PAKISTAN: Absence of land reform entrenches poverty - activists
Produce being taken to market by sharecroppers after giving up to thirds of their total harvest to landlords
LAHORE, 28 September 2009 (IRIN) - Dotted around Pakistan are vast estates run by feudal landlords who command enormous economic and political power, condemning their tenants to poverty, reform activists charge.
On some of these estates, debt bondage has forced 1.8 million people to work the land for no pay, generation after generation, according to the campaigning group Anti-Slavery International
. On others, sharecropping systems are practised, under which landless tenants hand over between two-thirds and half of the crops they produce to the landowner.
"Without distributing land among tenants and landless peasants, there is no possibility of progress. The end of feudalism is a must for modernizing society. Until effective land reforms are carried out, poverty can never be eliminated," Farooq Tariq, secretary-general of the Kissan Rabita Committee, an alliance of 22 peasant organizations, told IRIN.
Unlike other countries in the region, including India, Pakistan did not carry out land reforms after 1947, and attempts in the 1950s and 1970s to reduce the size of land holdings had limited impact.
"Land reform has not taken place because the lawmakers in many cases themselves have large land holdings and will never want to transfer ownership to tenants. There will be no land reform until [the] people are in control of governance," Mubashir Hasan, a former finance minister and social activist, told IRIN.
About 2 percent of households control more than 45 percent of the land area. Powerful farmers have also taken advantage of government subsidies in water and agriculture, and benefited from technological improvements which have boosted yields, according to the World Bank
|Without distributing land among tenants and landless peasants, there is no possibility of progress. The end of feudalism is a must for modernizing society
By 1977 the biggest estates had only surrendered about 520,000 hectares, and nearly 285,000 hectares had been redistributed among some 71,000 farmers. Around 3,529 landowners have 513,114 holdings of more than 40.5 hectares in irrigated areas, and 332,273 holdings of more than 40.5 hectares in non-irrigated areas, according to the government's annual Economic Survey.
"We manage to earn a little for ourselves by selling the surplus corn and wheat that we take from the land. It is hard work, but despite this we have not been able to escape poverty. None of my four sons is educated beyond the eighth grade. We needed their labour on the land," said Kareem Muhammad, a landless tenant on a farm near the town of Okara, about 110km south of Lahore.
In Punjab, both sharecropping and fixed-rent contracts - where a rent per acre farmed is paid to the landowner by tenants - are practised. In Sindh, about one third of the land falls under fixed-rent contracts and about two thirds of the land is sharecropped, government surveys show.
Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
|Landless farmers live in poverty on estates across the country, working land owned by rich landlords
The sense of injustice created by the continued hold of feudal landlords and the poverty this gives rise to has been a key factor in rising social discontent - aided and abetted by militant groups.
"I am a landless farmer. Last year my teenage son was persuaded by members of an organization engaged in jihad [holy war] to come away with them. They told him it is better to wield a gun and learn to use it than eke out a miserable existence tilling land," Riazuddin Ahmed, from Vehari in southern Punjab, told IRIN.
"My son is only 17. He saw no hope ahead of him, and therefore went away with these people. His mother and I are distraught. But we believe he has gone to the northern areas and we have no means of finding him," he said.
Former finance minister Hassan blamed this on oppression and misery. "Today, governance has collapsed. Extremism has grown and weapons have proliferated," he said.
According to the World Bank, 33 percent of Pakistan's 162 million people live below the poverty line
Farming contributes 21 percent to gross domestic product (GDP) and employs 44 percent of the workforce, according to the government's annual Economic Survey. Of the total land area of 80.4 million hectares, about 22 million are cultivated, according to official data. Nearly 65 percent of this cultivated area is in Punjab, about 25 percent in Sindh and 10 percent in the North West Frontier Province and Balochistan.