KARACHI: Peasant and labour activists have said peasants are grieving over the plight of existing justice system, which is unfair and ineffective, and in the modern era, peasants are still witnessing a state of exploitative and slave-like relationship with feudal lords.

They said this at the launching of a report titled State of Peasants’ Rights in Sindh 2016 at the Karachi Press Club on Saturday.

Karamat Ali, executive director, Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler), Habibuddin Junaidi, convener, Sindh Labour Solidarity Committee, Akram Khaskheli of Hari Welfare Association, Iqbal Detho, human rights activist, Nazra Jahan (Foundation for Research and Human Development) and Zulfiqar Shah, executive director, Piler, addressed the press conference.

They expressed concerns that the federal government had introduced anti-peasants’ Seed (Amendment) Act 2016 and took away the right of provinces to govern and regulate matters related to the agriculture sector.

They said in Sindh, with the introduction of the Seed (amendment) Act, the Sindh Seed Corporation (SSC) had lost its importance and powers to process, procure and distribute standard seeds. The SSC could potentially protect the rights of peasants and small-scale landholders; however, at the same time, it was not known whether or not the SSC had ever played its due role in protecting rights of peasants because it was also a victim of feudal lords.

The executive director of HWA said in 2016, the Sindh Tenancy Act (STA) 1950 was not amended to address big lacunas and problems, which caused injustice to peasants in their relationship with landlords.

He lamented that Sindh’s political, social and administrative structure was controlled by feudal and landlord families; thus, pro-peasant amendments in laws were not possible.

They said that the seats in the Sindh legislature and Sindh’s seats in the National Assembly were crowded with feudal landlords. However, the projects like the Landless Harees Project, which they called as ‘political projects’, were initiated to increase or retain the vote bank. In those projects extremely little land was given to peasants. The government of Sindh did not give more land to peasants in 2016 even to their own voters.

The speakers said that although the Sindh Industrial Relations Act (SIRA) — a vague law — strangely recognised peasants and fishermen as industrial workers in 2016, peasants and fishermen were not registered or their organisations were not registered under the SIRA.

In April 2015, the Sindh Assembly passed the Sindh Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Bill; which, in 2016, after the assent of the governor of Sindh, became the Sindh Bonded Labour System Abolition Act (SBLSAA) 2016. “The new law is an exact copy of the BLSAA 1992. The issue of bonded labourers remained unaddressed because the Act of 1992 was never implemented.”

Moreover, they added, the district vigilance committees were never formed and culprits never arrested and

sentenced under the act. The Sindh government had merely fulfilled the formality to make the Act of 1992 a provincial subject.

They said a majority of people living in rural areas depended on agriculture, livestock, and fishing as their prime source of income and livelihoods.

Although there were no estimates for 2016, in 2012, it was estimated that 13.46 million people were employed in Sindh, including 7.74 million in rural areas; the majority of whom were working as sharecroppers (tenants or peasants; most of them were landless), and wage workers on agriculture farms. In 2000, there were an estimated 1.8 million bonded peasants (sharecroppers) in Sindh, and 6.8 million tenants were performing caste-based labour without pay. The leaders of nationalist political parties who claim to be the champions of peasants’ rights had also given land to peasants, but without a formal agreement under the STA.

The report said in 2013 in Sindh, 40 per cent or 26,002 out of the total of 53,728 people in inland fishing were doing part-time fishing. Over the 13 years from 2001 to 2013, the number of fulltime fishermen had decreased from 29,732 to 27,726, while, the number of part-time fishermen had increased from 19,614 to 26,002. Statistics available for 2012-2013 by the Sindh Bureau of Statistics shows that, in Sindh, in inland fisheries, 74,000 metric tonnes of fish were produced, which is 28.24pc of the total (21,4500 metric tonnes) fish produced in Pakistan.

In 2016, a total of 257 bonded labourers, including children and women, were released from different districts in Sindh. In addition, 94 bonded labourers were released from Balochistan and Punjab. The bonded labourers released in Balochistan were basically peasants from different districts of Sindh belonging to the Hindu community doing agricultural activities in the districts of Kech and Turbat. The number of bonded peasants released in recent years — 2014 (275 peasants), 2015 (132 peasants) and 2016 (257 peasants) — has decreased significantly compared to 2013 when 1,260 bonded peasants were released on the orders of the courts. “This alarming trend requires the urgent attention of civil society organisations, which should investigate and discover the underlying reasons.

“By December 2016, approximately 1,580 families and 8,984 individuals were living in eight ex-bonded peasant camps. Of the total individuals, 4,358 were children below 18 years of age. These camps were without health, education or other basic services and facilities.”

Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2017