Women Support Centres Help Odisha’s Single Women to Secure Land Titles

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Pramila Behera, 30, is a poor lonely widow from Achhuli village, which falls under the Pursottampur tehsil of Ganjam district in Odisha. She has a hard life, barely being able to provide two square meals for her daughter and herself. Ever since Pramila was married to a migrant labourer at 20, it’s been a daily struggle for survival. Even as she used to worry about the health of her only daughter, little did she know that her husband was HIV positive and that he had infected both mother and daughter. Pramila lost her husband in 2002. And from then on began her saga of ostracisation and destitution. Once her in-laws and other villagers realised that Pramila was HIV positive, she was banished from the community. Her brother too disowned her. Finally, with no place to call her own and no hope she went to her elder sister, who, deserted by her own husband, lived alone on the outskirts of the village.

Nowadays, the sisters earn a meagre living by working as daily wagers. With no Below Poverty Line (BPL) card or Annapurna card – through which subsidised rice can be procured – the two are barely manage to provide for their combined family of six. For them – especially Pramila, who has been denied shelter because of her illness – a piece of land can definitely serve as a life-support system.

Like Pramila, Sasmita, 25, who hails from Ganjam district, lives with her daughters and widowed mother. A victim of domestic violence she was tortured by her husband and in-laws for dowry. When she gave birth to only daughters, one of whom is mentally challenged, the young woman was thrown out of home. Helpless, she attempted suicide twice but failed. Then she pulled herself together and sought shelter with her mother in Handighara village in Purusottampur block. Sasmita works as a daily wage labourer. She says, “My daughters are my most precious possessions. I am surviving only to see them educated. If I had a piece of land then we could have at least had a permanent shelter and could cultivate vegetables to sustain ourselves.”

The struggle of thousands of landless single women like Pramila and Sasmita, who are neglected and denied their rights, is going to end soon, thanks to the Women Support Centres (WSCs), which have been set up by the district administration of Ganjam in all its tehsils with support from LandesaRural Development Institute (RDI), a global non-profit working towards securing land rights for the poorest. The WSCs, which are headed by a woman nodal officer and function from the tehsil office, are responsible for ensuring that single women in the area have legal title to homestead land and access to other government livelihood and social security schemes.

While the Odisha government’s land allocation programmes mandate that all poor, landless families in rural areas are eligible for allotment of land – whether male or female-headed households – the reality is that women rarely own land. In fact, single women – unmarried and over the age of 30, abandoned and divorcees – are not even counted as families. Without any assets of their own, a large section of these women survive on the mercy of their relatives in exchange of unpaid labour.

Women produce half of the food grown in the developing world. And yet as they do not have secure land rights they are at an increased risk of losing their source of food, income and shelter should they lose their only link to the land – husbands, fathers or brothers taken by illness, violence or migration.

Though the Odisha government has introduced progressive policies and programmes to allocate land to the landless none of these have specifically targeted women, especially single women. As per Sanjay Patnaik, Director of LandesaRDI, Odisha, “The Vasundhara scheme, for instance, aimed at providing homestead land to the homestead-less but did not specifically create provision for single women. A single woman – widow, divorcee and deserted – staying with her father or brother is not considered head of the house hold and, therefore, is not a separate family to be eligible for the land. The WSCs represent a step ahead in not only identifying such single women but also helping them to secure land titles.”

With the help of anganwadi workers, the WSC nodal officer identifies the landless single women living with their natal family or a relative as well as other women-headed families residing independently on government or private land. The WSC creates an inventory of such women for land allocation under the state’s Vasundhara programme. The WSC staff, thereafter, follows up with the tehsildar and revenue inspectors and ensures that the eligible women are allocated the land.

When the Odisha Government’s revenue department had conducted a survey in 2003, it revealed that there were more than 2.5 lakh landless families in the state. This had led the government to launch the Vasundhara programme in 2005-06. Then when Landesa undertook a study of nine villages spanning three tehsils as a first step to designing the WSCs as a pilot in Khalikote tehsil, the findings threw up some interesting observations: firstly, women’s land rights are highly dependent on their marital status; and secondly, single women’s rights need special attention.

The provision of homestead land for single women, through the WSCs, was designed to be an entry point to address the complicated issues surrounding land literacy and handling of grievance. The pilot anticipated a backlash owing to the local patriarchal structure. So the process has started with a non controversial exercise – identifying vulnerable women headed households for grant of government land. This approach is not expected to threaten men since the women will receive land from the state and no land would be taken away from them. In later phases, the programme would slowly open up a broader discussion around the power balance between the men and women and pave the way for other practical interventions to strengthen women’s land rights within rural households.

More than 80 per cent women in rural India depend on agriculture for their livelihood but less than 10 per cent own land. The Landesa experiment in Khalikote proved that when women have secure rights to their land, they are better able to provide for their family’s needs, especially their children.

Hatu Pradhan of Chillipoi village in Khalikote tehsil of Ganjam district did just that. When her family was asked to move owning to the Salia dam project, Hatu gathered a few essentials and came to Chilipoi with her two children and sick husband. As they could not afford medical help her husband soon passed away. The family lived in a small hut and survived on the wage work she did. Sleepless nights owning to hunger and fear of eviction took their toll on Hatu but she forged on. When her son got married he left her all alone with her struggles.

Things changed for the better only once she received the ‘patta’ to both homestead and agricultural land. Hatu now grows vegetable on her land and she can also avail number of other government schemes. “After a lifetime of insecurity I have finally settled down thanks go to the Women Support Centre that helped me to get a ‘patta’ of the land,” she smiles.

In the last four months, the WSCs in Ganjam have identified 57,422 single women out of 304,754 households in 1,238 villages of 11 sub-districts to avail numerous government schemes and services. A total of 46,087 women will be verified for land allocation. Of these 19,731 are single women and 26,356 are heads of household. Hope floats for Pramila and Sasmita.

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