The need for effective implementation of inclusive land reform

-This article has been originally published by Sneha Pradhan in The Himalayan Times on November 12, 2017.

Food Security; gender equality; safe shelter; basic human rights! Influence of land is so powerful that lack of its ownership and effective management can threaten these pillars of human well-being to the very core. It is well established that land ownership can provide access to finance, empowerment, improved agricultural productivity and enhanced standard of living. However, with the top 7% of Nepalese households controlling 31% of agricultural land as compared to 3% by the bottom 20%; and with 1.3 million landless or land poor people in the country, the opportunities presented by land are currently out of reach for millions.

What then exacerbates the plight of vulnerable groups? What threatens security of tenure and food production? What inhibits equitable access to economic freedom?

Informal Settlements

96.97% of Kathmandu is urbanized and it is no stranger to feeling the distress of rapid urban sprawl. Haphazard migration into fast growing urban areas such as Kathmandu, Pokhara, Birgunj, Dharan and Mechinagar contributes to around 2.8 million slum dwellers residing in mostly un-serviced and hazard prone squatter settlements. The lack of secure tenure subjects them to forceful evictions which discourages them to invest in better housing structures in fear of losing their investments.  Twenty-six thousand people remain displaced after the 2015 earthquake since the lack of formal land documentation excluded them from reconstruction and rebuilding efforts. This has forced people to continue living in or move to even more risk-prone areas.

Recognizing this acute problem, the government has introduced resettlement schemes. However, these efforts remain ineffective as squatter residents refuse to move to the new settlements which are far away from their place of work, markets and schools; and have inadequately sized housing units. The major problem stems from the government taking a top-down approach and not taking the input of the squatter residents. It is vital that squatter communities are regularly consulted and educated about the risks of living in their current residences. Civil society organizations and NGOs can be good agents to support the government in organizing inclusive meetings at the local level and encouraging regular participation from the dwellers. It seems that the government is warming up to the idea of regularizing informal settlements that are located in appropriate safe areas. They also have plans of building low-cost multistoried housings every 5km apart in the outer ring road periphery of Kathmandu through public-private partnerships. While this sounds promising, we have yet to see how and if it will be implemented.

Land Grabbing

Land Grabbing puts the security of tenure of poor vulnerable groups at risk and creates conflict.  The increasing amount of grabbing of private, state and forest land has been carried out by a number of agents comprising federal agencies, security forces, ethnic groups, educational institutions, religious organizations, political trusts, factions of the Maoist Party and private sector including industries. A substantial amount of arable land has been taken for non-agricultural purposes and a sizeable amount out of that cultivable land is left idle.  In some instances locals are promised jobs in exchange for selling their land at cheap rates and in other instances forcefully removed with little to no compensation. The promises of job opportunities rarely pan out and farming families that were once self-sustainable are left having to depend on the market for food consumption. Such activities put severe pressures on already dwindling food production in the country.

Women Rights to Land

Gender disparity in terms of land ownership is commonplace. In Nepal, just 5% of total land is owned by 19.7% women and only 11% of those women have control over their land. There have been a lot of progressive changes at the policy level, however women have not been able to reap those benefits due to retrograde socio-cultural norms. Women get tax exemptions of 25% to 50% during land registration provided she does not sell the land within three years. A widow receives 35% tax exemption and 50% of tax is exempted when land is transferred within three generations of daughter or granddaughter. The government also promotes Joint Land Ownership which can be obtained for just Rs. 100.

These policies have helped increase land ownership of women over the years. However, there is still a long way to go. Many women are unaware of the benefits and rights that they have, and do not receive help in the implementation of such rights.  Families are concerned that women owning land will deprive the family of an asset in the event of marriage or re-marriage and so they are discouraged from getting citizenship certificates. Women are afraid that they risk divorce if they ask for land, and some are so rooted in the patriarchy that they do not feel the need to own land. Although 75% women are involved in agriculture, most have no control over the land they till. More land ownership for women would mean more agricultural productivity, more access to financial resources, reduced domestic violence and increased economic independence and empowerment.

It is clear that while formulating progressive policies is extremely important, building strong mechanisms to implement those policies become equally if not more important for land reform in the country.