makes it challenging to draw generalizations about the status of women in India’s tribal communities as a whole. The best way to characterize what has been seen is as illustrative and heuristic.

Therefore even if the data or information on the trends and pattern of land ownership by tribal women  is not available, policymakers can try to address the socio-cultural aspects that are hindering the rights of women to be landowners.

Firstly, the tribal women can be nudged to marry outside their community or clan (not necessarily outside the tribe) so the ownership of land from the natal family is transferred to her as against only the cultivation rights she would receive if she marries within the community. This can be done by creating awareness about the increased risk of autosomal recessive genetic disorders that surface when people with highly similar ethnicity marry each other.

Women can more effectively establish their right to inherit owing to their understanding of legislation, legal rights, and administrative processes related to land claims. Education also improves a person’s self-confidence, awareness of new farming technologies and techniques and bargaining power. Therefore state-run schools and colleges in tribal areas should emphasize more on legal and financial literacy of women.

Along with gender sensitivity programs, focus should be on capacity building as advocated by nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Special courses in agriculture, revitalization of indigenous ways of farming with new technology should be offered to tribal women. This will help them take control of their land, life and livelihood.




Agarwal, B. (2003). Gender and land rights revisited: Exploring new prospects via the state, family and market. Journal of Agrarian Change, 3(1-2), 184-224.

Jassal, S. T. (2000). Book reviews and notices : MAYA UNNITHAN-KUMAR, identity, gender and poverty: New perspectives on caste and Tribe in Rajasthan. Oxford: Berghahn books, 1997. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 34(2), 287-288.

Kelkar, G., & Wangchuk, L. (2020). Women’s land use knowledge and entitlement in swidden agriculture. Women, Land & Power in Asia, 136-161.

Kishwar, & Madhu. (1987). Toiling without Rights. Economic and Political Weekly.

Lahoti, R., & Swaminathan, H. (2015). Economic development and women’s labor force participation in India. Feminist Economics, 22(2), 168-195.

Shil, A., & Jangir, H. P. (2021). Exclusion of tribal women from property inheritance rights: A study of Tripuri women of India. CASTE / A Global Journal on Social Exclusion, 2(2), 327-340.

Singh, K. S. (1988). Tribal Women: An Anthropological Perspective. Tribal Women.

Xaxa, V. (2004). Women and gender in the study of tribes in India. Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 11(3), 345-367.

This article is published under Blog4Land series by PRRC and the views expressed are of the author and PRRC does not endorse it. 

About the Author: Vedika is a Master’s student in Public Policy at Christ (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru.

Understanding Gender and Land Rights | Blog4Land by PRRC

Understanding Gender and Land Rights | Blog4Land by PRRC

– Dhruvika Sodhi


Schlager and Ostrom (1992) developed a conceptual schema for arraying property-rights regimes that distinguish among diverse bundles of rights. It distinguishes five types of property rights: the rights of (physical) access, withdrawal, management, exclusion, and alienation. If we adopt a gender lens in exploring how property rights have been distributed, we find disparities in the distribution, recognition, and implementation of rights. 

Women have been at large excluded as rightful land title holders, depriving them of a tangible element of empowerment and social-economic justice. Men have been recognized as the rightful head of the household, and for a long time, there had been an almost normalized silence on the question of women having a rightful access to property ownership. The perpetuation of identifying the ‘man’ as the only socially and lawfully recognized figure to represent the household has historically undermined social-economic justice. 

Land is a valuable asset. Land provides security to households worldwide. Land particuarly holds significant importance in largely agrarian and developing countries like India. It is the most valued form of property and productive resource. As a result of its tangibility and longevity, land ownership is considered the biggest security against poverty (Agarwal,2002). However, land ownership as a measure of wealth is calculated in a skewed way and surveys conducted to measure property to define the household’s wealth remain largely gender-blind. 

A large proportion of women are dependent on agriculture for livelihood, and that creates their inseparable relationship with the land. Compared to men, women acquire mobility slowly, work harder, and earn less money. In developing countries like India, there has been an upward trend in rural-to-urban migration dominated by men, leaving the female behind to take care of the household. However, this poses a challenge for women because they lack land titles. 

Effective and independent land rights for women are important on at least four counts: welfare, efficiency, equality, and empowerment (Agarwal, 2009). Studies and research have shown that where there is a higher proportion of land owned by women or other assets by women, the place performs better on socio-economic indicators. When women are completely deprived of any stakeholder position, there is more distress and poverty. In addition to incentivizing women to work as farmers and producers and to serve as empowerment agents, land titles in women’s names increases their active participation and decision-making, especially when men are increasingly out-migrating. Quisumbing (1996) writes about the increase in output and productivity of land if women farmers are given the same input and resources as male farmers. Land titles bring one kind of equality essential for having a just-gender sensitive empowering society. For women, especially, it brings affirmation, recognition, and inclusion in a society that has placed them on the fringe for generations.

There have been several outstanding incidents that reaffirm the claim for granting equal land rights to women.  “Aurat, Harijan Aur Mazdoor, Nahin Rahenge Ab Majboor!”—The Bodhgaya Land Movement headed by J P Narayan became an exemplary land movement representing Bahujan agricultural labors. After persistent demands for land titles from the women, the land was granted to them. They were fighting against oppression conducted by the upper castes. They felt it necessary to fight the oppression within their community for equality and economic autonomy. The women who succeeded fared much better than the men who held most of the farming lands. 

There are three major ways by which women can gain land: inheritance, government, and market. In India, 86% of the arable land is privately held, thus making having a gender-equal inheritance law extremely crucial (Agarwal,2002). However, in practice, women hardly get the land in inheritance, and the proportion of the land inherited in the name of women is abysmally low. In the case of government transfers, resettlement land and reform programs are invariably made in the name of the men in the household, thus depriving women of a fair share of their land rights and creating a system that generates discrimination. Markets, too, occupy a very small place that can enable the generation of equitable land transferse. 

The implementation of inheritance laws has been poor, and the social bias toward having a patrilineal society also influences administrative functioning. When women seek land rights or a claim in inheritance, she is often demonized and chastised by society, and at times, even by their own family. The hegemony established by creating customs, traditions, social conventions, and rituals that limit the places women can occupy in society robs them of their power of independence. By contrasting and comparing the social realities in matrilineal societies, it can be examined how and why such a social bias can lead to such inequalities. As matrilineal societies reflect alternative realities, it can help us identify the faultlines in highly patriarchal systems. 

To have an effective land rights mechanism, changes are required at different places to enable a result reflecting enhanced gender equality. To have effective policies, it is imperative to have changes in the foundations of rules and documentation. The documented information should also be gender-disaggregated at the intra-household level (Agarwal,2002). This can inform better legal reforms that can enhance the goal of equal land rights. Laws should not only be made on paper but a serious effort ought to be made to educate the population about these laws and expand their accessibility to claim rights and seek justice. The hegemony that shapes the structure also influences the agency of stakeholders. This hegemony has to be constantly challenged to understand the visible and invisible power structures that are so socially embedded. Active interventions that are creative, inclusive, and flexible should be made to enable capacities among women to challenge the hegemony and bring the empowerment they need to claim land rights, among other things. Several institutional formal and informal reforms and interventions are required to lead the rebuilding of social and economic support structures to strengthen women’s bargaining positions. Most importantly, there’s a need for  strong cooperation among women and people that are sensitive to class, caste, and status differences. This should help create a counter-hegemonic discourse that can challenge the existing norms around property rights. 



  • Agarwal, B. (2002). Are we not peasants too? Land rights and women’s claims in India.
  • Schippers, M. (2007). Recovering the feminine other: Masculinity, femininity, and gender hegemony. Theory and Society, 36(1), 85-102.
  • Quisumbing, A. (1996): “Male-Female Differences in Agricultural Productivity: Methodological Issues and Empirical Evidence,” World Development 24 (10): 1579–1595.

This article is published under Blog4Land series by PRRC and the views expressed are of the author and PRRC does not endorse it. 

About the Author: Dhruvika is a social science student with a strong interdisciplinary background. She holds a BA in political science and history. Her passion for seeking constructive and critical thinking enabled her to pursue a post-graduation in Environment and Development studies. She intends to further pursue her research in Land Rights and Gender.

The chaos of gendered language and land: Taking a lesson from cricket

The chaos of gendered language and land: Taking a lesson from cricket

Shipra Deo and Robert Mitchell

Recently, as India swelled with pride to see the first woman belonging to the Scheduled Tribe community become President, it also witnessed an unexpected chaos stemming from the use of gendered language. In Hindi, the word for President is the masculine word Rashtrapati, which literally means “Head of the Nation.” The suffix pati is commonly used to mean “husband” and can also denote that one is the owner of something. In a bid to use a feminine equivalent, a member of Parliament unwittingly referred to her as Rashtra-patni (meaning “Wife of the Nation”). The linguistic flub resulted in huge protests and adjournment of Parliament followed by a letter of apology. 

As recently as 2021 Iran debated the idea of women being allowed to contest presidential elections. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran stipulates that the president should be chosen from among the political and religious rijals (meaning “men”) and the Constitutional Council of Iran, which is comprised solely of men, took the word at face value, consequently denying women the right to become president.

These instances received attention since they involve the highest national offices, but such language confusion is by no means unusual. 

In her book  “Madam Sir,” Manjari Jharuar, the first woman police officer in the top echelons of Bihar, mentions how her appointment gave rise to a peculiar confusion in the subordinate ranks who had always addressed superior officers as Sir. After struggling for some time, the junior officers found their ease addressing her as Madam Sir.

The gendered language that we use is set for a “default” world in which men are presumed to be the dominant actors. But these linguistic choices often produce social consequences that damage and limit the identity, dignity and equal opportunities for women.

Since language is fundamental to thoughts, several scholars have argued that the language we speak also shapes our thoughts in subtle, subconscious ways. A study by The World Bank has noted that the very structure of language may limit women’s opportunities by reinforcing gendered ideology and strengthening male-centered gender norms. 

The ecosystem of land governance is not immune to this influence of language. The intentional bias that gives men an advantage in securing land tenure is another story, but the gendered language of land laws is both more subtle and equally harmful. 

Land laws in India consistently use masculine pronouns and very often refer to men as the primary or exclusive legal subjects. The actors involved in land use and land administration – the District Collector, the revenue official, the landowner, the sharecropper and the tenure holder – are routinely referred to as men throughout the land laws. By way of example, a word count of the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act that governs land in the State of Jharkhand, reveals that the Act uses the pronouns “he” 177 times and “his” 276 times, while the pronoun “she” is not used anywhere and ”her” is used only once. 

The revenue law in the State of Uttar Pradesh offers another striking example. When the law describes the eligibility criteria for landless people to receive grants of public land, it says “preference shall be given to a person who either holds no house or has insufficient accommodation considering the requirements of his family.” By saying “his” family, the law presumes that the head of the family is always a man.  Similarly, while providing for the issuance of joint titles for any land allocated by the State, the law says that “if allottee is a married man and his wife is alive, she shall be owner of equal share in the land so allotted.” Thus, even while granting a wife the same share as her husband, the law invites the reader to understand that the primary allottee of the land is by default a man. 

While many may respond that the masculine pronouns ‘he’ and ‘his’ are intended to refer to men and women both, several studies show that masculine pronouns lead to male-based mental imagery in both the communicator and the audience. When such gendered language is used in legal discourse, it systemically excludes, devalues and trivialises women and people of other genders.  The fact that this effect operates below the level of consciousness makes it all the more worrying.

However, languages do evolve, and the direction of their evolution can be shaped by both individual choices and the conscious decisions of responsible agencies. In one robust example, as early as 1947, Hansa Mehta of India played a key role in changing the phrase “All men are born free and equal” to ”All human beings are born free and equal” in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Another encouraging example comes from cricket. In September 2021 the International Cricket Council replaced the term “batsman/batsmen” with the gender-neutral term “batter” to make the sport gender-inclusive and more welcoming to women players. 

There is some good guidance and resources  available which can be helpful in transitioning to a gender-neutral language, particularly in legal texts. 

As India celebrates its 75th Independence Day and strives for gender equality, it is only logical to take inspiration from cricket and break a norm which has no good reason to be followed, for otherwise our children will be speaking the same language.

Shipra Deo is Director of Women’s Land Rights, India and Robert Mitchell is Asia Region Sr. Director at Landesa. This article was originally published in Hindustan Times on Aug 26, 2022.

Why PMAY-U fails to address India’s intrinsic housing problems

Why PMAY-U fails to address India’s intrinsic housing problems

By Prerna Prabhakar

At a recent event, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave away keys to seventy five thousand beneficiaries of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana — Urban (PMAY-U) in Uttar Pradesh. Though it is a welcome and much needed move, the overall pace of delivery under PMAY-U has been rather slow. As of October 11, 2021, just around 50% of the 114 lakh sanctioned houses have been completed. In the process, 97,000 crore has already been incurred. 

At this point, it is imperative to think about the contribution of this scheme in addressing the intrinsic housing problem in India. It is natural for many to ask — with a huge central assistance commitment of 1.8 lakh crore, has this scheme achieved the desired goal so far, in terms of meeting the affordable housing demand? Is the PMAY-U’s subsidy burden a matter of concern?

PMAY-U’s Credit Linked subsidy scheme (CLSS) component offers interest rate subvention on housing loans borrowed by the Economically Weaker Section (EWS), low and middle income groups. However, the subvention amount is insufficient for private housing in major urban centres of tier-I cities. After all, tier-I cities are characterized by high housing prices.

Shifting our focus to government driven EWS projects, we see two particular issues around them. Firstly, these projects are mainly located in the periphery of cities, far away from the city’s key economic centres. Secondly, these places are marked by a general lack of transport connectivity and other infrastructure facilities. This combination results in a lack of takers for these housing units. As a result, these units usually remain unpurchased for years on a stretch.

The CLSS component has a visible fiscal impact in the form of a subsidy burden. However, in typical EWS housing projects, especially the ones built by the state governments and city authorities, CLSS subvention is not the only cost that the government has to incur. For instance, a EWS housing unit in Narela in Delhi is priced at 5-6 Lakh. This hides the fact that the construction cost of such a typical unit alone amounts to 6 lakh. While scale does reduce cost of works, the price ceiling of 6 lakh indicates a broader cost factor being ignored as labour and capital costs are not being accounted for. These are what would essentially count as state level subsidies that eventually add up to national debt.

While PMAY-U is delivering housing for the poor, an emerging economy like India has also to be aware of fiscally viable options for reforming the housing market to address the intrinsic housing problems. The scheme can be avoided from becoming a white elephant, provided suitable steps are undertaken to solve these deep rooted issues associated with the housing market in the country.

A prime reason behind the lack of affordable housing supply is high land prices. Appropriate policy changes to address this problem are likely to form the core of the solution. The logical step thus would be conceiving ways whereby land prices can be checked. This can happen with a three pronged approach – ensuring adequate supply of land for residential purposes; ensuring policies to guarantee the efficient use of this land for developing housing units; and reducing transaction costs associated with land/property purchase.

For maintaining adequate supply of land, it is imperative that necessary changes in land use change policies are introduced at the state level. In most Indian states, multiple levels of No Objection Certificates (NOCs) are necessary for land use conversion. This complex and cost intensive process results in pushing up land prices. Many states like Gujarat and Karnataka have started to make the right moves in this direction through innovations such as the multipurpose NA certification approach or initiating online land use conversion processes. Such efforts can be replicated by other states. Another possible measure towards addressing the issue of land use change is designating specific land parcels for real estate developers in the states’ land banks, which will save them the time, effort and cost associated with land use change processes.

Floor Space index (FSI) regulations are another elephant in the room. For areas characterized with high land prices and less land availability, a high FSI helps fill the void to an extent. However, in most Indian cities, FSI is always maintained on a lower side (1 -2), with strict regulations on increases. Mumbai is the sole exception in this regard where the maximum permissible FSI is 4.5. When compared to FSI in other major Asian cities like Shanghai (FSI is 13) and Singapore (FSI is 25), one sees that there is much more that can be done.

Transaction costs associated with land/property purchasing also adds to the hidden costs of affordable housing. These would include different forms of fees like stamp duty, registration fee, lawyer and real estate agent’s fees. According to Global Property Guide, India has one of the highest transaction costs of housing, going up to 15 %. Compared to its immediate ASEAN neighbours like Thailand (14%) and Malaysia (8%), we see the room to fix this anomaly.

PMAY-U is certainly filling an important gap in India on the affordable housing front. However, given the overall fiscal implications for India, measures are certainly needed to ensure prudence and seek permanent solutions.

Prerna Prabhakar is an Associate Fellow at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER). The views expressed in this article are personal.

A Protest In West Bihar Shows How Un-surveyed Land Leaves Residents Vulnerable

Eight Indian states and two UTs have areas that have not been surveyed by the state government. People living and working on these lands have no land titles and hence no protection from displacement

An unlikely common strand of 2020 — land and property rights

This piece was originally published in the Hindustan Times, on 24 December, 2020.

The year 2020 drew sharp focus to land and property rights issues in India. The year began with protests against the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which — if implemented — would have relied on citizens having their land records in place to prove citizenship. Many commentators lamented how landless migrant labour would meet these stringent requirements in a country where land records management is in an abysmal shape with limited digitisation.

With the onset of the pandemic, and India going into an unprecedented lockdown, the shocking sight of migrant labourers walking the highways for days exposed the lack of inclusive housing in our cities. They were forced to leave cities not only due to the lack of affordable housing, but also because informal rent agreements enabled abrupt evictions. While many developed countries enforced rent moratoriums and protections against evictions, in India, authorities could not create such a safety net. Informal tenancy in urban and semi-urban India and landlessness in rural India plunged the most vulnerable populations into further despair.

Migrant labourers were forced to leave cities not only due to the lack of affordable housing, but also because informal rent agreements enabled abrupt evictions.

Lockdowns across the world also forced businesses to consider diversification of their supply chains. This turned the attention of policymakers to the ease of doing business to make India an attractive destination for companies looking to invest in new locations. Again, land reforms became a central part of this conversation. While the central government explored the idea of creating land banks, some states focused on structural reforms. Karnataka amended laws to remove restrictions on buying and selling of agricultural land by non-agriculturalists.

Other developments that brought focus to property rights include the SVAMITVA (Survey of villages and mapping with improvised technology in village areas) scheme launched in April 2020. The scheme aims to survey non-agricultural inhabited land in rural India. The stated goals are connecting rural Indians with institutional credit through better property records, and empowering Panchayati Raj institutions through property tax collection.

In October 2020, in response to the migrant crisis, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs announced the Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHCs) Scheme. The scheme aims to fill the affordable housing gap in cities by utilising government-funded vacant houses along with construction, operation and maintenance of new affordable housing projects by private players.

In an unrelated development, the Supreme Court passed a landmark judgement; it ruled that daughters have equal coparcenary rights in Hindu Undivided Family properties, even if the father died before the enactment of the 2005 Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act. Gender activists celebrated the judgment as this ambiguity had presented a big hurdle for women across India in accessing their property rights.

Though these developments seem disparate, it is worth noting that land and property rights dominated people’s lives and public narrative even in an extraordinary year such as 2020. The year highlighted the fault lines in our land governance and exacerbated the effect of existing inefficiencies in our system. As we look to kickstart recovery in 2021, one hopes that policymakers will retain focus on making land records services citizen-friendly, undertaking surveys of previously unsurveyed areas, improving land markets and continuing to invest in affordable housing in our urban centres.

Though these developments seem disparate, it is worth noting that land and property rights dominated people’s lives and public narrative even in an extraordinary year such as 2020.

Presently, there are interesting policy proposals under discussion to achieve these goals. Apart from ARHC and SVAMTIVA that may be scaled up, a Model Tenancy Act aimed at bridging the trust deficit between tenants and landlords is under consideration. The Centre and states are mulling subsidies in stamp duty rates to boost the real estate market and property registration. Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are making huge investments in new surveys and technology to improve land governance.

A continued focus on land and property rights is important — these cross-cutting issues not only impact the growth of India’s economy but play an important role in the lives of all Indians. Among other things, 2020 has also been a stark reminder that governments must prioritise securing land and property rights for all its citizens.


Aparajita Bharti is founding partner and Bindushree D is policy associate at The Quantum Hub, a public policy research and advocacy firm.


Securing property and land rights in India

This article was originally published on India Development Review on 24 July 2020, and can be viewed here.

Land governance and property rights have been historically overlooked in India, and reforming them is critical to securing high growth.


Secure property rights are fundamental to the economic and social development of any country. However, in India, we are faced with a curious conundrum where more than 70 percent of a household’s assets are held in land and housing, yet there is insufficient data and research on people’s property rights. On one hand, the government aspires to provide 18-20 million affordable housing units in urban areas, while on the other, more than 10 million housing units are lying vacant, as per the 2011 Census. The judicial pendency of land disputes is also high, with several million cases pending in Indian courts. Approximately 25 percent of all cases decided by the Supreme Court involve land disputes, of which 30 percent concern disputes relating to land acquisition. 

All these factors, combined, result in insecure tenure for a large population, especially the poor and vulnerable, which in turn poses a complex set of challenges for effective governance. It also impacts the efficiency of our judicial system and our ability to attract investments. According to the ‘Ease of Doing Business Rankings’, India ranks 156th on the metric of ‘Ease of registration of property’—in contrast with its overall rank of 63 in the 2020 index. With the current rate of population growth and increasing competition for finite resources such as land, it is important to draw policy attention to these issues.


Land governance and property rights have been largely overlooked in India.


Despite the severity and complexity of this issue, land governance and property rights have been largely overlooked within policy research and development initiatives in India. The reasons for this are many, ranging from historical to political. Historically, the bulk of the colonial government’s revenues came from taxing agricultural produce. Over time, as this revenue declined, the focus on rural land administration reduced. As our cities grew in an unplanned manner, we did not invest in building strong land administration systems. On a political level, land and housing are very valuable assets, which, when regulated poorly, attract corruption and violence.

In addition, land and housing often have deep emotional relevance for people, and access to these are, in some cases, dictated by old beliefs and traditional customs. For instance, patriarchal norms often hinder women from owning properties, even though studies have shown that when women own properties, families show better indicators of health, nutrition, and education. Similarly, when marginalised groups own land, they have better food security and gain increased respect from the local communities. However, these require shaking up some deep-rooted social norms, which can be very challenging for both nonprofits and donors.

While India has undertaken reforms in many sectors of the economy, land and labour—the core factors of production—have not seen reforms. For decades, we have witnessed the effect of broken land administration in our daily lives. With reportedly as much as 66 percent of all civil cases pertaining to property disputes, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that every Indian family has faced a property dispute. The COVID-19 pandemic has borne testament to some of these issues as well, as we see the scale of the impact it has had on people living in informal settlements, where issues of poor sanitation and housing are fuelled by lack of tenure security. It is quite evident that a bulk of our current social and economic challenges are centred around the lack of secure access to land and housing rights.


Reforming the land rights regime is critical for India to secure high growth.


The fundamental building block to define and secure land rights for anyone, is the underlying property record. This record should accurately reflect all pertinent information, including ownership, the geo-coordinated location and boundaries of the property, any mortgage claims, tenant claims, and disputes. Improving the accuracy of land records, including maps, should be the topmost priority. It is the basic infrastructure required for secure access to land and housing rights, and would bring in more confidence in land-related transactions, reduce conflict, encourage more investments, and also improve the government’s ability to deliver welfare schemes.

India also needs reforms in other critical land governance areas. We have progressive laws, such as the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which need to be implemented on the ground to ensure that more than 100 million people belonging to Scheduled Tribes are able to secure the patta (or land title) to their land and gain access to all welfare benefits that have not been made available to them till date. Organisations, such as ARCH Vahini in Gujarat, that work towards helping communities secure land pattas have observed significant improvements in agriculture production and incomes. We need more nonprofits working in Adivasi communities to help families apply for pattas, which will have multifold benefits in reducing poverty in these areas.


Ooty landscape with houses on the side of a hill-land rights

In India, although more than 70 percent of a household’s assets are held in land and housing, there is insufficient data and research on people’s property rights. | Picture courtesy: Pixabay

Land leasing is the third area where we need policy reforms. Given the small landholdings in India, millions of farmers lease additional land to enhance their farm output. However, these contracts are largely informal, and farmers with informal leases do not get access to any government benefits such as agriculture credit, PM KISAN, crop insurance, fertiliser subsidy, or Minimum Support Price procurement. A few states, including Uttar Pradesh, have recently amended their land leasing laws to allow tenancy to be formalised, thereby securing the rights of tenant farmers. Implementing these changes on the ground will require concerted efforts from civil society and government officials, as it requires changing decades-old practices.

Attention to reform in hitherto poorly focused areas, such as land and labour, will be critical for India to resume a high-growth journey. As we grapple with an economic slowdown due to COVID-19, the recently launched NCAER Land Record Services Index (N-LRSI) offers a step towards changing this. The N-LRSI is the first piece of research that carries out an in-depth analysis of land records in India. The index assesses the current status of digitisation, identifies the existing gaps in each state, and can help under-performing states implement specific remedial actions. 

The report finds that in 28 states and union territories, digitisation stands at 86.3 percent. However, it also reveals considerable accessibility issues, such as changes in administrative units and mismatch of names/spellings, language and translation issues, and other user interface problems. We clearly have a long way to go, and the N-LRSI could become a bellwether of improved land governance in India.


Technology can be leveraged to secure property rights.


Technology, especially geospatial technology, can also significantly drive change on the ground. Drones are perhaps the most exciting new entrants in this spectrum, as they offer great potential for innovation. Recently, the Odisha state government used drones to map close to two lakh households across the state. The whole exercise was completed in a matter of a few months, which by traditional methods would have taken several years. Moreover, the drone imagery brought in transparency to the whole process and allowed the communities to engage with the maps to identify their own homes and community boundaries. This greatly helped in reducing information asymmetry and building trust. Nonprofits such as PRADAN have also employed geospatial tools to map land and help Adivasi families claim their patta.

While there is no doubt that technology can be a force for good, it is also important to acknowledge its limitations in social impact and transformation.

The Government of India also recognises the importance of using technology, as seen from the Prime Minister’s recent announcement of the Swamitva scheme, which aims to map rural inhabited lands using drones and issue property cards to those living in abadi areas (inhabited rural land) without a record of rights.

While there is no doubt that technology can be a force for good, it is also important to acknowledge its limitations in social impact and transformation. Technology is not a silver bullet, and needs to be complemented by non-tech solutions, if we want sustainable impact. Therefore, the focus needs to be on responsible technology, that is used in close engagement with a range of actors, from businesses, to governments, to civil society. 


Donors should pay more attention to the issue of property rights.


Land and property rights are often viewed as a very political issue, which may discourage donors from investing in research in this area. Cognisant of this research gap, we, at Omidyar Network India, have invested in supporting the Property Rights Research Consortium (PRRC) to create evidence-based solutions, without political biases. 

We also believe that there is an opportunity for donors working on WASH, agriculture, and gender issues to include secure land tenure as a key component in their programmes. For example, a programme working to improve farmer income enhancement would need to identify and support tenant farmers to make it truly inclusive, and could include a component to identify tenants and help them formalise the tenancy agreement and access government benefits. Similarly, gender programmes can also try to include women’s names in the property documents, since research shows that it reduces instances of domestic violence and increases women’s confidence and agency. WASH programmes in urban slum communities also require access to land for sanitation  infrastructure. Ahmedabad’s Slum Networking Programme, which started in the late 1990s, demonstrated that providing secure tenure to communities can transform the sanitation and health conditions in informal settlements by leveraging government resources as well as community funds.

Recently, Ashif Shaikh, founder of Jan Sahas, aptly described land as a horizontal, cross-cutting issue across interventions. Evidence shows that that developing programmes that address the land use challenges of target communities are able to significantly boost the overall impact of the programme on the lives of families for a sustained period. Therefore, it is time that we start taking concrete steps towards securing land and property rights in India. 



Shreya Deb leads Omidyar Network’s investments in property rights in India where her interests are in supporting scalable models that can help provide more secure land and housing rights to economically vulnerable people, including in urban slums.  Before joining Omidyar Network in 2011, Shreya spent four years at The Boston Consulting Group. Shreya has an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and a BTech in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.


mountains in Himachal Pradesh

In Himachal, effective forest management could make cities more resilient too

Originally published in Citizen Matters on 29 October, 2018.

Forests become an easy scapegoat for urban infrastructure development. Recently, the National Highways Authority of India blamed meteorological events for triggering landslides in Himachal Pradesh, but such events are not the only cause of environmental degradation.

With the reckless cutting of 23, 785 trees to four-lane the Shimla-Kalka highway and excessive cutting of thousands of other trees to facilitate several hydroelectric projects, it is evident that excessive human activity in Himachal Pradesh is leading to degradation and deprivation of forest quality, which, ironically, would only impede the development that the state is hoping for.

The recent water woes in Shimla in which most areas of the city received water supply only once in eight days, and tourists were requested to avoid visiting the city, is one such example. Several news reports have documented how the drying up of the city’s water sources led to a consistent decrease in water supply quantity, while the city’s population keeps growing.

It is well-established that one of the major factors for these disappearing water sources and reduced rainfall is the loss of surrounding tree cover. The story of Shimla is likely to be repeated across the state, unless some pragmatic measures are taken.

In the face of rapid urbanisation, states need to compensate for the over- extraction of ecosystem services especially forest resources, by their large urban centers. A city does not exist in isolation from its surrounding region, and Participatory Forest Management (PFM) at the regional scale is one of the methods to achieve sustainable urbanisation. It is essential to not only escalate plantation drives and undertake compulsory compensatory afforestation as part of development projects, but also design programmes that are sustainable, people-friendly and self-driven. In doing so, taking care of the needs of the local community stands as a prerequisite to success.

The record so far

Since 1993, there have been several initiatives adopted by the State government of Himachal Pradesh in collaboration with international development agencies such as the World Bank and JICA to execute Joint Forest Management (JFM) programmes aimed at increasing the State’s green cover.

According to the India State of Forest Report (ISFR, 2017), the total forest cover in Himachal Pradesh has increased by 1% since 2015. However, today, after more than two decades, there are only approximately 635 active JFM committees within the State. This number has dropped from 963 active JFMCs in 2014.

According to many forest fringe communities, this increase in the number of inactive JFMCs has primarily been due to the lack of willingness among people, aggravated by erratic financial support from the Forest Department. Rapid urbanisation leading to less dependency on forests and drastic changes in climatic conditions are other factors leading to an increase in the number of non-functional JFMCs. Clearly, this requires a cross-examination of the socio-political conditions and the existing legal framework within the State.

Strengthening Joint Forest Management

An inclusive, rather than a top-down bureaucratic approach might prove worthy in the success of JFM. Involvement of stakeholders in the mere execution of forest programmes, originally prepared by the forest department, does not seem promising. Participation of villagers in the initial stages of developing micro-plans can lead to empowerment of locals by instilling a sense of ownership, planning and decision-making. Granting ownership rights to forest dependent communities may facilitate greater participation by involving more people in JFM activities.

Representation of women and members from vulnerable communities such as SCs and STs is critical in determining the success of JFM programmes. Taking into consideration indigenous knowledge required for planting native varieties is also essential. Gram Panchayats should be involved in selecting the sites and plant species for afforestation.

In addition to existing forest conservation programmes, awareness campaigns and subject specific training programmes will not only contribute to capacity building but also ensure improved practices and dignified livelihoods. There is a need to put in place monitoring and evaluation, and a system of social audit to assess the ecological, social and economic impact of such programmes.

An evaluation of the extent to which adoption of the legislative framework has responded to the needs of the local people is another significant realm. Preference should be given to the needs of the local communities, which is the intent of the law. The salient features of the State JFM Notification (1993) and PFM Rules (2001), over time, might create a mismatch with the evolving needs of people and changing land and climate conditions due to overexploitation of forests for infrastructure development and urbanisation.

External aid pumps much-needed fiscal support into the existing forestry framework in Himachal Pradesh. However, the success and effectiveness of a donor-driven initiative largely depends upon its ability to engage people in forest management activities and ensure continued collaboration between forest department and local communities, even after the life of the project. In the past, lack of consistency in the execution of forest conservation projects and absence of sustainable participatory afforestation practices have compromised the very agenda of the forest department.

Recent measures

This year, in February, the Supreme Court partially removed a ban on green felling in Himachal Pradesh by allowing limited silviculture felling across three districts. Partial removal of this blanket ban after more than two decades will allow regeneration, felling, and thinning of trees, thereby promoting the health of the forest.

Entitlement to a significant share in financial gains received from the sale of timber is another incentive. The extent of participation in co-management of forests, including integration of village micro-plans into Forest Department’s Working Plans, will play a vital role in long-term sustenance of conservation and regeneration activities.

In addition, the present State government in an effort to increase the forest cover recently introduced three forestry schemes—Samudayik Van Samvardhan Yojna, Vidyarthi Van Mitra Yojna, and Van Samridhi, Jan Samridhi Yojna—with a special emphasis on promoting Participatory Forest Management. The proposed schemes will allocate plots in forest land to local people for plantation of useful species and to schools to carry out afforestation activities. These are welcome initiatives and shall go a long way in increasing forest cover.

Given the proven role of forests in filtering pollutants, regulating rain and water supply and restricting flooding, these measures will, in turn, significantly enhance the resilience of those very cities that are often prioritized over forest conservation and management. However, the onus for success of all such programmes rests on the capability of the Forest Development Agencies and JFMCs to sustain and continue conservation practices.

Hansika Seth is an Associate at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. She is trained as a Sociologist and a Social Worker, and has worked on issues of land rights, gender and Right to Education. At IIHS, her work focuses on land record management including institutional policy questions on land ownership, land use and the political economy of land.