Land reforms – By S. Akbar Zaidi

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LEST it be misunderstood, at the outset I must emphasise that this article in not another contribution to that mythological entity which some columnists not trained in political economy, from where this term originates, call ‘feudalism’.

While some people still find proof of this entity when they visit their villages, Pakistan must be the only country in the world where in the 21st century op-ed pages carry articles by defence analysts and others who confuse issues of power and its abuses with those related to economic categories, relations and the modes of production.

This article is not about any particular mode of production, primarily because it assumes that the dominance of feudalism in Pakistani agriculture is a redundant concept in the 21st century. However, the article is about land, agriculture and especially about power and inequality, as well as economic growth. In order to make the points that I do, it is important to clarify that debates about land reforms or broader agrarian reforms do not necessarily presume the presence of any pre-capitalist forms of production such as ‘feudalism’.

In countries where multinational corporations own thousands of acres of land run on the most advanced forms of capitalist principles, debates about land reforms are equally relevant and important and, in fact, nationalisation and redistribution of land has taken place.

Moreover, problems related to the misuse of power and on the basis of inequality are not tied to any particular ‘ism’. They are a permanent feature of the human condition, found in all societies and in all forms of economic and social relations, including those based on private contracts, such as marriage, and in domestic arrangements as well. Even in the most advanced, so-called ‘civilised’ societies, one see degrees of the misuse of power in multiple social spheres.

One could perhaps argue, that much of this power and its manifestation, emanates from ownership and/or the appropriation of rights over some form of property and capital, whether material or social. In addition, as a result of skewed power relations, inequality continues to persist and limits human agency. These general principles can be applied as easily with regard to gender relations, marriage or agricultural growth.

The issue of land reforms in Pakistani agriculture has become less urgent for many analysts, for there is evidence that both economic and social relations of production have changed considerably over the last few decades. While land ownership continues to be highly skewed, especially in some regions, the arguments against land reforms are built on the premise that due to inheritance, urbanisation, mechanisation and so forth, agricultural production has already become modern, and hence, there is no need to intervene in the natural evolutionary processes underway.

In addition, these changes in the economic and social relations of production have given rise to modern forms of production and have resulted in the growth of the middle classes. Research in the field of political economy supports such broad generalisations.

Research shows, that in Pakistan, less than half of all rural households own any agricultural land, while the top 2.5 per cent of households account for over 40 per cent of all land owned. This data shows marked land inequality in rural Pakistan. At the cost of repetition, I must emphasise once again that ownership of land has little to do with the relations of production, i.e. whether they are ‘feudal’ or of any other dispensation. Figures on poverty in Pakistan show that most of the poor reside in areas designated as ‘rural’, and the lack of access to land is a feature which perpetuates their poverty.

Moreover, one of the more interesting findings about poverty in recent years shows that a higher incidence of poverty exists amongst non-farm rural households in much of the country. Fifty-seven per cent of the rural poor are non-farm households. The majority of Pakistan’s rural poor are neither tenant farmers nor farm owners. The distribution of rural poverty closely reflects land distribution, which is highly unequal in Pakistan, with only 37 per cent of rural households owning any land at all.

In Punjab, non-farm poverty is higher than farm poverty, although in Sindh and Balochistan, farm poverty is higher than non-farm poverty, reflecting patterns of land ownership, land tenure and access to land for cultivation.

Land reforms can take numerous forms, ranging from the redistribution of land confiscated from large land owners and distributed to the landless (as happened in 1959 and 1972 in Pakistan) to the distribution of state-owned land to those without land, something that is supposed to happen on a more regular basis. Land can also be nationalised and owned by the state, a strategy which has few supporters in the age of liberalisation. Despite the natural process of evolution in the rural and agrarian economy, there are justifications to intervene in the process to address some of the problems of inequality, poverty and economic growth.

If the landless rural poor were provided access to land, preferably as owners, along with subsidised support packages, it is possible that some of the problems related to poverty could begin to be addressed, particularly when global food prices are escalating at the pace they are today. As a result, perhaps some of Pakistan’s shortfalls in agricultural output could also be met. In addition, data shows that income inequality has increased sharply in the last few years, and unemployment has also grown. Both these issues could be redressed if the landless were given user rights and, preferably, ownership rights over cultivable land.

If given land, the landless poor are likely to benefit much sooner with regard to economic returns than they are with regard to power relations. Nevertheless, if their economic situation improves, it is likely that their relationship with the instruments and institutions of power will also begin to be renegotiated.

Whichever way one looks at it, whether with regard to growing poverty and inequality, problems of agricultural growth and output, rising food prices, or the manifestations of power relations, the debate on land and agrarian reform needs to replace the rather sterile impressionistic arguments which find feudalism everywhere in Pakistan.

Source: Daily Dawn, 

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