Land titles under FRA lend dignity to 21 single womenWritten By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi | Published on Oct 11, 2022, 15:01 IST | 1665480692615Rayagada, Odisha: Sundari Huika is happy that her daughter in-law Rupai Huika, with whom she shares a cordial relationship even after her son Sanjay’s death, now owns land. Rupai is one among the 21 single women who received individual land titles under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) on January 7 last year, in tribal-dominated Boriguda village of Rayagada district. This is the first instance of single women gaining such rights anywhere in Odisha.
The FRA passed in 2006 allows tribals and forest dwellers rights over forest resources. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs is the nodal agency for its implementation.
Rupai placed her claim in October 2018. Though just 0.28 acres, the land helps Rupai and son Suman Huika sustain by cultivating kandulo (toor dal). “It is tasty. We store some for personal consumption and sell the rest at Rs 60 per kg,” Sundari told 101Reporters.
Like Rupai, most single women beneficiaries belong to the Kandha tribe. Twelve are widows, six unmarried and the rest destitute. They cultivated paddy during kharif season, and have plans to grow brinjals and tomatoes in winter. However, irrigation facility eludes Boriguda, which comes under Therubali gram panchayat in Kolnara block. The women feel borewells will serve their purpose.
A life of dignity
Legal ownership of land has brought a new meaning to the lives of single women. According to an article, Understanding women’s land insecurities, written by Sonali Mohapatra and Sailabala Panda, only 15% women have lands in their names in Kolnara and Kalyansinghpur blocks.
However, no recorded government data were available on the number of land titles allotted to single women.
According to Bhubaneswar-based FRA expert Ranjan Praharaj, though 70% of the forest in Rayagada is in hilly areas, the word jangal or forest is not mentioned in the government records, which makes it difficult to recognise titles under the FRA as only those in actual occupation of forestland are eligible as per law. Boriguda being a roadside village, the residents did not own much land anyways. Many people encroached on the government-owned lands.
Gaining access to land titles is difficult for women, especially when many claims are rejected arbitrarily. In Boriguda, altogether 75 households (52 joint titles, two single men and the rest single women) had applied for individual claims. Though the benefits are mostly economical, land possession gives social status too. Many women in Rayagada district said they felt nice seeing their names in the document, which gave them an identity.
On the four-year struggle to get land titles, Sailabala Panda said non-profit Pradan held sensitisation camps and helped the claimants to fill up the form. “When Pradan started working on the FRA in 2015-16, it found that women’s issue of inclusion was sidelined. Most land titles went to men as the records were often kept in their names. Hence, we decided to invest in the gender component.”
“While collaborating with UN Women on gender in Rayagada, Pradan organised training on gender sensitisation with the help of organisations like Jagori. In the four sessions held in Boriguda, we tried to spread the message that it was not fair for women not to own lands,” said Panda, who leads Pradan’s work on the FRA in Odisha.
The awareness camps revealed that women did not know they have a right to possess land. When Pradan educated them, they raised the issue before the gram sabha, which initially rejected their claims. Subsequently, the NGO convinced the gram sabha and other stakeholders to get the claims approved.
“The main problem is that people behind the implementation of FRA lack an understanding on how to include women or single women, which include widows, unmarried women and those abandoned,” Praharaj said.
Under individual forest rights (IFR), a person can claim up to 10 acres of land for livelihood purposes. A family can claim the right jointly. However, Praharaj said women generally faced exclusion. “In almost all tribal communities, women can get user rights, like share of the produce as a family member, but are deprived of legal rights or share of the landed property with a title in their names.”
All the 21 women in Boriguda received land measuring one to three acres on an average, classified as patra jangal or degraded grazing lands in government records. “At first, many of us were apprehensive. But after we applied for land titles, we felt optimistic. Land is an asset and I feel secure now,” said Raimati Hikaka, who made the claim after the death of her husband Damodara, a driver. The septuagenarian now grows ragi there.
A positive transformation
Sabitri Hikaka was busy transplanting paddy on her one-acre land on a sultry day. The feisty woman in her 40s led the group of single women during their fight for land titles. Now she owns another 2.15 acres, which unlike the other comes under the IFR. “Initially, the land was dry in nature. Much work was required to make it suitable for cultivation,” Sabitri said.
Besides paddy, she has planted mango and cashew trees. She got mango saplings from the horticulture division, and cashew trees from the soil conservation and watershed development division, both functioning under the Department of Agriculture and Farmers’ Empowerment.
Sabitri worked for about 12 years in a ferromanganese plant from early 2000s for a daily wage of Rs 30 to 50. There too, she was instrumental in getting safety kits for women. The receipt of land title has secured the position of her family comprising her mother and sisters. Sabitri’s social standing has also increased, as she now guides the forest management protection committee.
Owning land also means a busy schedule for these women. Notwithstanding heavy rains, Sinami Hikaka was at work in the morning itself. “All the land plots received by single women were in the government’s possession earlier and in poor condition. A lot of work went into making them suitable for farming. Bunds had to be built to slow down runoffs and prevent soil erosion,” she said.
Sinami was abandoned when her husband married a second time. Polygamy is common in several villages of the district. In her case, the 3.05 acres were jointly claimed in the name of her son Roki Hikaka and her daughter in-law Rasmita Hikaka. Sinami happily handed over the right, being an elderly.
Meanwhile, Sabitri said Rasmita’s name was put first at the time of filing the claim. However, her husband’s name appeared first in the land title. Sailabala Panda said even the sub-divisional level committee, which verified the claims, was initially hesitant to help single women. But armed with their new-found confidence, the women articulated their needs well.
A gram sabha member from Boriguda, Trinath Hikaka said the village understood the importance of giving land to single women after the training sessions on gender. “Giving land titles will ensure their livelihood, besides helping them avail of government schemes.”
Praharaj felt vulnerable sections could be protected by providing land rights at both individual and community levels. “In tribal communities, especially Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, women’s land rights have never been recognised. Usually, single women-headed households are never considered a separate family!”
On their part, the community and system do not allow women to speak up. “Single women find it difficult to ask for land rights from fathers, brothers and husbands. Therefore, the government officials at grassroots level should enquire about the number of such women in villages. The Boriguda development is a great opportunity to secure their future as land rights give access to government schemes,” Praharaj said.
Single women and landless people can also benefit from community forest resource rights, which allow them to collect arrowroot, turmeric and medicinal plants. On August 15 last year, Boriguda received these rights for 363.71 acres, of which 208.5 acres are forestlands. The title gives Boriguda residents rights to protect and manage forest, collect non-timber forest produce and fuelwood, and graze cattle.
This story was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation's Howard G Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.
The cover image is of Sabitri Hikaka of Boriguda village holding a paddy bunch for transplantation, captured by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)