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Why not land reforms?

April 26, 2013

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— File Photo
— File Photo

SOME political parties are promising to create a new or naya Pakistan, others are promising to go back to the Pakistan that had originally been dreamt of. But all are promising fundamental changes: defending the status quo is not an option in this election.

Even if parties want to actually defend the status quo, seeing the mood of the public, they are promising change. But, still, no party has made land reform a basic plank of their manifesto.

Can we think of changing Pakistan fundamentally without changing the politics of land, rural or urban, in the country? Many people now argue that Pakistan is no longer feudal. And they may well be right. A feudal society, defined in terms of certain modes of production and ownership patterns of productive assets, might not be what is present in Pakistan. But the nexus between land and power is still very strong.

Land buying and selling, for certain castes and classes, is almost impossible; landowning is associated with access to a lot of other important services, and there are clear links between landowners and tiers of the state at the local level: the police, courts and the bureaucracy. So how can the issue of land market reform not be important?

Large landholdings are still an issue in some parts of the country. And we do need to deal with it. But that is not all that is meant when land reforms are talked about.

Land reforms are about opening up land markets so that any person with money, and from whatever class or caste, can buy land when available; giving state land to people for productive use; reducing or eliminating holdings of the military and government departments; consolidating land parcels; keeping land records more efficiently to lessen or eliminate the role of the patwari; updating land titling to allow more land to come to the markets; and breaking the nexus between landowners and state institutions like the police, local courts and politics.

One of the more effective ways of tackling poverty is through the distribution of productive assets to the poor. For rural areas, given that the majority of poor already have a link with agriculture and/or have human capital in this area, giving land to the poor and/or livestock, makes the most sense. Given current poverty levels, can we afford to not think about distributing or redistributing land?

The major parties have either ignored the issue in their manifestoes or given rather weak and lukewarm ideas. The PPP has not really taken up the issue even though it was the PPP that brought in the 1972 regulations for land reform. The PML-N has focused only on computerisation and land consolidation. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf does promise giving state land to the poor, and computerising records etc., which others do too, but starts off by saying that it will implement the existing legislation on land reforms.

There is a problem with the existing legislation. A Sharia appellate bench of the Supreme Court, comprising three judges and two ulema, declared that land reforms were un-Islamic. This was on appeal after the Federal Sharia Court had held that land reforms were Islamic. If the promise is to implement existing legislation and the appellate court’s decision stands then, subject to the court’s definition of what constitutes land reform, we are saying that there cannot be any land reform.

The decision of the appellate bench needs to challenged and reconsidered. It was not a unanimous decision (one judge had dissented and dismissed the appeal), and there are issues with the Sharia bench’s jurisdiction regarding the cases on land reform. Earlier, the court had dismissed the same case.

But more crucially, it is hard to accept that we have to give up a very important means of creating equity, equality, social justice and social harmony because of a weak judgment by the court, when even the head of the bench acknowledged that the court had been poorly assisted in the case.

Does Islam really consider land reform to be un-Islamic? If so, why? Is it about the takeover of private property by the state? Does this hold under all circumstances? And what about elements that are not halal or religiously acceptable? If the state buys out private property, to redistribute it to the poor, is it unacceptable? Would that be the case even if the government pays market prices? Or is it unacceptable if the price is less than market price?

The other elements of land reform pertaining to reducing the patwari’s role, land consolidation and transfer, and updating land ownership data, are even less controversial from the Islamic standpoint. All of these elements can clearly be part of the strategy for all parties and should be.

But irrespective of the above, no party has made the issue an important part of their manifesto and we have not heard anything about it in the campaign so far. Is this a reflection of the power of the landowning classes? Do we still need an argument for why the issue is important? Is it a comment on the health of our democracy that even the numerically superior hordes of the poor cannot make such an important issue come on the agenda of the mainstream parties?

There is a petition with the Supreme Court that is looking to challenge the basis of the appellate court decision. We hope the court will take it up soon. And we hope the incoming government, in the interest of the majority, will also support the petition and join the argument for opening the doors to land reforms.

The writer is senior adviser, Pakistan, at Open Society Foundations, associate professor of economics, LUMS, and a visiting fellow at IDEAS, Lahore.

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