KARACHI: The Hari Welfare Association (HWA) held the online launch of their annual report here on Tuesday.

As part of its research and advocacy initiatives, the HWA has been producing annual reports on the State of Peasants’ Rights in Sindh since 2015.

Akram Khaskheli, president of the HWA, said during their online launch via Zoom that the State of Peasants Rights in Sindh in 2019 is the fifth in their series of reports. “It shares important and momentous developments that have taken place in 2019, which will inevitably shape the course of the peasants’ rights movement in this country in the coming years,” he said.

Presenting the key points of the report, he said that in October 2019, the division bench of the Sindh High Court in Hyderabad had ordered the government of Sindh to amend the Sindh Tenancy Act and remove all anti-peasant provisions in it which included the removal of executive powers to decide peasants’ cases because such cases fall under the judicial jurisdiction. “However,” he said, “the government has not taken any measures to implement the court’s orders.”

He added that in December 2019, the Sindh government introduced the Sindh Women Agriculture Workers Act (SWAWA). “The act is a milestone, which recognises and regularises the contributions of women workers in the agriculture sector although its implementation has not been seen even after a lapse of six months,” he said, adding that in 2019, 2,309 bonded labourers, including 819 children and 743 women, were released from the agriculture and brick kiln sectors with the help of the police on court orders.

Prof Imdad Chandio of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Sindh, said that bonded labour which was considered normal work is now abolished and seen as a crime. “It is thanks to the hard work of activists that there is awareness about it now all over the world and it is not considered a legitimate form of labour here anymore,” he said.

‘The government has not removed anti-peasant provisions in the Sindh Tenancy Act despite court order’

“The peasants of Sindh, too, never thought of doing anything else other than work in the fields. But thanks to education, peasants are not just following the profession of their forefathers but doing other work too, especially if they can’t own their own land,” he said, adding that it is good that peasants are also registered now. “Without registration of peasants or farmers and digitised data they are unlikely to reap benefits from any of the relief packages or access finance inputs. This is very basic. The rest comes later,” he said.

Veerji Kolhi, Adviser to the Chief Minister on Human Rights, looked at the legislation done for peasants. He said that things slowed down due to peasants not being registered. “Also,” he said, “there are several gaps still in the legislation for peasants because we have the mindset of everything being okay as far as this country’s labour is concerned. On the other hand, any wrong done against a landlord is considered unacceptable,” he said.

He pointed out that the Sindh Tenancy Act of 1950 was passed after a long struggle led by Comrade Hyder Bux Jatoi, but it was not changed.

Senior officer with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Saad Gilani shared his presentation regarding decent work in a rural economy that carries the potential for creating decent jobs that can be protected and which contribute to sustainable development and economic growth. He said the ILO has several guidelines for the betterment of rural workers. “We still need the formalisation of the rural economy,” he said.

“Rural Pakistan is home to about 132 million people, which is 60 per cent of the population. The rural economy share in total employment stands at 38.5 per cent. Gender disparities exist in rural economies with a larger share of women in agriculture. And the rural economy is replete with informality with almost no labour rights. But the implementation of labour laws in rural economy is a challenge and social protection coverage is very limited,” he said and listed some of the issues.

Some of his suggestions to bring betterment in the rural economy included reducing the risk of perceived and actual urban bias in the policy framework, creating an enabling legal environment for promoting decent work, building a robust evidence-based framework and coordinating the production and dissemination of training materials that will be delivered by appropriate providers.

Prof Amar Sindhu commended the HWA for their report. She said that our peasants are even worse off than our domestic workers. “Agriculture has not been a priority with Pakistan’s politicians,” she said, adding that in Sindh, over 1.7 million women are cotton pickers, which requires a minimum of 12 hours of work in a day in agriculture fields in extremely hard conditions. “They pick cotton in the fields and remain under threat of diseases and infections. They mostly work on a seasonal basis. Their wages are below the level of the provincial minimum wage,” she said.

She pointed out that the Sindh government has passed an anti-bonded labour law though no serious measure has been taken for its implementation. “You need to form district vigilance committees under the anti-bonded labour law in each district, but so far only seven district committees have been notified in a total of 29 districts of the province,” she said.

Karamat Ali, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), said that we need to see if we have progressed or gone back in the last 70 years. He said there is an ambiguity in the Sindh Tenancy Act, which needs reviewing. “The Sindh High Court had given a positive verdict in favour of the Sindh Tenancy Act but the provincial government challenged it in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. We should ask the Sindh government as to why it has gone to court to change it,” he said.

Zulfiqar Shah of PILER moderated the event.

Published in Dawn, July 22nd, 2020