Saturday July 20, 2024

A freedom lost: Part - II

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
December 25, 2023

On December 13, 2023, Szabist Karachi organized an event to discuss the state of peasants’ rights in Sindh in 2022. While our mainstream media is nearly always wittering on about politics, there is hardly any mention of labourers and peasants. Though some major non-governmental organizations (NGOs) do manage to get coverage in the press, smaller NGOs that do not operate from provincial capitals and mainly focus on rural areas seldom get any attention

The Hari Welfare Association in Sindh (HWA) with support from the Norwegian Human Rights Fund (NHRF) is one such organization that remains neglected in mainstream media. The organization conducts research to produce an annual report about peasant’s rights.

Farmers can be seen harvesting a crop. — AFP/File
Farmers can be seen harvesting a crop. — AFP/File

Based in Benazirabad (formerly Nawabshah) Sindh, Akram Khaskheli leads the Hari Welfare Association that has been working for over 20 years now. It works to promote and protect civil, economic and other rights of peasants and rural workers with a specific focus on children, religious minorities, and women in rural areas of Sindh.

In its eighth report on the state of peasants’ rights, the HWA has given some startling facts and figures. It presents a picture of lack of commitment and political will on the part of successive governments in Sindh. It mentions that Sindh’s provincial government did not prioritize any improvement in the conditions of the peasants and rural labourers in 2022. It overlooked rural workers in a majority of policy decisions and did not include peasants even in the party-based electoral process in 2022. Particularly, in the aftermath of devastating floods and rains when the rural population faced daunting challenges, they were mostly left alone to fend for themselves.

The second half of the year 2022 brought unprecedented miseries for peasants and their hardships increased manifold when timely assistance failed to reach them even by the end of the year.

It is worth recalling that in October 2019, the Sindh High Court (SHC) Hyderabad circuit bench had delivered a landmark pro-peasant verdict which could enliven the movement for their rights. The same year the Sindh Women Agriculture Workers Act (SWAWA) also went through the process of enactment, but by the end of 2022 there was no visible progress on both fronts apart from the law and the verdict being on paper alone.

The SHC’s decision could have jolted the feudal system in Sindh by establishing a fair mechanism to regulate the interaction between peasants and landlords, but that did not happen in 2022. Since the landed elite generally benefits from the existing system, the Sindh government chose to appeal against the SHC verdict and filed a plea before the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP).

Despite persistent demands from civil society and peasants in 2022, the Sindh government did not withdraw its appeal to the SC. The SHC verdict had struck down Section 6 of the Sindh Tenancy (Amendment) Act (STA) 2013 whereby the Sindh government had amended the Sindh Tenancy Act (1950) to omit prohibition of ‘begaar’ (unpaid work).

The same happened to women workers in agriculture for whom the 2019 law (SWAWA) did not see any implementation in 2022. There were no appointments or notifications to operationalize the board responsible for overseeing the Act’s provisions.

The law requires that women workers in agriculture must be registered from the grassroots union-council level, but in 2022 the Sindh government did not take any measures for their registration.

The PPP government has the distinction of passing good laws such as the Sindh Bonded Labour (Abolition) System Act 2015, but such laws almost always fail on implementation. The situation remained the same with the Sindh Industrial Relations Act (SIRA) 2013.

Somehow the Sindh government has displayed reluctance to properly notify the laws, allocate budgets, and appoint personnel, without which no enforcement of the law is possible. Sindh’s labour department appeared to be dormant on many counts in 2022. The report also laments that the peasants’ rights movement has had limited involvement in activities as there are only a handful of NGOs that work for rural workers’ rights.

In August 2022, the Sindh government did introduce the Sindh Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy (SRRP) but it fell short of adequately addressing peasants’ needs as a majority of landless peasants did not get the social protection needed for rehabilitation.

Women’s access to and control of land remained hindered as the prevalent economic and political structure curtails social mobility of women nearly at all levels in Sindh. Women working in agriculture deserve payment regulation and working hour monitoring as they end up working long hours without adequate pay.

In 2022, the level of child nutrition also remained low and access to healthcare was badly affected by floods. Government agricultural institutions do not ensure maternity leave and worker registration for women, a majority of whom also become victims of abuse and harassment.

There is a need to form women agricultural workers’ associations in nearly all districts of Sindh, but there are hardly any such bodies. Tripartite arbitration councils are also missing from the equation though the law requires their creation and proper functioning.

Though SIRA recognises peasants as workers with full rights, in 2022 there was no registration of any new trade union of peasants in Sindh. The relationship between landlords and tenants lacks regulation that the STA 2013 requires and this particularly affects sharecroppers who remained at the mercy of landlords.

The rules of business is another area that the Sindh government kept neglecting as without these rules all laws remain inactive. Agriculture budget lacks transparency; the Sindh government allocated nearly Rs17 billion for the agriculture sector and Rs3 billion in subsidies to small farmers but in 2022 there was no news about the distribution of subsidies to small-scale peasants.

Most of the peasants and farm workers end up working under informal conditions with adversarial terms that landlords impose on them. In 2022 too, most poor families ended up getting advances as loans or ‘peshgi’ to survive. This informal arrangement mostly results in debt bondage with no check or monitoring.

The report highlights that six months after the 2022 floods, thousands of peasants and rural workers and their families in at least 17 districts of Sindh remained without adequate shelter, livelihood opportunities, and safe drinking water till the end of 2022. There were increased incidents of begging in 2022 after millions of rural workers lost their income due to floods.

Since landlords from Sindh have a significant presence in national and provincial assemblies, they manage to influence the legislative process in their favour. There was not even one call-attention notice in assemblies to address the rights of peasants and rural workers in 2022.

Though a majority of the workforce in Sindh belongs to rural areas, in the budget speech of 2022, the Sindh chief minister did not use the term ‘hari’ or peasant at all. The budget also did not allocate any funds for the activities and functioning of the district vigilance committees (DVC) as required by law.

In the 2022 local-bodies elections politics revolved around personalities rather than issues while landlords who were candidates in the elections did not speak about any specific policy issues, nor did they propose any concrete solutions to peasants’ problems.

Lastly, the report highlights the issues of bonded labour which is still affecting many rural workers. Nearly 70 per cent of workers found in bondage in 2022 belonged to the agriculture sector and the rest from the brick-kiln sector. Most of those in bondage include children and women.

Nearly 950 bonded labourers were released from bondage by the efforts of civil society in 2022. Umerkot remained the most affected district by bonded labour where landlords exercised almost unbridled power over rural workers and landless peasants. In short, the report is eye-opening in many respects and should serve as a wakeup call to the government of Sindh.


The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: