Which women own land in India? Between divergent data sets, measures and laws

Bina Agarwal, Pervesh Anthwal, Malvika Mahesh


Accurate figures on gender inequality in land ownership are essential, given their key importance in judging progress on women’s economic empowerment, tracing the gap between progressive laws and actual practice, and monitoring SDG 5 on gender equality. Effectively assessing the gender gap in land ownership, however, requires multiple measures which reveal diverse facets. We also need to know which women own land and what factors affect a woman’s likelihood of doing so. To date, no existing study on India has provided the full range of such assessments, while existing estimates based on national-level data sets are restricted or seriously misleading.

This paper, based on unique longitudinal data collected by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) over 2009-2014, provides estimates of the gender gap in agricultural land ownership in India, using multiple indicators and tracing changes over time and across nine major states. It discusses the drawbacks of existing studies, in particular the substantial inaccuracies in figures provided by a major national survey, NFHS-4, and the limitations of estimates provided by a study based on another national survey, IHDS-II. It also identifies the factors— individual, household and regional—which affect women’s likelihood of owning land. Further, using the longitudinal data which covers the same set of households over time, it traces intra-family land transfers.

We find that notwithstanding the 2005 Hindu Succession Amendment Act which granted equal inheritance rights to sons and daughters in joint family property, particularly agricultural land, barely 16% of women in rural landowning households own land, constituting only 14% of all landowners and owning 11% of the land. Equally striking, women are much more likely to acquire land as widows than as daughters, highlighting the divergence between legal reforms which have been strengthening women’s rights as daughters and the traditional social legitimacy of widows’ claims over daughters’ claims. Today, accuracy in estimating this key gender gap in women’s economic status is imperative, as is implementing laws to ensure the claims of all women to this vital resource.


Gender gap indicators, land owned, data challenges, Inheritance law, India

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