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Pakistan: Land Ownership For Secure Peasant Livelihood

November 20, 2012

An article from PILER and PFF forwarded by the Asian Human Rights Commission

Pakistan: Land Ownership For Secure Peasant Livelihood In Pakistan

Our story is simple. We believe that enormous imbalance in political power sustains intense and widespread oppression. The threat of being deprived of food and shelter is a form of imposed violence that requires redistribution of economic power in favour of the desperately impoverished. Land redistribution is therefore called for as a primary instrument in realising universal rights.

In light of the continuing millions of landless and near landless in rural Pakistan, the ceiling set by Zulfiqar Bhutto at 100 acres per owner is way, way too high. Also restrictive of equity is the current award of 16 acres for the few fortunate landless families. A modest transfer can provide the push towards cooperative farming, emphasizing collective responsibility for ecologically conservative use of land.

Recognising the right to a decent life for all, the ILO has called for serious implementation of universal social protection through decent work. Our note should be seen as evoking urgent public action in South Asia, reaffirming our past emphasis upon universalising social security in Pakistan through redistribution of farm land and restructured access to fisheries.

The impetus for this brief comes from the recent release of a much delayed Agriculture Census. We argue for more dedication in implementation than observed for the past land reforms of (General) Ayub Khan and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Living in Karachi, we focus this note on Sindh.

Several surveys attest to pervasive impoverishment and consequent exclusion in rural Sindh, including oppression that regularly denies dignity to millions of children, women and men. These findings include province data in the official National Nutrition Survey (e.g. over 70\% households deemed food insecure with varying degrees of hunger, and over one-fourth of children under five were found severely stunted); Household Integrated Economic Survey (e.g. over 40\% of workers in elementary occupations, whose average earnings were well under the already inadequate national minimum wage); Labour Force Survey (e.g. one-third of all wage workers received less than Rs 5,000 a month), Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey (e.g. well over one-half the population has never attended any school; net enrollment at matric level was less than 20\% even for males).

Reinforcing official reports of mass deprivation are studies done for the Human Development in South Asia report and at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute as well as the Social Policy and Development Centre. Internationally, both UNICEF and IFPRI (in the Global Hunger Index) paint a distressing picture of Pakistan.

With a national annual income of over $ 1,300 per capita, mass impoverishment cannot be attributed to absolute paucity of resources. Where has the ‘aid’ gone that merits several billion in annual debt servicing? As a country, Pakistan is estimated to generate a monthly income of around Rs 8,500 per employed person, but rural Sindh is distinctly worse at less than Rs 5,500 earnings from employment in Agriculture. The Agriculture Census observes that every peasant farm of rural Sindh could have nearly 10 acres through equal distribution of the owned private land of nearly 11 million acres.

State efforts at income redistribution selfishly remain quite inadequate, and not wholly due to tax evasion. An obsession with enhancing capacity for mass destruction is among the reasons for diversion of huge resources away from needy citizens -- an indefensible collusion among all state institutions.

Urged for inquiry by socially committed research (e.g. by UNRISD), sharp inequality in returns to assets is accompanied by vast differences in assets themselves. Inequitable outcomes are most cruelly illustrated by the presence of widespread hunger and malnutrition, inadequate and absence of schooling, large numbers of hazardous child labour – all leading to intolerably high risks of morbidity and mortality for children and women.

Inequality is evident by incapacity of many to meet nutritional standards – much more than one-third of rural Sindh is unlikely to attain a decent nutrient intake by following average consumption patterns. In a population of nearly 22 million from agricultural households, the Agriculture Census counts less than a million ownership holdings. Since more than half the holdings are smaller than 5 acres, the vast majority of Sindh’s population can lay claim to barely above 10 percent of land. No surprise at the ensuing, alarming malnourishment in Sindh.

Sharp inequality in Sindh land ownership is blunted through rented land, but barely. Landless tenants plus owner-tenants still cultivate less than an average of under seven acres. Sharecroppers are given at best half of the produce after sharing half the cost of purchased inputs. No wonder that the average tenant family is hard pressed to meet its subsistence needs, and cannot but sink into debt bondage. There is yet to be any progress in reforming tenancy legislation or extending minimum wages to field labour.

Naturally the first step in a land fund is to tap the 'public surplus' consisting of land acquired in previous land reforms but yet to be transferred to the landless. The commercial use of land in cantonments suggests much additional contribution of public land. Vast areas in flood plains can also be part of legal distribution to the landless rather than remain illegal land grabs by those already obscene (and obese) wealthy.

Redressing historical injustice, landless tenants should have priority entitlement in land redistribution. At an average of 4-5 acres, Sindh landless farm over a million acres. Even after requisitioning much (cultivable) public land, we expect that sizable land will have to be surrendered by the very largest landowners with 100 acres or more. Smaller landowners may not have to be tapped unless large landowners are allowed to retain substantial land in a generous manner.

Owner-tenant farms used nearly half a million acres of rented land. Hundreds of thousands of very small owner farms (such as under 5 acres) also have claims to be assured decent and secure livelihoods, requiring additional owned land. And why should livestock households remain excluded from such entitlements? It is therefore very likely that a sweeping land reform will require that most of the 20 thousand or so landowners with 50 acres and more will surrender a large part of their nearly two million acres for redistribution.

Given the general failure of social protection by the state, one would want to explicitly link redistribution with a secure, minimal livelihood. Based upon a daily adult intake of 2,550 calories, SPDC recently proposed a monthly expenditure standard of Rs 1,850 per capita for rural Pakistan. This is a conservative calorie intake compared to the 3,000 suggested for urban workers by the Asian Floor Wage Campaign.

A simpler expenditure standard may be derived from average consumption. For rural Sindh the official survey of expenditures gives an average monthly food and total consumption expenditure per capita of around Rs 1,400 and 2,300, respectively. This enables a daily diet of 1,000 calories per capita, no more than one-half of any reasonable calorie standard. Apparently income inequity is stark enough for the risk of hunger to loom over even the average household.

What then is implied by the existing pattern of land ownership and access? Official surveys for rural Sindh suggest average income from agriculture (at Rs 5,300 per employed person) to be around Rs 1,500 per capita across agriculture households. Farm size is just under 0.5 acres per capita for these households, and stands at one acre per capita across the farm population. Hence much more than an acre per capita should be the standard corresponding to all consumption need met through the family farm. Were we to aim at other dimensions of deprivation – such as attaining matric education for all males -- the required land standard would rise further.

Would current holdings of tenants suffice for a secure consumption standard? Their farm area is around 1.3 million acres, held in nearly 0.3 million farms. At a conservative average of 7-8 persons per household, the landless tenant population of Sindh would require more than twice their current average of 0.65 acres per capita, i.e. well over 2 million acres.

The alternative is to ensure non-farm employment to meet the deficit expenditure, which would require a serious but currently absent commitment to an employment scheme such as NREGA in India. Perhaps we should work with a landowner lobby to realise secure and decent employment for the landless, which would minimise the land surrendered to a redistribution fund.

Child labour is a curse that perpetuates impoverishment. Removing it wholly will reduce income and hence raise land requirement as long as adults are paid inadequately. When food sovereignty is the goal i.e. needs are to be secured entirely through self production via ecologically responsible farming, ownership requirements of the landless are likely to increase further. Across the province there will naturally be differential land needs according to variations in farm productivity, fulfilled non-food consumption, and probable non-farm income.

Objections will be raised, vehemently by large landowners (which include armed officers) in Sindh and their allies in Islamabad disguised as defense against 'fragmentation.' These will include a Shariat Court judgement, which has been distorted in interpretation as a ban on land acquisition for redistribution despite continuing land purchases by government for ‘development’ projects. If compensation for land acquisition from the wealthy is politically justified, then it could be in the form of annual income at a level not exceeding the minimum in official declarations, e.g. in tax returns.

Defenders of inequity claim economies of scale in farming to deny land redistribution. This is dubious since there is no reason why cooperatives cannot achieve such economies with complementary public action such as credit for expensive technology. Furthermore, we have seen no credible evidence to establish scale economies specially when land degradation through irresponsible farming – as excessive cropping intensity, inappropriate crops, excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides – is taken into account. Were one to include considerations of water and drainage, the balance will tilt even more against large farms, hugely subsidised that they are in ecology and infrastructure, quite unnecessarily if not foolishly.

Lobbies for large landlords warn that subsistence farms are unlikely to produce surpluses for feeding non-farm households generally and specifically urban labour. It certainly is well past the time when ‘national interest’ is taken to mean that peasants should be subsidising urban capital through cheap labour. A similar threat is supposed to lie in reduction of crops that serve industry and exports, such as sugarcane, rice and cotton. We are unable to understand the logic that crop incentives which work for large farms will somehow fail to work for subsistence farms. In any case it is absurd to defend a combination of mass hunger and exports (not just of cotton but also of rice and wheat).

Not infrequently, we are told to increase non-farm employment rather than redistribute land. Yes, more non-farm jobs are necessary for a growing population on top of significant numbers already underemployed, unemployed or simply excluded from market labour such as millions of women. With an obsession of export-led growth, economy management lends no confidence to the creation of decent work on the scale required to rapidly eliminate the generation of mass poverty in both rural and urban Sindh. For example, extensive numbers of rural earners remain self-employed or unpaid family workers. Millions of wage workers failed to obtain jobs – which include employment in the urban periphery -- that offer permanent escape from household hunger. This is so even when multiple earners are counted in, for the obvious reason of exploitatively underpaid women workers and child labour.

This note is to be seen as a first exercise in placing land reforms on the agenda for non-violent eradication of inequity. Pakistan need not await another rain and flood disaster to remind its rulers that sustained, and dignified, social protection comes from assets that reduce vulnerability and expand resilience, through maintaining ecological integrity. Rather than facilitate international land grabs for DFI, the Pakistani state should heed the stern warning given by Professor Jan Breman to the Asian Development Bank: corporate agriculture in the guise of agrarian reforms will surely lead to pauperisation in Sindh.

Official survey data can be accessed via Authors work for social movements through PILER and PFF.

The writers can be reached through,,

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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