Land reforms: Is it flogging a dead horse?

Despite the stout defence of the rural gentry that the existing pattern of land ownership, income distribution and cultural practices not only make farming a legitimate professional like any other , the demand for land reforms does not appear to be subsiding.

The latest to join the” chorus” are two eminent economists of the IMF based in the Fund’s Islamabad office. Speaking at a World Bank function in the federal capital, IMF’s country representatives director Henri Lorie and Zafar Iqbal called for land reforms to boost productivity in agriculture. They maintain that land remains under-utilized and the market structure in the rural areas remains weak.

The two officials were expressing their personal opinion though the international lending institutions do not hold different views as expressed by them from time to time. It is perhaps the current political sensitivity of the issue that they chose not to involve their institutions.

As far back as October 2002, the World Bank in its Pakistan Poverty Assessment report had observed that “the deepest and the most pervasive poverty in the country is rural and it is the worst in areas that have been traditionally considered as feudal, such as rural Sindh…. there is a disconnect between agricultural growth and trends in rural consumption and poverty …. understanding the distribution of asset ownership is a crucial step in understanding rural poverty.”

So far, the unsuccessful official efforts to” reform” the agriculture sector has been focused on inviting foreigners for corporate farming for which million of acres of state land have been earmarked.

There is a strong opposition from those who are convinced that small farms enhance productivity faster than large ones. And it is feared that many of these small productive units would be ultimately taken over corporate entities.

The distribution of state land to land less tillers is moving at a snail pace. There is no move to further limit ceilings of landholdings beyond those prescribed by earlier land reforms in 1959 and early 1970s.

Incidentally, the call of the IMF officials for land reforms coincides with the publication of a special issue on “Feudalism in Pakistan” by Pakistan Study Centre, University of Karachi in which eminent scholars, economists, researchers and eminent farmers have contributed.

The popular belief that feudalism is an important cause behind our economic and social development has become a pervasive belief, says Dr Syed Jaffar Ahmed. The main thrust of the debate is on” feudalism: myth or reality”, the title of an article written by Dr Abdul Ghaffar Jatoi reproduced from Dawn in May 2000.

Jatoi argues that the urban intellectuals have “created an imaginary and fictitious character whom they call feudal lord and jagirdar” and use the jargon ” feudal mindset” to malign the landowner. The so-called feudal lord (jagirdar) died a long time ago-1958.

Land reforms means different things to different people. To the urbanite it means” snatching the land from the landowner, fragmenting it into small pieces and then distributing it to the landless peasants.”

Jatoi defines the feudal lord as one who was given large estates (fiefs) free of cost in return for supply of workers, soldiers (serfs), horses, mules, food and fodder to the rulers in times of war and peace.”

Currently, the zamindar is engaged in a profession in which he shares 50 per cent of his gross income with the sharecropper. The zamindar pays all the expenses of maintaining tractors, implements, tube wells, workshop, autaq, seeds, water courses and taxes. And he asks whether such a partnership was possible in any other sector of the economy.

The assertion that feudalism is dead finds support in theoretical work of Professor Hamza Alavi on colonial social formation. It dissolved pre-colonial feudal structure, that separated the peasants from their means of production.

The farmers were integrated into the peripheral capitalism. And the peasants were left with no option but sell their labour (at cheap rates) and serve a market for colonial production.

The eminent historian Dr Mubarak Ali however tends to differ. In actual practice, the institution of feudalism has changed with the changing realities but prevails despite land reforms.

After the Federal Shariat Court judgment declaring land reforms unIslamic, some of the feudals got back their lands from the peasants. The colonial tradition of giving agricultural lands to high military officials after their retirement has created new landlords. The support of the army makes the system strong and unbreakable. Even Bhutto had to exempt army from land reforms.

On cultural practices Dr Mubarak adds: In feudal societies, women’s status is below that of man. In Sindh, one sort of exploitation is to keep private jails and force peasants to work on minimum wages Economist S.M. Naseem argues that the elitist nature of the Pakistani estate and its apparatus have played a significant role in shaping the pattern of development.

While land reforms were weak in terms of implementation, they proved ineffective in ensuring the security of tenure for the tenants. Share tenancy has been completely eliminated from northern Punjab and is limited to 20-30 per cent area in other parts.

In Punjab, the landlords have tended to increase self-cultivation of land. In Sindh, however, tenancy still prevails in about 70 per cent of the cropped area. Empirical evidence has shown that in villages where landed power is high, educational attainment is generally low.

In support of views journalist Thermize Khan quotes historian M.S. Kerejo as follows: The urban Sindhis prefer to call feudalism which keeps the peasants under bondage and prevents the growth of a Sindhi middle class; while many rural Sindhis call it land ownership, diluted into partnership between the Zamindar and the hari regulated by tenancy laws. Khan does not attribute the country’s under development to landed gentry but to the failure of the state.

Economist Mahnaz Fatima strongly disagrees that feudalism has ceased to exist as there has been a transformation from the feudalistic to the capitalist mode of production.” Mere deployment of capital and technology is not all that it takes to make a mode of production free from feudal characteristics.

Referring to Professor Hamza Alavi’s first criterion that in feudalism, labour is unfree as opposed to free labour in the capitalist mode of production she says “In Pakistan’s rural setting, the tenants and sharecroppers are obliged to serve the landlord as well as they did their feudal lord ever.

” While there is an element of surplus extraction, the entire modern managerial emphasis is on getting the “surplus” voluntarily… Modern management is more manipulative.” In the absence of avenues of employment in modern economy, free labour is not that free.

Another criterion used to define feudalism is the extra-economic coercion for the extraction of the surplus. In the rural setting, extra-economic coercion exercised by all its inhabitants is widely known. The tribal and clan value system is designed to keep the low- income classes subdued, subordinated and usurped in every possible way.

In addition, the virtually and in some cases, the actually captive workforce also serves as a captive vote bank for the landlords most of whom wish to get to the legislative halls to influence political decision-making.

Pakistan is neither able to legislate effective land reforms or meaningful agricultural income taxation. Neither could the foundation be laid for the country’s rapid economic development nor could a base be prepared for national resource mobilization. The upshot is political, economic and social deficits.

The parallel judicial system of panchayats and jirgas are nothing but organs of the local politico-economic leadership to legitimize their illegal and illegitimate actions. This is third criterion of feudalism.

Dr Mahnaz however recommends the fourth criterion of feudalism about self- sufficient (subsistence) economy for agricultural and eventual industrial/national development, albeit, with small -property owning farming classes.’

Capital and technology has added power to the power of the landlord without adequately facilitating power-sharing with the labour. Rural labour remains powerless facing formidable hurdles over their lives.

The economy is further trapped in a virtual simple reproduction mode which is the fifth criterion of feudalism. Under feudal mode of production, economy and society reproduce at the existing level as the surplus is largely consumed by the exploiting class instead of accumulation and investment.

Under the capitalist mode of production, surplus is accumulated and re-invested to enhance production capacities. Even a premature obituary of feudalism cannot be written yet in Pakistan. The issue of feudalism is not behind us but actually it continues to engulf us.

Courtesy: The DAWN

Muhammad Ramzan Rafique
Muhammad Ramzan Rafique

I am from a small town Chichawatni, Sahiwal, Punjab , Pakistan, studied from University of Agriculture Faisalabad, on my mission to explore world I am in Denmark these days..

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