Apr 252008

IN a recent article titled ‘Another kind of change’ Akbar Zaidi tried to make us believe in changes occurring in Pakistan without properly contextualising them. According to the writer, Pakistan is no longer feudal, traditional and rural nor is its economy agrarian. Although it is not stated in this fashion, the underlying tone of the article is that the country has moved to become a more modern society. Let us see if the arguments hold.

First, do the changes in the land tenure system and the separation between labour and capital, which is how traditionally feudalism is defined, make Pakistan non-feudal? Besides the economic dimension, there is the socio-political dimension as well. The structures of power remain the same.

Zaidi would like to call it authoritarianism. He believes that changes in economic production patterns, injection and greater accessibility to modern technology make Pakistan different. But technology and capital do not make Saudi Arabia and the UAE less of a tribal society. Neither do such developments make Pakistan less feudal. Perhaps, a longer stay in a village might help.

In Pakistan, the basic social power structure remains the same. Changes in the land tenure system have occurred not due to the dilution of feudalism but because the big landowners have acquired other means for capital generation. While the big landowners have become industrialists and businessmen, land still remains the symbol of social power. The institutions of the jirga and honour killings are an example of how feudalism continues to exercise its hold over society. The word feudalism sounds ugly and retrogressive. Perhaps, if we don’t try to give it other names we will realise how important it is to get rid of the institution and its attributes.

Zaidi’s argument regarding the economy not being agrarian is also questionable. He believes that the economy’s dependence has shifted from agriculture to the service sector. There is also a proportional decline in agriculture labour which has fallen from half of the total employment in 1990 to 43 per cent. The writer does not realise that the agriculture sector continues to be the single largest group in the job market. The reason for its decline is itself questionable.

Perhaps, the above perception is based on the popular notion that greater industrialisation and technological advancement create and expand a middle-class which is a driver of modernity. An agrarian economy, which does not involve value-addition activities, keeps economic progress depressed. There is a fallacious assumption in South Asia that agriculture should be sidelined as part of the march towards modernity. Agriculture should be modernised and integrated with industries that make use of farm output and yet involve value addition. This would include more than just the traditional industries like textiles and ginning or sugar and flour manufacture.

Pakistan must concentrate on agriculture by lining water canals, introducing new water conservation and management techniques, shifting to water-conserving crops and improve the overall fiscal viability of the sector. These measures are necessary to boost the rural economy which is necessary to stop the demographic shift from rural to urban areas.

Zaidi demonstrates that the rural population has declined and about 55 per cent of the people live in cities or areas which do not qualify as traditional rural areas. There are four issues here.

First, it is the population explosion which has turned villages into small towns. A large number also have access to electricity and other technology like phones and mobile phones. But these new towns face harsher conditions than the cities. For instance, most face gruelling load-shedding and the bulk of the population suffers from feudal power structures.

Second, people migrate to the big cities in search of employment but the cities themselves cannot cater to their needs. Most cities cannot handle demographic shifts and thus we see a rise in violence and crime or people turning towards religious extremism.

Third, the movement of people is a result of uncontrolled population growth and poverty in the rural areas. Two statistics are worth consideration: (a) Pakistan’s population is projected to increase from the current 160 million to 300 million in 2050, and (b) over 35.1 households engaged in agriculture lived below the poverty line in 1991.

One of the reasons for children going to madressahs or youth in Punjab becoming jihadis is also because their food and lodging is paid for by the militants. Considering the poverty in rural areas, this has been a great attraction. There are fewer jobs in the rural areas, which creates a host of problems.

Finally, people’s access to modern technology, as mentioned in Zaidi’s article, does not prove anything about a country’s development. Most of the times even less affluent people invest in mobile phones or consumerism in general because of lack of investment opportunities. The growth of mobile phones demonstrates an economy that lacks depth rather than reflects simple progress.

For Pakistan, like the rest of South Asia, killing agriculture is not an option. In fact, the new government must adopt a solid policy on the issue which must look into the problems of irrigation as well.

It is no secret that Pakistan has experienced per capita water availability decline from the Indus river, on which it depends for 90 per cent of its needs, from 5,600 cubic metres in 1947 to just 1,200 cubic metres in 2005.

Furthermore, groundwater reserves have fallen in over half of Pakistan’s 45 canal commands. Silt deposits in Pakistan’s major Indus dams means they store less water for the months when it is most needed. By 2010, experts estimate that Pakistan may lose over half of its water storage capacity. Hence, the challenge is to improve water management through the lining of canals to stop the seepage of water and switch over from the flood irrigation system to the drip-sprinkle approach. This system used by Israel would, however, require extensive capital investment which farmers cannot afford.

Similarly, farmers will have to be encouraged to discard cash crops like rice and sugarcane that require greater quantities of water. Given our growing needs for electricity and irrigation, the country cannot afford to waste water. In any case, major cities like Lahore face the problem of brackish water which means that in the next three to five years they will hardly have clean drinking water.

The country’s biggest challenge is population explosion and containing the demographic shift to cities which cannot handle the human traffic. Job creation and feeding these people is a huge challenge which will not get solved until we concentrate on agriculture as well as industry. Denouncing agriculture will not help. Moreover, statistics often fail to tell the real stories of people’s poverty and misery.

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.


Courtesy: Daily Dawn, 25/4/2008

 Posted by at 10:35 am

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