KARACHI, June 19: Civil society activists and economists on Wednesday called for true land reforms, which they said would increase the productivity of land, improve financial health of the agricultural communities as well as the country’s economy.
Speaking at a consultation on ‘Addressing the inequality gap: a dialogue on land rights’, organised by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler), they demanded reserved seats for peasants and workers in parliament, saying the current system did not allow them representation at the decision-making forums.
A senior economist, Akbar Zaidi, said in the last budget speech there was no mention of peasants and labour rights or giving them any relief, and the focus was only on solving the energy crisis. He said mere land reforms would not solve the problems of peasants as equally important was the availability of their due share in the irrigation water and soft loans so that they could purchase seeds, fertilisers, etc.
He said, on the one hand, most people working on agricultural lands did not own land and, on the other, only five per cent of the people had the ownership and control over roughly one third of the cultivable land.
He said between 60 million and 70m people were living below the poverty line in the country, most of them in the rural areas.
Pointing out that the government still had about 2.6 million acres, he suggested that if it was distributed at five acres per family, about 520,000 peasant families would benefit from it and it would help alleviate poverty and improve food security.
He also suggested that land be taken from big landowners and distributed among landless farmers. He said small growers tried to cultivate about 90pc of their land, but big landlords did not bother to cultivate their entire land.
Piler chief Karamat Ali said land reforms had been missing from political parties’ agenda for many years. He said land owners had become smarter and fragmented their landholdings in different names. He said that despite the past few land reforms, landholdings of big landlords had increased. He said that in the 1946 elections for Sindh and Punjab assemblies 90 per cent elected members were big landlords and over 65 years later, the situation was almost the same and big landowners had a firm grip on parliament, which would not pass any legislation against their interests. He said the condition of farmers was not good half a century back and it had worsened over the years. He opposed the corporate farming and giving large tracts to foreign nationals and multinationals.
An economist, Dr Aly Ercelan, said Japan, China, Korea and Vietnam had introduced land reforms much earlier, which indicated that if land from half to one acre per person was given to them they could earn a livelihood.
He said cooperative farming was a solution to rural problems. He cited the example of land reforms introduced in the Indian state of Kerala and successful cooperative farming. Sindh PPP secretary general Taj Haider said the government had allocated Rs12 billion that would be given as small loans of Rs300,000 to individuals selected through ballot to help them set up small businesses. He said water drainage schemes were being implemented and old waterways, which had been encroached, were being revived so that waterlogged land could be recovered and cultivated and threat of flooding countered. Through these steps roughly one million acres would be recovered.
He conceded that some disputes had cropped up regarding the land given to women farmers by the government but they were being sorted out. He said system leakages and governance issues were affecting the otherwise poor-friendly policies, but now the loopholes were being plugged and hopefully the economy of the poor of Sindh would improve soon.
Latif Mughal, Mahnaz Rahman, Prof Aijaz Qureshi, Tanweer Arif, Zahid Farooq, Jannisar Saleem, Mohammad Jaffer, Aziz Akhtar, Ali Hassan Chandio, Sajjad Zaheer, Illahi Bux Bikak, Sikendar Brohi and others also spoke.