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Thursday July 07, 2022

Beyond land reforms

“We are landless haris and have been in this poverty quagmire for several decades because we know nothing but agriculture. We lack the education and skills required to work outside the agriculture sector. Our elders are to blame who did not provide us with opportunities for learning skills to reduce our dependence on agriculture,” said a group of landless ‘haris’ at the village of Hashim Gaho, district Tando Allahyar, Sindh.

The ‘Note of Dissent to the Hari Report 1948’ still calls out rationalisation of land ownership in the interest of social justice. In East Bengal (later East Pakistan and now Bangladesh), all big estates were abolished in 1951. Haris mostly live in the small hamlets of thatched mud houses on landlords’ lands at their whim and the sole purpose of their lives is to physically survive.

Haris constitute the bulk of the population of rural Sindh and are deprived of decent education, health and infrastructure. Locked in the vicious cycle of maintaining the connection between their body and soul, suffering from poverty of choices, they do not have options to change their livelihood strategies.

The survey report under the Sindh Union Council Community Economic Strengthening Support Programme funded by the European Union showed that only 1.3 percent the rural households in these districts owned more than 12.5 acres of the cultivable agriculture land while 84 percent of these rural households did not own any cultivable agriculture land. The total sample included 53,830 households with a total population of 342,706 household members in all eight districts. The programme covers 5.6 million rural population of these eight districts.

What do these rural people do for a living? The report also shows that one-fifth (21 percent) of the population worked on farms while more than half (55 percent) of the working-age population worked as off-farm unskilled labour. Since land ownership is highly skewed, only 6 percent worked on their own farms. The combined share of government and private jobs was only 8 percent. Huge scarcity of skills was evident as only 7 percent were engaged in off-farm skilled labour.

Why does this huge inequality persist in land ownership? The British ran an extractive state, would hardly have an interest in the fair distribution of land. Rather they reinforced landlords as they relied on their support. After Partition, unlike the then East Bengal (now part of Bangladesh) that abolished all estates and restricted ownership of land to 30 acres in 1951, Pakistan had three attempts to initiate land reforms – the West Pakistan Land Reforms Regulation 1959 (Regulation 64 of 1959); Land Reform Regulation 1972; and Law Reforms Act 1977 (Act II of 1977). However, at the moment, land reforms stand at the 1947 status in the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgement on March 23, 1990, in the case of ‘Qazalbash Waqf v Chief Land Commissioner’, and major clauses of the land reforms legislation were declared unconstitutional.

Sadly, land reforms are not on the agenda for any political party when in power. Though all in power have a rather loud rhetoric of poverty reduction, hardly anyone talks about attacking the root cause of rural poverty. Not only in Pakistan, globally too poverty has a young and rural face. In Pakistan, the majority of the population lives in rural areas – 67.5 percent of the total population. Four out of ten Pakistanis live in poverty with stark regional disparities. More than half, 54.6 percent, of the rural population is multidimensionally poor compared to only 9.3 percent of the poor urban dweller. In Sindh, the second-most populous province of the four provinces, 43.1 percent of the population lives in poverty.

As we conduct research and meet different people, one landless tenant in Tando Allahyar, village Mao Patel, Pirbhu says, “My elders were tenant farmers so am I and my family is too large which is consisted of 12 members including my parents and a brother. Although, I cultivate two acres of land as a tenant farmer yet my family is still food insecure.”

Another tenant farmer Jagu calls out, “We are unskilled and illiterate. We cultivate the land and raise shared livestock. We reside in the houses built on the land of the landlord and if we refuse to undertake the cultivation of his crop, we will face eviction.”

What do landlords say about this? During group discussions with landlords in Tando Allahyar, settlement Mohammad Ismael Mehrani, landlords share their views, “You see the governments give pension to its employees, but we do not and cannot afford that. But we do look after our tenants in another way. When a tenant spends his life working on our land and becomes too old to work, we recruit his children to work for us.” In a scenario where landless tenants are abandoned and they do not have sufficient social protection, landlords are a blessing in disguise primarily as a physical survival option.

Given this dire situation, what hope is there for the landless, assetless, unskilled and not literate agriculture-dependent haris? How can haris and others in a similar situation reduce their dependence on land and diversify their income sources?

Land reforms are overdue now if Pakistan is to address poverty and achieve the first of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Nevertheless, in the current political context of Pakistan, land reforms are not on the agenda and are not likely to happen in the foreseeable future. Other strategies are needed, primarily based on what the members of poor hari families can do on their own, to diversify their household income sources.

The SUCCESS programme is but one example of how the landless poor of the rural Sindh and elsewhere can be shown a pathway out of poverty. While land reforms are not likely, alternative strategies can be used to improve the lives and livelihoods of the landless haris.

One can take an easy start to think land reforms more broadly such as land titling policies and opening up the land market so that anyone can buy or sell land and abolishing or reducing landholdings by state departments. At another level, deeper reforms and innovative thinking are needed to break the evil rent-seeking nexus among electoral politics, local police, court and civil and military bureaucracy. The digitalisation of urban and rural land records is a step in the right direction.

The writers work for the Rural Support Programmes Network, Islamabad.

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