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Land reform or bust

March 12, 2015


THE latest clashes between farmers and the police at several places in Punjab have taken the lid off the cauldron of discontent in the agriculture sector.

There was no justification for the authorities’ efforts to prevent the Pakistan Kisan Ittehad from marching to Islamabad to present their demands before the federal government. True, agriculture is a provincial subject but there is no bar on anyone’s right to raise provincial issues in the state capital. Thus, whatever led to Sunday’s violent clashes between the demonstrators and the police, arrest of a good many protesters, and the blocking of road-rail traffic for hours can only be deplored.

The farmers’ decision to organise the march to Islamabad was neither sudden nor unexpected. They have been in a state of agitation for several weeks. One of their most common complaints has been non-payment of sugar-cane growers’ dues by the sugar mills. There have been demonstrations in Sargodha, Toba Tek Singh, Okara, Pir Mahal, Kanganpur and some other places. At Shahpur, Tandliawala and several other towns they staged sit-ins outside the mills. In one instance, the police registered a case against a mill owner for non-payment of growers’ dues.

That economic progress depends on the judicious use of our land resources is self-evident.

In addition there were protests against the sale of spurious pesticides, traces of poison in vegetables sold in the market, and closure of canals (D.G. Khan).

Thus, the Punjab government had enough time to deal with unrest among the farmers. That it took no notice of the smouldering discontent till a law and order situation had developed is symptomatic of the state’s indifference to the interests of the 43.7pc of the country’s labour force that is still engaged in agriculture.

And this is not the case in Punjab alone. Only a few weeks ago, the Sindh government also had to deal with sugar-cane growers’ complaints of low prices for their produce and non-payment of dues by mills. And there have been protests against shortage of water and load-shedding of electricity in several parts of Sindh and Balochistan.

The farmers who have been able to attract the attention of provincial authorities and the media are not the most disadvantaged members of the agriculturist community. They comprise mainly small owner-cultivators and middle peasants, and while their demands for relief in levies, for subsidies and for higher floor prices cannot be ignored, these do not cover the problems faced by millions of landless peasants and agricultural labour.

The core issue in agriculture is the irrational land ownership pattern that condemns a preponderant majority of the people dependent on agriculture to poverty, hunger and disease, and which perpetuates inequality in all its ugly forms. They constitute a voiceless mass the state simply refuses to acknowledge. Also ignored is the need to review the tenancy laws and put more teeth in measures devised to end the misery of bonded men, women and children.

The authors of the agriculture chapter in the Economic Survey cannot put even a single line on the land ownership pattern, the exploitation of field workers and the existence of bonded labour in the farming sector. The rhetoric of the federal and provincial food and agriculture authorities is full of production targets and use of better inputs but no reference is made to the peasants’ land hunger. Nobody has taken notice of the demand made recently in Hyderabad by 32 organisations that land should be transferred to peasants.

The judiciary too is yet to come to the landless cultivators’ rescue. While the Supreme Court has reprimanded the government for its flawed agriculture policy and for shirking its duty to cultivators, Abid Hasan Minto’s petition of 2011 challenging the bar to land reform remains undecided. Pakistan continues to pay heavily for the Shariat appellate bench’s decision to declare land reform un-Islamic, and that too on the basis of a controversial and retrogressive interpretation of the Sharia.

That Pakistan’s economic progress depends on a rational utilisation of its land resources is a self-evident reality. For decades, land reform has been justified on economic grounds — that it will lead to higher output — as well as on social basis — that it will turn slave-like tenants into free producers of wealth.

Now several other factors have strengthened the case for a land redistribution programme as early as possible.

First, the nexus between the existing land ownership pattern and rural poverty has been laid bare by increased concentration of land ownership and social/political power in fewer hands than before. The latest surveys show that while in 2000, 2pc of the total farms of 50 acres and above commanded 23pc of the farm area, in 2010 only 1pc of the farms that fell in this category covered 21pc of the area. At the same time, 68pc of the total farms (measuring less than five acres) accounted for the same 21pc of the area.

The head of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council recently declared that a 5pc increase in rural incomes would push incomes in urban areas by 8pc.

Secondly, land reform will open a way to women’s economic and social empowerment as through it women’s right to land can be conceded, to some extent at least.

Thirdly, it will be possible to mitigate some of the grievances of the non-Muslim citizens. An imaginative land reform package could address the plight of non-Muslim tenants in Sindh and Punjab by making them owners of land.

Above all, without comprehensive land reforms the future of democracy in Pakistan will remain bleak.

Pakistan’s foremost need today is the rise of a forward-looking political leadership that will not be content with meeting the demands of less disadvantaged farmers and will give due priority to the removal of the curse of landlordism and its culture of oppression and exploitation.

Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2015

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