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No land to call their own

August 28, 2012

FOR a country that employs, according to official statistics, 65 per cent of its labour force in agriculture that contributes over 20 per cent to its GDP and earns over 90 per cent of its export income, Pakistan has shown extreme shortsightedness in its inability to invest in farming and farmer community development.

Since Independence, the contribution of agriculture to the economy has gone down. While most of the country’s poor still live in rural areas, there has been large-scale inward migration, much to the detriment of the already overflowing cities, creating urban ghettoes and slum areas.

Several independent studies have shown that while feudal lords and their allies constitute only five per cent of the agricultural families, they own more than 60 per cent of the land. The rich and powerful, live off non-taxed income off the vast expanse of land they own, tilled by the poor and landless haris, the so-called sharecroppers. In Sindh, the hari is also often the bonded labour.

There are strong arguments to be made for why it makes economic and political sense to finally redistribute land among a larger number of people, and thus also curb the land mafia.

Unlike India and Bangladesh, Pakistan has a history of botched efforts at land reform. Those in the 1960s only enabled individual landholders to transfer land rights in the names of family members, while the 1977 Land Reforms Act, aimed primarily at improving the tenant-owner balance of power, was so poorly implemented that only a handful of landless farmers benefited from it. Land tenancy acts passed in the 1950s have yet to be reviewed and updated, and have never been implemented.

While a direct link has been shown to exist between rampant and rising rural poverty and deprivation, and landlessness, especially in rural areas, very little has been done to address this issue, despite several research papers and policy recommendations, including from both domestic and foreign experts. In September 2010, as the world witnessed millions of emaciated poor farmers emerge from the guts of rural Pakistan, the World Bank recommended that it was time for the government to begin to redress the long-standing issue of land and water rights and the balance of power between the landlord, the patwari and the indebted landless tenant.

A recent study conducted by the Indus Resource Centre on 624 agrarian families in two of the worst affected villages of Dadu presents a microcosm of the local power dynamics, and the extent and nature of deprivation of tenant farmers. Other than the usual and widespread problems of lack of canal water, excessive mining of groundwater through tube wells and poor quality of water and soil, 114 farmers were found to have less than five acres under their own names, 331 were haris working as sharecroppers on lands of 10 major landlords. The bulk of the work and the cost are borne by the hari, who purchases costly seeds, fertiliser and pesticides from the landlord or middlemen on credit. Interest rates are 100 per cent, land productivity is low and the farmer bears all the losses in case the crop is destroyed.

In no case is the contract between the landlord and the tenant farmer documented. The relationship is akin to one of a master and a slave, often made worse by the mukhtiarkar, or the government functionary and middle men who siphon off the profits, giving the farmer low rates for his produce.

A few years ago, farmland was distributed amongst women in Sindh, with much fanfare. Of the 171 women given government-occupied land and of which 109 belonged to the tehsil surveyed, eight were approached. It was found that the only criterion used to allocate the land was that the family of the women should be already tilling the land. Thus the land allocated was already being used by the men of the family. Currently, the women have no role in land use; they were only required to meet government formalities of thumb-printing the land transfer documents.

Two years after the much applauded 18th Amendment, and the current almost five-year reign of mismanagement and misplaced priorities, close to the next elections that everyone is hopeful will be free and fair, one wonders if any of the political parties recognise that the much-touted democracy and federalism can succeed only if the country goes through a socioeconomic transformation, beginning with breaking the feudal hold over power and assets.

Perhaps this is too much to expect, given the number of landed families that have held or are holding the reins of power in the PPP. Today, the feudal grip remains. Not surprisingly, apart from Karachi and Hyderabad, other places in Sindh, including largely rural areas and the constituencies of the main feudal and political families, show among the lowest social indicators.

Land ownership, previously a collusion between the feudal and the military, is now a dangerous game among vested interest groups often in the guise of city developers. The farmer, meanwhile, continues to till the land that is not his, putting himself and his future generations in debt to the all-powerful feudal, who is, after all, his representative in the assemblies.

The writer is a development professional who formerly headed an international environmental organisation.