Property Rights and Gender Bias: Evidence from Land Reform in West Bengal

Kolkata, West Bengal, India. Photo by Muktinava Chowdhury via Unsplash.

Secure property rights are considered a cornerstone of economic development and are particularly important in developing countries where large fractions of the population are dependent upon agriculture. Land rights are subject to change through laws and policies, and from 1955 to 2000 a billion people and nearly as many hectares were affected by land reform laws. However, the effects of land reform on intra-household gender inequality have not been examined.

In a new American Economic Journal article, Dilip Mookherjee and coauthors explore the hypothesis that land reform may exacerbate an underlying preference for sons and thereby increase gender inequality in societies where land rights are heritable and primarily inherited by sons. They examine variation in land rights created by Operation Barga, a flagship tenancy reform in the Indian state of West Bengal, which previous research has shown to have increased agricultural productivity and farm incomes significantly.

Main findings:

  • Increased property rights increased male child survival rates in families without a firstborn son, but not in those that already had a firstborn male child. This reflects intensified son preference as land rights improve, ostensibly to ensure a male heir to inherit land. 
  • Consistent with the above, girls with firstborn brothers also experience increased survival, but not girls with firstborn sisters. The gender bias manifests both in infant mortality rates and the sex ratio at birth. 

The authors find increased property rights exacerbate gender discrimination in Hindu families, with parents manipulating sex ratios at birth and after birth until the age of one to increase the chances of survival of at least one son to inherit the family property. This contrasts with evidence from other settings that land reform alters existing gender-unequal institutions in favor of women. Male-biased inheritance law in India appears to have resulted in very different outcomes.

Read the Journal Article