MR Abid Hasan Minto, president of the Awami Workers’ Party, has done well to go before the Supreme Court to challenge the 1990 judgement of the Federal Shariat Court’s appellate bench declaring land reforms to be un-Islamic.
After that judgement it became fashionable to pronounce the demise of feudalism in Pakistan. Some economists of repute challenged leftist views on the subject. It was widely propagated that Pakistan is no more an agrarian economy. It was also said that the country was urbanising fast and the rural-urban divide was not sharply delineated any more.
I will not get into semantic arguments about the definition of feudalism or the social changes that are used as indicators in support of the argument that ours is not a feudal society now. What is more worrisome is that food insecurity in Pakistan is on the rise and rural poverty can be linked to a great extent to the size of landholdings and the relationship between the person who owns the land and the one who cultivates it. Also a matter of concern is the nexus between big landowners and political power.
In this context, the study on landholdings conducted by Dr Kaiser Bengali, an economist and government adviser, is extremely instructive. It reminds us that land reform is an issue that is as relevant today as it was in 1959, 1972 and 1977 when half-hearted attempts were made to change the pattern of landholding in Pakistan.
Some of the data collected by Dr Bengali’s team point to the inequities in the land distribution pattern in Pakistan. The government’s agricultural census 2010 confirms this prevailing inequality. Its implications for food insecurity are serious considering the universal finding of researchers that land cultivated by peasant owners themselves has a higher yield since the cultivators have the incentive to increase food production for their own benefit.
First, we need to set the record straight. The agricultural sector continues to be vital in Pakistan’s economy though it contributes 21pc to the GDP which is less than the share of the manufacturing and services sectors. But agriculture provides livelihood to 45pc of the national labour force — which is much more than the other sectors. Hence it has a more profound human dimension.
According to the agricultural census, 64pc of the total number of farms in the country are less than five acres in size but their area accounts for only 19pc of the national farm area. What is even more significant is that these small farms which provide subsistence to their owners are intensely cultivated (95pc of their land is under cultivation).
On the contrary, the large farms (above 100 acres in size) that are owned mainly by feudals (using the common parlance) are not even 1pc of the total number of private farms but account for 14pc of farm area in Pakistan. Worse still, two-thirds of the land in these farms is not cultivated. Sindh presents a sorry picture. Here the small farmers work harder and cultivate practically every inch of the land they possess while the large farms have just about half of their land area under cultivation.
The pattern in Punjab is similar, but with one difference. As Dr Kaiser Bengali informed the participants of the consultation organised by Piler (the labour education and research institution), corporate farming has caught on in southern Punjab. Here salaried graduates are employed but most are on a temporary contract basis and the workers do not live on the land.
Since Dr Bengali did not presumably collect data on yield per acre it is difficult to estimate whether the corporate farms have increased production. They may well have done so, given the modern farming techniques available to them. But that would have only served to maximise the profits of the corporate owners and starvation for the poor.
Corporate farming has led to a large-scale displacement of people from the Seraiki belt. Most of this exodus has entered Karachi, the troubled city with a population of complex demographic composition.
In Sindh, according to Dr Bengali’s research in three districts (Shikarpur, Dadu and Thatta), between 76-85pc of the farms have been given out to farmers on a sharecropping basis which provides the least incentive to farm workers to increase production. It also creates more room for exploitation and oppression. Small wonder it has been so difficult to eradicate bonded labour in spite of legislation that makes it illegal.
What has been the result of this phenomenon? The most obvious one has been the rise of food insecurity. Nearly 50pc of Pakistan’s population does not have steady access to sufficient food and malnourishment is rampant in the country. It is not a coincidence that Sindh with its large farms and low cultivated areas has the most food insecurity.
If conventional logic is applied, one can assume that small farmers manage to meet their food needs and also produce some surplus. With the present concentration of land ownership, the small farmers face the risk of extinction. The paradox is that bumper wheat harvests notwithstanding, the people are starving.
Another tragedy is that there is no solution to the problem, as big landowners also control policymaking. They ensure that food prices never fall. Will they ever accept a long-term solution to the problem by agreeing to land reforms?