Time for land reform

Weekly Bang-e-Sahar Saturday,June 28—-July 4, 2008
By I.A. Rehman
THE chapter on agriculture in the latest Economic Survey begins with a plea to “developing countries like Pakistan to get their acts together and benefit from the current situation by giving more serious attention to agriculture”.
The advice is especially relevant to Pakistan because “agriculture is still the single largest sector, contributing 21 per cent to GDP and employing 44 per cent of the workforce. More than two-thirds of Pakistan’s population lives in rural areas and their livelihood continues to revolve around agriculture and allied activities”.
This opening paragraph of the chapter takes note of poverty in Pakistan being largely a rural phenomenon; “and, therefore, development of agriculture will be a principal vehicle for alleviating rural poverty.” (And, of course, the global food crisis is offering Pakistan opportunities to get richer by exporting more food).
What is to be done about agriculture and for the well-being of the 44 per cent of the workforce and the two-thirds of the population? While asserting that “agriculture will continue to acquire the highest priority from the government”, the Survey merely advocates a shift towards yield enhancement and attention to farm needs. This analysis is characteristic of the policy various governments of Pakistan have followed, that is, to make agriculture more productive in the interest of the national economy. The interest of two-thirds of the population is not the focus of government thinking. It is assumed, despite evidence to the contrary, that if agriculture shows a good rate of growth the rural have-nots will automatically receive windfalls.
The most critical omission in official thinking was pointed out by a perceptive journalist in this daily: “The minister evaded the issue of land-holding structure in rural Pakistan that has been identified by economists and a report of the agricultural reform commission as the major hurdle to increasing agricultural productivity.”
It is not surprising therefore to find the volatility in agricultural growth (1.5 per cent to 6.5 per cent over six years) attributed to vagaries of nature, losses caused by pests and use of adulterated pesticides, and that no reference is made to the plight of small cultivators and landless tenants. For promotion of agriculture reliance is placed on the inputs formula in vogue since the 1960s. Steps will be taken to ensure greater and better utilisation of fertilisers, improved seeds, machines, plant protection, better irrigation, and disbursal of larger amounts of credit to farmers. Again, no mention is made of the millions of men and women who toil against heavy odds except for a reference to an initiative for “upgradation of socio-economic conditions of the fishermen’s community”.
There is need to seriously ponder the contribution to stagnation and reverses in agriculture made by the cultivators’ lack of ownership of the means of production. The fact is that small landowners, tenant-cultivators and the voiceless haris have been abandoned to adjust themselves to the vagaries of the market, deadlier than the vagaries of nature. Largely denied the guidance of the once efficient extension services, the under-privileged farmer is changing crop patterns, in panic, that produces results such as replacement of wheat cultivation with sugarcane, unions or tomatoes. It is time the impossibility of moving forward without raising the status of the cultivator was duly appreciated. That will lead to the urgency of land reform, which was high on the national agenda for decades till the Zia-created religious courts issued the incredible verdict that land reform is un-Islamic (because one of the regular judges of the Shariat Appellate Bench joined the two ulema-judges to produce a retrogressive decision by majority). The way peasants were subsequently forced to give up lands acquired under land reforms — by force in Pakhtunkhwa and by legal chicanery in Punjab and Sindh — is a matter of abiding shame for all conscious citizens of Pakistan.
Land reform was always advocated on two premises — one economic and the other social. The economic argument was that smaller owner-cultivated farms achieved higher productivity than large farms operated by absentee landlords. This view has been challenged by advocates of mechanised, capital-intensive farming on huge tracts, (including corporate farming). They are not concerned with the consequences of displacement of hundreds of thousands of tenants without any prospects of alternative employment (decent and gainful). However, one may concede that the economic grounds for land reform can be re-examined. But, nothing has happened to reduce the force of the social argument for land reform. A system of self-cultivated farms is required to break the suffocating rule of feudals who prefer dictatorship to democracy, obscurantism to ijtihad, and rule by force to supremacy of reason. Land reform is also necessary to pull a large body of citizens out of medieval bondage, help them realise themselves, and thus avoid the huge loss of human capital Pakistan incurs year after year by denying the people their basic right to land. The case for land reform is as strong as ever. The food crisis lends the matter greater urgency.—Dawn

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