THE politics of food in the recently held high profile but fractious UN summit remained inconclusive on the ethical issue of producing biofuel at the cost of human survival. Sidelining this core issue responsible for the global crisis we are going through, the world leaders chose to rely, in their joint statement, on oft-repeated promises of expanding food production, promoting free trade and increasing aid to developing countries.
Showing disgust on such a “model that has brought agriculture under the control of transnational agribusiness corporations”, the small farmer’s groups in developing countries demanded “genuine agrarian reforms with radical change in policies”.
The problems of millions of poor in countries like ours are not rooted in lack of production or non-availability of food. According to research published in a leading medical publication, Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), “a quarter of the population of Pakistan is overweight or obese and at the risk of hypertension and diabetes” indicating that there is in fact enough food available to cause this.
We, at the same time, also have about half of the population, mostly living in rural areas, at serious risk of hunger and most of them suffering from malnourishment and diseases related to it. This stark contrast is characterised by wide economic disparity and social injustice. The divide is deeply related to and gets strength from the traditional power structure.
Though, we have a history of a plethora of projects for eliminating hunger and alleviating poverty, but none of them have ever dared to target the issue of economic divide. Some of the widely acclaimed programmes launched in the green-revolution decades like Village Agricultural and Industrial Development Programme (1952-61), the Rural Works Programme (1963-72) and People’s Works Programme (1972-80) gave some concrete results in terms of developing physical infrastructure, engaging rural communities in economic activities, enhancing their skills and creating employment opportunities for them. However, when the government introduced land reforms in the seventies in order to complement these outcomes and to narrow down income disparities, the initiative was rendered ineffective by influential lobbies in the echelons of power to protect their interests and status.
The situation in the eighties changed drastically in the wake of the Afghan war. International aid worth billions of dollars tied down by varying sets of conditionalities and acronyms poured into the country to achieve ambitious political objectives. A new policy framework entitled as the ‘structural adjustment programme’ (SAP) was imported and introduced. Any critique on its relevance and effectiveness was set aside with a sanctimonious approach. A decade later, research proved that the SAP was a failure. The Human Development Report 2003, produced by the Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre noted that “poverty started rising after the structural adjustment programme began in 1987-88. There are various reasons for this, most of which relate to the direct and indirect effects of the macroeconomic strategy itself.”
In the new millennium, the same flawed strategy and its failures were further reinforced. There was a tremendous shift of investment from the agricultural to non-agricultural sector. In this so called ‘transformation towards growth’ the relocation of labour out of agriculture was typically lagging, leaving out a large number of poor people in the rural areas and widening the income gap. Also, it could not succeed in developing town and village level enterprises and creating non-farm employment opportunities for more than 34 per cent of rural households that depend on wage labour as a sole source of livelihood. The result of such a deplorable situation is not difficult to imagine. The World Bank Development Report 2008 notes, “Pakistan (with 2.4 per cent agriculture growth rate) has been less successful in reducing poverty, mainly because of highly unequal ownership of and access to productive assets such as land and irrigation water.”
The report also highlights the most impressive success story of rural agricultural growth in China, which has been responsible for the decline in rural poverty from 53 per cent in 1981 to eight per cent in 2001. The major underlying factor was the ‘household responsibility system’, an agrarian reform implemented in 1981. This incentive system, designed to increase yields and improve the condition of local farmers, reallocated communal land to peasant households, creating hundreds of millions of smallholders with relative autonomy over land use decisions and crop collection. This was followed by the establishment of ‘Town and Village Enterprises’, which were industries owned by townships and villages.
Justin Yifu Lin, the renowned economist, writes in Reform in China: A Peasant’s Institutional Choice that “the household responsibility system was worked out among farmers initially without knowledge and approval of the central government. It was not imposed by the central authority and evolved spontaneously. Seeing the remarkable effects the central authorities agreed to adopt it. Perhaps, for this reason late Chinese leader Deng Xiaopang once termed it ‘a great invention of Chinese farmers’.”
The farmers in our country are also capable of making such great inventions if allowed to have a little more access to social justice. A genuine agrarian reform is necessary which gives landless and farming people ownership and control of the land they work on and returns territories to indigenous peoples. The right to land must be free of discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, race, social class or ideology; the land belongs to those who work it.
Source: Daily Dawn, 15/6/2008