Oct 24, 2010

Land to the tiller?

The politics of Sindh is ethnically motivated and most government initiatives become a prey to this. Therefore, it may be necessary to see the issue of land reforms in that context

By Zulfiqar Shah

Ghulam Ali Leghari, 50, is landless peasant (hari) in district Sanghar, having a large family of nine members. He himself is in a bad shape; however, he has taken upon himself the voluntary work of helping fellow peasants particularly in settling accounts with landlords who cheat them (haris) or do not pay them.

About six months ago, Ghulam Ali contacted this scribe, asking for help in the recovery of the outstanding amount for an influential landlord in Sanghar. The said landlord, son of a literary figure of Sindh, was not paying to the family of a hari Bharo Bheel. It may be mentioned here that Sanghar, located at the heart of Sindh, is under the strong control of the feudal lords and, therefore, it sees virtually no uprising by the haris.

The last time Ghulam Ali called was a few days back when he wanted to find out details about the government's scheme of land distribution among the haris. He was keen to know about the process so that he would be able to help the local haris in getting allotment of the land. "Believe me, the people are coming to me every day and I have to tell them specifically about it," he explained.

Ghulam Ali sounded quite anxious. A little inquiring helped reveal that he had misunderstood a news item carried by the local journals regarding a bill that had been submitted in the National Assembly by the mainly-urban-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), on Oct 12. The poor peasant had wrongly assumed that a law had been passed.

He also expressed his doubts about Bharo Bheel being a scheduled caste minority group, which meant that he could not benefit from the scheme.

Ghulam Ali is not the only person who was excited by the MQM's proposed 'political venture'; there are millions of landless people in the country, especially in rural Sindh, who would look at any such move as a beacon of hope.

The bill, titled "Redistributive Land Reforms Bill, 2010" proposes restricted landholdings. It also proposes that each family should be allowed to own a maximum of 30 acres of irrigated or 54 acres of arid (barani) land. Besides, it seeks the abolition of hereditary ownership of lands. For its part, the MQM considers its bill in line with the party's recent policy on feudal structure. It proposes that the land surrendered after holding the upper ceiling should be distributed among the landless.

"We want to bring an end to feudalism and the best way to do so is to redistribute the existing land," says Kanwar Khalid Younis, a central leader of MQM. "If we want to see change in the lives of the poor people then we have to make such bold decisions."

According to him, the ball is now in the court of the two major political parties in the parliament whether or not they "support" the bill, "though there is little chance that the present parliament will do so, since it consists mostly of feudals themselves."

Land is a major issue in Pakistan and many people attribute the country's lack of development to the concentration of land among the privileged few. According to the Agricultural Census 2000, nearly half of rural households did not own any land; thus, they are condemned to a life in abject poverty.

Another lot of population comprises landless peasants or haris who work as sharecroppers and are vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation. This is a largely marginalised group which is caught in the web of a feudal structure that makes them socially, politically and economically dependent.

Historically, the issue of land distribution has been up for debate since the inception of the country. First land reforms were introduced in 1959 during Ayub Khan's era, followed by another reforms in 1972 by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Though Bhutto's land reforms, an extension of Ayub's, received a popular support and took Bhutto's stocks higher among the poor masses, they did not serve to bring any remarkable change in the pattern of landholdings.

"Each time the land reforms failed because of their inherent leniencies for the landlords," says Syed Mohammad Ali, an independent expert on land rights in Pakistan.

In his view, fixing the upper level of land on an individual family member rather than on a family was the main drawback of the land reforms. "Though the upper level of land holding was brought down to 150 acres in case of irrigated land, many landlords escaped surrendering the land," he adds.

The reforms failed to reduce land concentration as only 7 to 10 percent of land was reclaimed and distributed among the haris. Later, the takeover of additional land by the state was challenged in the Federal Shariat court and, eventually, in Supreme Court. Both the courts declared such action as repugnant to Islamic principles. This was in 1989. The court verdicts virtually halted the process of land reforms in Pakistan. The submission of the draft bill in the National Assembly by the MQM has re-initiated the debate on the issue. Just how serious (read sincere) is MQM in taking this important bill forward shall be gauged in the future sessions of the Upper House as some political analysts believe it is only a gimmick to gain media attention.

"Why would MQM be interested in land reforms?" asks Shah Jehan Shah, a landlord from district Matyari, when prompted for a comment. "Why don't they talk about concentration of wealth in the cities? Why not distribute industries among the poor? Why just land?"

In contrast to the reaction of landlords, social scientists and intellectuals in Sindh have a rather more cautious stance on the proposed bill. "Genuine land reforms can only be brought if it is made a part of a strong social movement; that's missing at the moment," says Rauf Nizamani, a Sindhi intellectual, talking to TNS. "If MQM was sincere in its initiative it would have first concentrated on social mobilisation instead of going directly into the assembly."

Nizamani agrees that the feudal structure which rests on big land holdings is a major socio-economic issue for the country and that any major change in the setup could only be expected through a distribution of assets. He also says MQM's initiative is without proper homework and consultation with all stakeholders. "I doubt if MQM will get anything out of it besides using it as a bargaining chip with PPP, the ruling party which is dominated by feudals."

The viewpoints of both Shah and Nizamani are understandable, given Sindh's socio ethnic scenario. The politics of Sindh is ethnically motivated and most good government initiatives become a prey to this. Therefore, it may be necessary to see the issue of land reforms in that context.

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