Whose land is this?

By Zubeida Mustafa

MR Abid Hasan Minto, president of the Awami Workers’ Party, has done well to go before the Supreme Court to challenge the 1990 judgement of the Federal Shariat Court’s appellate bench declaring land reforms to be un-Islamic.

After that judgement it became fashionable to pronounce the demise of feudalism in Pakistan. Some economists of repute challenged leftist views on the subject. It was widely propagated that Pakistan is no more an agrarian economy. It was also said that the country was urbanising fast and the rural-urban divide was not sharply delineated any more.

I will not get into semantic arguments about the definition of feudalism or the social changes that are used as indicators in support of the argument that ours is not a feudal society now. What is more worrisome is that food insecurity in Pakistan is on the rise and rural poverty can be linked to a great extent to the size of landholdings and the relationship between the person who owns the land and the one who cultivates it. Also a matter of concern is the nexus between big landowners and political power.

In this context, the study on landholdings conducted by Dr Kaiser Bengali, an economist and government adviser, is extremely instructive. It reminds us that land reform is an issue that is as relevant today as it was in 1959, 1972 and 1977 when half-hearted attempts were made to change the pattern of landholding in Pakistan.

Picture courtesy: NordNordWest / Wikimedia
Picture courtesy: NordNordWest / Wikimedia
Some of the data collected by Dr Bengali’s team point to the inequities in the land distribution pattern in Pakistan. The government’s agricultural census 2010 confirms this prevailing inequality. Its implications for food insecurity are serious considering the universal finding of researchers that land cultivated by peasant owners themselves has a higher yield since the cultivators have the incentive to increase food production for their own benefit.

First, we need to set the record straight. The agricultural sector continues to be vital in Pakistan’s economy though it contributes 21pc to the GDP which is less than the share of the manufacturing and services sectors. But agriculture provides livelihood to 45pc of the national labour force — which is much more than the other sectors. Hence it has a more profound human dimension.

According to the agricultural census, 64pc of the total number of farms in the country are less than five acres in size but their area accounts for only 19pc of the national farm area. What is even more significant is that these small farms which provide subsistence to their owners are intensely cultivated (95pc of their land is under cultivation).

On the contrary, the large farms (above 100 acres in size) that are owned mainly by feudals (using the common parlance) are not even 1pc of the total number of private farms but account for 14pc of farm area in Pakistan. Worse still, two-thirds of the land in these farms is not cultivated. Sindh presents a sorry picture. Here the small farmers work harder and cultivate practically every inch of the land they possess while the large farms have just about half of their land area under cultivation.

The pattern in Punjab is similar, but with one difference. As Dr Kaiser Bengali informed the participants of the consultation organised by Piler (the labour education and research institution), corporate farming has caught on in southern Punjab. Here salaried graduates are employed but most are on a temporary contract basis and the workers do not live on the land.

Since Dr Bengali did not presumably collect data on yield per acre it is difficult to estimate whether the corporate farms have increased production. They may well have done so, given the modern farming techniques available to them. But that would have only served to maximise the profits of the corporate owners and starvation for the poor.

Corporate farming has led to a large-scale displacement of people from the Seraiki belt. Most of this exodus has entered Karachi, the troubled city with a population of complex demographic composition.

In Sindh, according to Dr Bengali’s research in three districts (Shikarpur, Dadu and Thatta), between 76-85pc of the farms have been given out to farmers on a sharecropping basis which provides the least incentive to farm workers to increase production. It also creates more room for exploitation and oppression. Small wonder it has been so difficult to eradicate bonded labour in spite of legislation that makes it illegal.

What has been the result of this phenomenon? The most obvious one has been the rise of food insecurity. Nearly 50pc of Pakistan’s population does not have steady access to sufficient food and malnourishment is rampant in the country. It is not a coincidence that Sindh with its large farms and low cultivated areas has the most food insecurity.

If conventional logic is applied, one can assume that small farmers manage to meet their food needs and also produce some surplus. With the present concentration of land ownership, the small farmers face the risk of extinction. The paradox is that bumper wheat harvests notwithstanding, the people are starving.

Another tragedy is that there is no solution to the problem, as big landowners also control policymaking. They ensure that food prices never fall. Will they ever accept a long-term solution to the problem by agreeing to land reforms?

Source: Dawn

11 thoughts on “Whose land is this?”

  1. You have rightly mentioned that the land reforms are not imminent as the National Assembly is controlled by these feudals and will continue there control due to the election system in this country.we need major over hauling of our system.Unless done we will remain what we are.

  2. Some disclosures in Mr Begali's study are are seriously questionable which Zubeida Mustafa have reproduced in her column. I think that one needs to carefully evaluate any information and data in any study or research paper before either quoting or reproducing in ones own column. For instance, Zubeida Mustafa states " Nearly 50 percent of Pakistan's population does not have steady access to sufficient food and malnourishment is rampant in the country." This statement is inconsistent with various findings of the FAO's studies. It appears to me that Zubeida Muastafa has probably quoted Mr Bengali out of context,

  3. To the concluding paragraph, I quote a para from an article that appeared in Dawn Quote" Developing countries, dealing with corporations whose revenue often exceeds their own GDPs, have long been aware of their own lack of power They are familiar with the way world trade rules have been written to benefit the corporations and limit what any one country impose on them. The ability to raise taxes to provide services is a core function of a democratic government, yet governments have been reduced to supplicants, cutting their rates further to woo corporations.

    Pakistan is an agricultural Country with more than 60 % living in villages, involved in agriculture, in whatever quantity, the produce. Agriculture has suffered because of division of land holding of family. Investment in real estate is another factor that has effected the growth of agriculture despite better yield.Moreover with education people want to move to cities, to take up blue collar jobs, to improve their socio-economic status. Families in small towns and the rural areas are still identified through their jobs/trades such as cobblers, blacksmith, untouchables etc.etc. Saudi Arabia, introduced sprinkler farming to boost agriculture growth, conserving water and energy. Water in our country is used for washing cars/driveways, watering lawns.

    Our finances to industry, agriculture, consumers has been most of the time without proper professional scrutiny, resulting in bad debts and write offs Our life style has to change. We don't have basic quality education. More and more universities are opening, with more degree holders, with less of understanding,knowledge and intelligence. Over 8,000 P.hDs have done little nothing for the Country, since there is no research work.. Also they are under utilized

  4. Some disclosures in Mr Begali's study are are seriously questionable which Zubeida Mustafa have reproduced in her column. I think that one needs to carefully evaluate any information and data in any study or research paper before either quoting or reproducing in ones own column. For instance, Zubeida Mustafa states "Nearly 50 percent of Pakistan's population does not have steady access to sufficient food and malnourishment is rampant in the country." This statement is inconsistent with various findings of the FAO's studies. It appears to me that Zubeida Muastafa has probably quoted Mr Bengali out of context,

    1. Naseem Sahib there are two clarifications I must give. The statement on food insecurity is not Kaiser's. I have written that what is worrisome is the food insecurity. I am worried and I did not say Kaiser said that. The figure is what is cited by the World Food Programme. The Pakistan Medical Association also cites similar figures for malnutrition. The figure for fod insecurity is given by many other agencies. True FAO/s firgure might be different but the higher figures are cited by many sources.

      1. If your assertions are to be believed, one would see hundreds of people dropping dead daily in our cities because of hunger; our village folks produce sufficient food to feed themselves and the nation of 180 million people, and about half of Afghanistan. One can easily produce a reverse picture by quoting information and data from the sources of information which you have cited. Look at the figures quoted by WHO on the average number of calories consumed by Pakistanis, which is almost at par with the rest of the world. Where is massive malnutrition, I wonder? I don't mean any disrespect but your column in question only serves to spread doom and gloom in the country.

    2. i totally agree with ZM's response and what the WFP and PMA and so many other independent sources have reported on the level of food insecurity. my analysis informs me the situation is even worse……..the middle class is now worried about malnutrition as the food prices are sky rocketing in pakistan

      FAO has a traditional role of an apologist for the multilateral organisations, which has always been far removed from ground realities. the level of food insecurity is palpable on the streets of major cities and is worse in the rural areas.

      FAO is living in a fool's paradise. like Marie Antoinette, it should stop preaching the hungry to eat cakes!

      time to get off the high horse FAO!

  5. Mahatma Gandhi stated that India (then there was neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh but one India) lives in villages. And it is the farmers who is responsible for country's grain need. Farmers are totally related to the Land issues. The Conventional Logic "small farmers manage to meet their food needs and also produce some surplus" is no more alive. Big Landowners have changed the scenario with their policy making power. Small farmers (almost every where in the world) are looking a chance to change their job profile by selling their land to land mafia.

  6. a good article on the issues of land distribution and food security

    corporate farming is threatening the livelihoods of the lower and middle level farmers. besides, globalisation (read speculation) where food has become a profit making tool for global markets. this trend is most disturbing when more than half of the world population is under nourished in developing nations

    pakistan is doubly hit by malnourishment and lack of access to food.

    conflicts, climate change and internally displaced population make things worse. the state under liberalisation regime has abandoned its role of food provider to the vulnerable and poor sections of society, the market forces have become more predatory and ruthless. the food basket is shrinking in pakistan while it population is exploding. the future seems ominous……….

  7. If your assertions are to be believed, one would see hundreds of people dropping dead daily in our cities because of hunger; our village folks produce sufficient food to feed themselves and the nation of 180 million people, and about half of Afghanistan. One can easily produce a reverse picture by quoting information and data from the sources of information which you have cited. Look at the figures quoted by WHO on the average number of calories consumed by Pakistanis, which is almost at par with the rest of the world. Where is massive malnutrition, I wonder? I don't mean any disrespect but your column in question only serves to spread doom and gloom in the country.

  8. naseem sb,

    i urge you to get out of the AC conference room in islamabad or lahore and visit the countryside.

    punjab may be self sufficient in grains but the rest of pakistan – is literally starving.

    almost dropping dead on a large scale. kindly visit the KP country side, the FATA and balochistan. and interior sindh. people
    sell their little babies for want of food. this the REAL pakistan and not the colourful picture that you depict.

    bracketing food as a "commodity" rather than a "necessity" by the multilateral organisations is the main obstacle for eliminating food insecurity and hunger.

    FAO plays the part of global policeman under the watch of multilateral organisations to enrich the surfeit while starving the poor!

    "Ignorance is BLISS!"

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