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«Working Paper No. 2010/56 Women and Landed Property in Urban India Negotiating Closed Doors and Windows of Opportunity Bipasha Baruah* May 2010 ...»

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Urban researchers are increasingly asserting that access to ‘house and land’ is a key determinant of women’s empowerment in urban areas (Tinker and Summerfield, 1999).

Other authors like Mearns (1999) describe how women are excluded from holding title to land either through legal or cultural means, and that this lack of access and control is a key determinant of women’s economic status. Although men and women in India enjoy the same legal rights with regard to property ownership, many cultural traditions deny women the right to property inheritance or management. Since the struggle for women’s property rights requires legal, institutional, and cultural transformation, tenure reform without explicit concern for women can disadvantage them even further. The next section outlines some key issues that must be addressed in order to develop a gendered vision on land rights, reform and tenure in urban areas.5

3.1 Knowledge of land issues and perceptions of security

Much of the literature suggests that the negotiation of de jure as well as de facto land rights and tenure remains primarily a male enterprise in both the urban and the rural context in India (Basu 1999; Roy 2003). Similar findings are reported by authors working in Africa and Latin America: Whitehead and Tsikata (2003) note that women in sub-Saharan Africa have too little political voice in decisionmaking with regard to land issues, not only within formal law and government but also within local level management systems and civil society. Men in slums are generally better informed on land tenure matters and are more involved in the politics of negotiating informal tenure security, an observation confirmed by our findings. However, noteworthy differences were observed among slum women in their awareness of land tenure and relevant issues, their knowledge depending on participation in CBOs and other collectives as well as their exposure to the efforts of organizations like SEWA.

5 Although the author believes that it is one of the major reasons for women’s disenfranchisement from landed property, she will not discuss women’s inheritance rights in any detail in this paper.

Inheritance issues are covered extensively by authors like Agarwal (1994), Basu (1999) and Basu and Rajan (2006).

Focus groups conducted among the women of both the non-upgraded and upgraded slums revealed very interesting differences in their knowledge of ownership rights and perceptions of security of tenure. Less than 5 per cent of women from the non-upgraded slums were able to report accurately on the ownership of the land they occupied or to recall previous eviction or relocation attempts. By contrast, almost half the women in the upgraded slums were able to indicate correctly whether their slums were located on private, municipal or government land. Women from the upgraded slums were also better informed about recent land-related negotiations between slum communities, NGOs, politicians, and the municipal corporation. Among the women of the nonupgraded slums—many of which lacked the slum networking infrastructure and/or a verbal non-eviction guarantee from the municipality—perceptions of land tenure security were much higher than in the upgraded slums, where the municipality had invested significant amounts in improvements and had issued the 10-year guarantee. All the slums in the study had been settled for at least a decade; consequently, insecurity over land tenure and eviction was generally low. However, women in the upgraded slums expressed greater concern over their future claims to the land than their counterparts in the non-upgraded slums. Investments to upgrade housing and housing infrastructure exacerbated the anxieties of the upgraded slum residents.

In the absence of standardized legal documents verifying ownership, slum dwellers were very conscientious to preserve all forms of quasi-legal documentation that confirmed their entitlement to landed assets. However, participants from the upgraded slums had a much clearer understanding of the fact that while documents like ration cards or electricity bills enhanced their right of residence, they were not legal proof of ownership of property. Similarly, while residents of all the case-study slums were appreciative of the non-eviction guarantees from the AMC, interviewees from the upgraded slums expressed greater anxiety about the future once the 10-year term had expired, wondering if the government might grant them full tenure rights in the form of pattas (formal land titles). Since present policy interventions appear to support guarantees of non-eviction, in combination with investment in water and sanitation infrastructure, as a point on the continuum towards the granting of full tenure rights, such expectations among women in upgraded slums represent high levels of awareness about current practices of governments and attitudes towards slums.

These findings also confirm the value of SEWA’s initiatives for functional literacy and consciousness-awareness not only in promoting an understanding of women’s rights and entitlements to property and infrastructural services, but also for impressing upon women themselves that arranging security of tenure is significant for the overall improvement of the quality of their lives. Educating women about their rights and entitlements is a crucial issue; a major stumbling block for even the most enlightened pro-women land reform policy is the lack of appropriate dissemination at a grassroots level. Policy ‘in theory’ and policy ‘in practice’ are two entirely different issues.





Women cannot exercise their rights if they are not aware of them.

3.2 Gentrification and market evictions

During interviews with AMC bureaucrats, it was suggested that granting full legal rights to slum dwellers and providing essential services at the household level would contribute to gentrification. Plots and houses would be sold to higher-income groups, leaving the targeted population groups no better off than they were before. The findings from this study provide very little indication of this happening. In 2003 and 2004, only three families6 moved out of the upgraded slums under study. But in the face of skyrocketing land values, there is, of course, no guarantee that slum dwellers will not be forced off their plots by powerful corporate interests needing serviced urban land. This has certainly happened in many urban areas. While many poor communities may find it difficult to resist corporate financial incentives or pressure tactics, our findings, at least partially, dispel the widespread assumption of government functionaries that the poor are accustomed to living, working, and raising their families in squalid environments and would thus not fully appreciate the benefits of tenure security or the availability of essential services. Women in both types of slum areas were more interested in secure tenure of landed assets and the opportunity to raise their children in hygienic environments than in gaining financial reward from the sale of property.

The primary intention of this study was not to explore whether women’s participation and leadership in CBOs and other collective bodies would deliver more sustainable gains for the poor with regard to landed property, but evidence from slum upgradation programmes in other Indian cities suggests that this is the case. In Visakhapatnam, for example, there has been substantial gentrification and ‘downward raiding’ through the sale of plots to higher-income families in well-located areas along national highways.

The initial enthusiasm of building a home on tenure-secured land caused many to incur large, high-interest debts, often from informal lenders, that resulted in numerous distress sales. However, Banerjee (2002) notes that the turnover of plots is significantly lower in well-organized neighbourhoods where women dominate local committees.

The women in this study indicated that owning a well-serviced home on secure land had significantly influenced their self-image and attitude towards the future. Several participants stressed that the prestige, security, stability, and convenience of owning a home made it almost ludicrous to consider selling it for profit if the alternative meant going back to paying rent or living without services. Focus group participants, who had been tenants for extended periods, mentioned not having to pay rent or deal with the mental anxiety of eviction threats as the biggest benefits of home ownership: according to a 2007 SEWA survey covering 285 women in the upgraded slums, 97 per cent reported an improvement in mental and emotional wellbeing as a result of the amenities, while 87 per cent reported social status improvements.

The status and self-esteem associated with home ownership, availability of water and sanitation services and tenure security are also reflected in the widespread desire of the study participants to rename their communities. Slums and other informal settlements in India are often derogatorily referred to as chali (shack) or zhopadpatti (hovel), but several of the upgraded slums had been renamed formally in response to popular demand. Interviewees stated on several occasions that living in Indira Nagar (Indira City) or Nehru Nagar (Nehru City) instead of Talavadi na chhapra (the slum on the lake) or City Mill ni chali (the city mill’s shack) enhanced the image of their community as well as their perception of their place in society. Despite the significant contribution of slum communities to the urban economy, they exist on the fringes of society and occupy the lowest rungs of socioeconomic hierarchies. The transition—physical, mental and spiritual—from eking out an existence in areas considered to be an eyesore or a 6 One family moved to another upgraded slum and two were able to purchase property in low-income housing societies.

hotbed of urban crime, disease and disrepair to living in low-income housing societies with basic amenities had a strong dignifying effect on slum residents. The effect on women was particularly strong since they perform the bulk of family and household maintenance activities. While the residents of upgraded slums were understandably happy about the rise in the market value of their property after the provision of amenities, neither gender expressed any interest in selling unless they could afford to relocate to another location with comparable or better facilities.

3.3 Tenants and informal renting in slums

Improved security of tenure and the provision of basic services can at times have a negative impact on the rental sector in slums. This is a major problem for which no satisfactory answers have yet been found (Moser and Peake 1987; UN-Habitat 2003).

Housing produced informally or illegally is often used for rental purposes. A combination of the insecurity of the settlement and non-compliance with basic health and safety standards makes it possible to provide shelter to low-income households at affordable rates. Tenure security also raises concerns about the link between tenure upgrading and market eviction. Tenants are almost always in the line of fire in such situations. Administrative measures like the Rent Control Acts, aimed at improving or controlling the low-income rental sector, have been tried without much success in Mumbai and Delhi, and have instead generated housing shortages, discouraged private investment in improving or maintaining the quality of housing, and restricted the option to rent for the very populations they were enacted to serve (UN-Habitat 2003).

Informal rental arrangements comprise a significant form of shelter for slum dwellers in this study, representing approximately 25 per cent of all randomly selected families. Of this group, approximately 30 per cent are households where women were the primary or sole breadwinners. While researchers like Chant (1997) astutely emphasize that female headship is not always a proxy for poverty, female-headed households in this study had fewer income-earning opportunities than male-headed households and were generally poorer. Given their low incomes, their choice of housing was more limited. The literature on slums and other informal and irregular settlements suggests that arrangements of informal renting, subletting, sharing, or lodging with a family are ranked the lowest in the residential hierarchy and were largely occupied by women and women-headed households (Volbeda 1989; Yapi-Diahou 1995). This is borne out in both types of slum settlements where women, especially with young children and without a male breadwinner, repeatedly indicated greater difficulty in securing rental accommodations. Some landlords openly declared reservations about renting to women because of speculations regarding the economic security of female-headed households.

Findings from this study indicate that infrastructure provision, shelter improvement, and tenure security definitely increased land and housing values and rents of slum properties. According to tenants, landlords increased rent by a few hundred rupees for a one-room house in three of the five upgraded slums almost immediately once the prospects of infrastructure upgradation were made public. While women receive considerable benefit from the availability of basic services, it is also possible that titled tenure and amenities like water and sanitation make rents prohibitively expensive for them, thereby sharpening the status distinctions between owners and rentees and ironically reinforcing the dependencies such interventions were designed to erase.



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