Single women get land titles under FRA in Odisha

For the first time in Rayagada district of the state, unmarried women and widows have been given land titles under individual forest rights, writes Deepanwita Gita Niyogi

Securing rights over land is difficult for single and unmarried women as well as widows in a male-dominated society. However, thanks to initiatives at the ground level by non-profit organisation, Pradan, 10 single women (six unmarried women and four widows) have been granted individual forest rights (IFR) under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 in Boriguda village in Odisha’s Rayagada district after a four-year-long struggle. In total, 75 families had applied for IFR.

During a survey carried out in 2013-14 in Kolnara and Kalyansinghpur blocks in Rayagada on land rights, it was found that 40 per cent families did not own lands in government records. Also, these households encroached upon government lands for cultivation.

The survey also concentrated on women’s land rights, particularly assessing the situation for married as well as single and unmarried women. It was found that a negligible population of women had access to in-laws’ property and co-ownership. “As the situation of women was really vulnerable, it was felt that FRA was a powerful tool to settle land rights on them. Finally, the rights were settled in February this year,” said Amit Dash, a Pradan activist based in Odisha. Though till now, the women have not got the title deeds, these have already been approved by the district-level committee (DLC). We are waiting for some minister to turn up, Dash added.

Securing women’s rights

A report by Landesa, Land rights of Pradan Women SHG Members of Rayagada, says that women’s lack of ownership is a systemic process which is embedded in the complex social structure in general and patriarchal mode of functioning in particular. Though women have showed a willingness to own land considering its multiple benefits, they also identify their vulnerability in terms of exclusion of their names in land documents, the report adds. Therefore, the Boriguda example is an important step towards ensuring gender equality.

“Despite working for more hours, women do not have equal access to and control over the land produce, market and money. Further, they have no role in decision making related to land including its purchase, sale and use of sale money,” the report states.

Local activists associated with Pradan informed that till now the district administration has been quite reluctant to grant land rights under FRA. Some 600 FRA cases are still pending in
Kolnara block of the district, of which the maximum number of cases belongs to women. “The forest department is not helpful either, even though FRA was enacted to ensure the rights of forest dwellers over valuable resources,” added Dash.

Ranjan Praharaj, a tribal land rights activist based in Odisha, pointed out that women in general have limited access to rights to land and property across India. But single women are
more deprived and vulnerable compared to married ones. “Most of the times, despite having rights, single women have limited access or the lack of control over lands in the absence of legal documents like land pattas in their names,” he said.

For women, especially single women in the tribal-dominated areas of Odisha and Jharkhand, right over land is prohibited as per customary practices. In almost all tribal communities, women can get user rights, like share of the produce as a member of the family, but cannot get legal right or share of landed property with a title in their names. If a woman is unable to give birth to a boy, her girl child is also deprived of rights over parental land.

In cases of single women getting married later, decisions regarding such cases have not been documented so far. But in general it will remain with the woman even after marriage, if a piece of land is allotted to her. All titles under land allotments are considered leasehold property which cannot be sold, transferred or partitioned. After death of the woman, her husband and children would be the legal heir of the land allotted to her, the land rights activist explained.

Praharaj said that after years of experience of working, he experienced that without secure land rights, it is difficult to ensure sustainable land-based rural livelihood.

A new beginning

Braja Kishore Das from Pradan said that in Rayagada there is 23 per cent to 40 per cent single women population depending on the village size. “Their per centage is quite high in the district. In Boriguda village, the single women who claimed IFR are cultivators and they have been struggling for a long time.”

The claims of these women were
approved by the forest rights committee (FRC) headed by a single woman named Sabitri Hikaka. Then the DLC approved the transfers, Das said. “FRC consists of village members, who first surveyed and raised the claims. They then sent these to the DLC. In the case of Boriguda, though the DLC has approved the claims, the titles are yet to be handed over physically,” Das added.

The FRC was formed in January 2017. After the claims were monitored, they were sent for verification in February. All the women, who have received titles, cultivate cotton, pulses and vegetables. Now, they have received patra jangal lands (non-irrigated uplands) between 1 to 3 acres in size.

“In our field area, we have raised 1,014 claims. But we are facing challenges in reserved forests, as the forest department is not cooperating,” Das said.

According to Praharaj, even after 12 years of implementation, there is inadequate awareness at various levels. Better protection, restoration and management of community forests can be carried out in collaboration with the gram sabhas (village councils). Available funds and technical guidance can be provided to gram sabhas to implement their own community forest rights management plan, so that the village councils can develop a sense of ownership.

“If any agency is keen to adopt a transparent system, then there should not be any hesitation to recognise the rights of the community. The ultimate goal of forest management and conservation can be ensured in this way,” the tribal land rights activist added.

Praharaj lauds the initiative to hand over land titles to single women. The recognition was missing on the part of the government to consider single women as applicants, he pointed out. He admits that definitely FRA is a powerful tool to settle land rights on women, as there is a provision of compulsory joint title in the case of IFR.