Oct 24, 2010

"Pakistan needs economic democracy to sustain political democracy"

-- Dr Akmal Hussain, economist and social activist who has

advocated land reforms for many years and conducted extensive research on the impact of agriculture growth on changes in Pakistan's agrarian structure

The News on Sunday: Do you think this is an appropriate time to plan land reforms? Not in terms of revision of land holdings but also in terms of social justice to the landless farmers?

Dr Akmal Hussain: The greatest potential for increasing yield per acre lies in the small farm sector because today this sector (farms below 25 acres) constitutes about 60 percent of the total farm area and 94 per cent of the total number of farms, which makes it a substantive part of the agrarian economy. The majority of farms in this sector are operated by poor tenants that neither have the ability nor the incentive to invest in increasing the yield per acre, because they know that half of their profit will go to the landlord. Its yield potential is largely underutilised. Now, if we could enable this small farm sector to actualise its potential it could become the cutting-edge of a new growth process with higher and more equitable agriculture growth.

Land reform attempts in the past such as in 1958, 1973 and 1977 which specified land ownership in terms of individual rather than family holdings failed to substantially change the land ownership distribution. So that agriculture land ownership continues to remain highly skewed. The greatest potential for increasing yield per acre and value-added agriculture lies in the small farm sector. Therefore, on grounds of both growth and equity, it's all the more important to shift from the elite farmer strategy that we've had since the days of Green Revolution, about four decades ago, to new strategy of growth led by small farmers.

TNS: What should be the first step towards land reforms?

AH: I am an advocate of agrarian reforms in the current situation. Today, land reforms conceived in terms of the more radical meaning -- that is, forcibly taking land away from big landlords and giving it to landless tenants -- are not politically advisable. This will create a high degree of social conflict and violence in the rural sector. Nowhere in the world a forcible transition has been peaceful; not even China and Russia. I don't advocate that kind of forcible transfer of land because Pakistan is already confronting the gravest and multi-faceted crisis of state, society and economy. So for the sake of the country and its people you do not want another dimension of violence and stress on state and society.

TNS: So, how can we transfer land to the tiller through a peaceful process, an effective small farmer strategy?

AH: That's a challenge. I suggest the 2.6 million acres of cultivatable agriculture land owned by the state be divided into five-acre packages and distributed among the tenants operating on less than 25 acres of land, free of charge. By doing so, 58 per cent of the tenant farmers who are currently landless will become land owners.

To enable the rest of the 42 percent of the tenant farmers to buy land, a credit fund worth $4.5billion be created through a consortium of government, donors and commercial banks. State land can be sold to the interested farmers at current cultivable land prices. Land becomes collateral that the farmer returns as loan to the lender. This way the tenancy problem would be solved, and the objective of land to the tiller achieved peacefully rather than through violence.

TNS: How will this ensure agriculture growth?

AH: In order to ensure productivity, increase the acquisition of land ownership by tenants. I suggest initiating a public-private partnership in the shape of the Small Farmers Development Corporation (SFDC) with small farmers being the equity holders while this public limited company would be managed by professionals. Again, loans could be provided to small farmers for purchasing the equity and repayment could be made on the basis of the dividends earned from the equity. The Corporation will help them develop land, provide high quality seeds, fertilisers and pesticides etc; provide farmers with modern technology to increase the yields and to shift to higher value products; and help them to market the produce within the country and, if possible, also internationally.

The bottom line is that instead of treating the poor as recipients of handouts you make them subjects of the process of growth -- by giving them access to and control over productive assets. This would be growth for the people by the people. That's what I call economic democracy.

TNS: Do you agree that the solution lies in breaking the stronghold of the feudal over the voiceless haris?

AH: Pakistan's landed elite cannot be called feudal. It invests, hires labour and generates profit, uses modern technology and is, therefore, capitalistic. There is capitalism in agriculture. However, the old feudal relations have been restructured in the service of capital. The landlords often retain a part of their landholding in the form of tenant farms so that they have a tied source of cheap labour at planting and harvest time. The tenants are often tied to the landlord through debt and are in many cases obliged to work for the landlords at less than market wage rate or no wage at all. Therefore, certain feudal/social relationships prevail within the framework of capitalist agriculture.

This feudal/social culture permeates our political setup. The landlord in some cases embodies the power of the local state. He is the arbiter of right and wrong. He humiliates and punishes his 'serfs' if his authority is challenged. Often the woman's body is used as the terrain where the landlord's power is manifested and established. This is peculiar to feudal culture.

Likewise, in politics, the government-opposition relationship is an aspect of feudal culture, where the opponent must be humiliated and eliminated. Similarly, high quality education is the prerogative of the rich, so is safe drinking water, recourse to justice and healthcare. There's one Pakistan for the rich and another for the poor. The fact that we are able to banish the poor to a life of wretchedness and humility is peculiar to feudal culture.

TNS: You are suggesting the wellbeing of the poor farmer is not the focus of the feudal elite. How can a change be brought about in their thinking?

AH: In order to replace feudal traits with democratic attributes, the poor must be empowered. In my view, Pakistan needs economic democracy to sustain political democracy, because we cannot have political democracy in a situation where we have created an economic apartheid. For the last 63 years, our country's elite have combined rapacity with incompetence. They also lack an understanding of their best interest, which is to avoid a breakdown of law and order that could occur as a result of mass economic deprivation and injustice.

Presently, we are experiencing a reaction against persistent mass poverty, gross social and economic inequality and lack of access over justice. Take the Taliban movement which is in reaction to an economic apartheid state; provincial nationalism in Sindh and Balochistan; and incipient anarchism (remember the current Karachi killings, recent case of lynching in Sialkot or stoning women to death). The fact is if the state is unable to provide the minimum conditions of civilised life, it loses its legitimacy -- that is the right to rule. In Pakistan's case, this legitimacy has been weakened.

Today, if this elite is to wake up, it should know that Pakistan as a state is in a danger. This elite must also know it has no future without Pakistan. So, to have a future for themselves they have to do something for Pakistan. Hence, it is important to ensure agrarian reform. The future is now dependent on empowering small farmers.

-- Alefia T. Hussain, Aoun Sahi & Naila Inayat

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