Civil Society Struggle for Land Reforms in Pakistan

Land reforms are regarded as best tool for bringing about equality, employment, food security and empowerment of poor peasants. More equitable access to land is considered as an important factor to alleviate rural poverty and increase economic development. In view of climate change and growing impacts of global warming, land reforms are also crucial to make people resilient and ensure clean and healthy environment.

Land reforms are treated with a view of Human Rights issue as well because it involves survival of people and livelihood of peasants. Access to land is a crucial need for human development in rural areas as peasants need access to farm land in order to survive. They need enough land to cultivate and feed their families. They need secure property rights to ensure a long-term investment in land improvements to increase its production.

 

Land reform (also called agrarian reform) involves the changing of laws, regulations or customs regarding land ownership. In the classical definition, land reform means the re-distribution of land amongst landless cultivators (peasants) by expropriating land from large land owners. In short, land reform has usually meant breaking up large land holdings and thereby changing the pattern of ownership of land in the country to prevent concentration of land – and ultimately wealth – in a select few hands.

 

Nonetheless, revision or reform of a country’s land laws are an intensely political process, as reforming land policies serves to change relationships within and between communities, as well as between communities and the state. Thus even small-scale land reforms and legal modifications may happen to be subject to intense debate or conflict. For the land reforms, it actually requires strong political will and determination of the governments to formulate appropriate laws and ensure their implementation.

 

Pakistan carried out unproductive land reforms in 1959, 1972 and 1977 since they lacked sincerity, proper planning and political will. Rather than distributing secured lands to the landless cultivators (peasants), there have been a number of instances of political victimization and distribution of lands to Army and police officers.

 

Pakistan is one of the populous countries in the world and the entire population requires fulfilling the need for food, a dwelling to live and economic activity to survive. For such activities, land is very much required. Landlessness is thus one of the main reasons for poverty and hunger in the rural areas of Pakistan where 70 per cent of the rural population owns no land as compared to a small number of landowners who control large amounts of cultivable land.

 

Feudalism and centralization are linked with social and economic disparity and are also considered as the main causes of ongoing extremism and intolerance in the society.  Land reforms are thus key to reducing poverty and making the country’s society tolerant, peace-loving and progressive.

 

Abid Hasan Minto, a senior lawyer and prominent proponent of land reforms, says that the feudal system is sanctified in the absence of any state laws for land reforms and the feudal lords find their way into state politics and end up passing retrogressive legislations which end up further strengthening feudalism. On land redistribution and ownership, he says that not only do we need land reforms socially to fight the feudal setup, but also economically to reduce the rising poverty, ignorance and backwardness. According to him, feudalism is not just the concentration of land in a few hands but it is the presence of an oppressive social setup in rural areas, often in the control of feudal houses that are cruel towards women and peasants. “If the land is redistributed among the landless peasants, it will help them get out of their impoverished condition and the farmers and peasants will also get a sense of their power” Minto said.

 

Rapid population growth, widespread poverty, persistent food insecurity, and alarming rate of environmental degradation have fuelled an increasing debate on land tenure systems and land reforms in the country. A number of civil society organizations (CSOs) have been struggling for land reforms and mobilizing poor peasants to help them acquire their right to land.

 

Regrettably, despite these efforts, the CSOs have not been able to break down the status quo and hold meaningful land reforms in the country. There are of course several valid reasons and explanations to these failures. The main reason however is considered to be that CSOs have been doing projects and activities in bits and pieces without bridging the communication gap and integrating their upright initiatives and the struggle. This is unfortunately still going.

 

How the policies are formulated in Pakistan? Contrary to countries who devise policies based on research and institutional recommendations, Pakistani governments have usually being formulating state policies based on vested interest of the ruling elites. International pressure has led to some specific policy line and in rear instances, policies were also made due to tremendous public pressure.

 

In the case of land reforms, the ruling elites of course do not have interest in it nor do they have any international pressure. And as regards public pressure, it is rather completely missing. The result is that there is no land reform agenda in the manifestoes of any of the mainstream political party. Political parties are currently hiding behind the Federal Shariah Court verdict of December 13, 1980 which declared that the land reforms of 1972 and 1977 as eminently in consonance with Islamic injunctions.

 

This is in fact a serious setback for CSOs and to their overall struggle towards agrarian reforms, rural development, human rights and to create tolerant, peace-loving and progressive society in the country.

 

Feudal lords in fact dominate in the power structure at all levels (district-province-national) and the votes are still been casted in their fever on the basis of family/tribe/ethnic group/religion/sect. In tribal areas, the Sardars hold land ownership and the rest of the tribesmen and women have to pay them share from their harvest or livestock flock.

 

Feudal lards have been enjoying massive subsidies on electricity, tractors & farm machinery, tubewell and irrigations water. They do have been involved in many malpractices such as stealing electricity and the irrigation water. These feudal lards also took huge bank loans and the loans were never paid pack due to fake accidents or by bribing the concerned authorities.

 

Contrary to land reforms, corporate farming and land grab is on increase and the state land is being leased out to transnational companies or influential countries. Feudal lards are also likely to lease out their lands to foreign investors and this will complicate the issue by making the legal battle for land reforms program more difficult.

 

Recommendations

For meaningful land reforms and peasant’s mobilization in the country, CSOs should urgently overcome their differences, bridge communication gap and bring CSOs together by integrating their struggle.

 

As identified above, public pressure is completely missing at the moment. A public pressure needs to be built through integrating CSOs work, mobilizing all peasants and strengthening leadership of peasants.

 

Land Reforms also invite involvement of international donor agencies, different governments at different levels, NGOs, environmentalists, and economists.

 

Women peasant movements and the groups need to be mobilized and strengthened to ensure women peasant’s participation at all levels. Each rural woman should be awarded one acre of land for their active participation in livelihood and food security activities.

 

Committed leaders of CSOs should associate themselves with peasants in various regions of the country by adopting peasant’s lifestyle and local language. They should ideally start living with peasants where they could educate, mobilize and strengthen peasants and have mass level peasant’s membership. If the peasants at this stage may form a country level coalition, launch series of actions across country and demand for a policy change, the government will not be able to ignore such a unified public pressure.

 

Side-by-side, research organizations would be needed to write supporting research papers and carryout policy advocacy activities. International support could also be looked for through international networking and presenting research based point of view.

 

After the 18th Constitutional Amendment, land is now a provincial subject and provincial governments must be pursued to formulate laws in favor of landless peasants.

 

Role of Media in this regard would also be very significant. Media should take land reforms issue as serious as it had taken the issue of restoration of the judiciary during the lawyer’s movement.

 

Lastly, the mainstream political parties should be left with no excuse to bring land reforms as priority agenda in their political manifestoes and the voters should only cast their vote based on issues and not merely on basis of family/tribe/ethnic group/religion/sect.

Author: Tahir Hasnain is a veteran researcher, writer and development practitioner serving the non-government development sector since two decades. Currently he works with Shirkat Gah as Programme Manager, Environment & Livelihood. He can be contacted at – tahir@khi.sgah.org.pk

 

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