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Land Reform: Time for Feudalism to go

Posted on February 5, 2007
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Economy & Development, Law & Justice, Society
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Adil Najam

The Pakistan Kisan Conference met in Lahore this Sunday and (again) demanded an end to feudalism.

My first reaction to reading the news was to remember Faiz (remembering Faiz, by the way, is my default mode in just about all matters):

youN arz o talab say kab aiye dill, pathar-dil paani houtay haiN
tum laakh raza ki khoo Dallo, kab khoo-i-sitamgar jaati hai

But this was tempered immediately as I read of a new World Bank report that highlights the troubling inequity in land ownership in Pakistan.



Before saying more about both, let me just put my own views on the table. First, I think that the ‘feudalism’ card is a favorite boogie of the urban educated elites of Pakistan. It is a very convenient thing to blame all our problems on. Why have we not had democracy? Feudalism. Why does the economy not flourish? Feudalism. Why did we lose to South Africa yesterday? Feudalism. Feudalism and the so-called ‘unparh, jahil awam’ are our scapegoats of choice. It is a very easy way for us urbanites to disown ourselves from many of our own sins.

Having said that, I have long held that feudalism is a critical challenge, and one of the biggest ones. It is not the problem we often make it out to be, but it is a huge problem that needs attention, and urgent attention. It is not a problem because it makes life difficult for the urban rich, it is a problem because it makes life impossible for the rural poor.

It is for this reason that I wholeheartedly support the call from the Pakistan Kisan Conference and the findings of the World Bank report.

On the Kisan Conference, it was mostly a political event but its politics and political rhetoric was uninteresting. The substance of the message, however, was spot on. According to the Daily Times (5 February, 2007):

Speakers at the Pakistan Kisan Conference on Sunday demanded the government eliminate feudalism and introduce land reforms to bring about development in the agriculture sector.

 Around 5,000 farmers and labourers attended the Conference organised by the Kisan Rabita Committee at the Minar-e-Pakistan in collaboration with the National Workers’ Party (NWP)…. The speakers said feudalism was a hurdle to the farmers’ interests. They said land reforms could help strength the agriculture sector. They urged the farmers to adapt to the innovations and changes taking place in the agriculture sector. 

They urged the government to provide land to the landless farmers. “Allocating agriculture land to the military and civil officers should be stopped,� they said, adding that the government should give ownership rights to the tenants at the military forms in Okara and Khanewal.

On the World Bank study, the Daily Times (5 February, 2007) reports:

Pakistan has extreme inequality in land ownership and the enforcement of several laws on tenants’ eviction, says a World Bank (WB) study. The study also says that sharing of crop outputs and costs between a landowner and tenant is practically non-existent. Authored by Hanan G Jacoby and Ghazala Mansuri, the WB Policy Research Working Paper says the fraction of tenanted land is high. More than one third of the land is tenanted and about two-thirds of land is under sharecropping, a form of farming where outputs are shared by the landowner and tenant… Sharecropping is the predominant form of tenancy in Sindh where the land ownership distribution is particularly skewed. According to the study, a median landlord in Sindh owns 28 acres of land, whereas nearly 80 percent of the share-tenants are landless farmers. Big landlords in the province often employ labour supervisors (kamdars) to manage their tenants. In Punjab, tenancies are split more evenly between share and fixed rent contracts. Landlords in Punjab are much smaller than those in Sindh, with a median holding of only seven acres of land, and are more likely to be residing in the same village as their tenants, the study says.

Is it time for a new set of meaningful land reform with a view to stamping out the residuals of feudalism? Yes, it is and it has been for quite some time.

The least important reason to do so is that it will rid the urban elite (i.e., urban feudals) of their favorite boogie and hopefully force them to accept their own responsibility. The most important reason is that it will make a real difference in the lives of the rural poor; the poor that no one even talks about anymore.

42 Comments on “Land Reform: Time for Feudalism to go”

  1. Eidee Man says:
    February 5th, 2007 4:13 am

    [quote]
    Before saying more about both, let me just put my own views on the table. First, I think that the ‘feudalism’ card is a favorite boogie of the urban educated elites of Pakistan. It is a very convenient thing to blame all our problems on. Why have we not had democracy? Feudalism. Why does the economy not flourish? Feudalism. Why did we lose to South Africa yesterday? Feudalism. Feudalism and the so-called ‘unparh, jahil awam’ are our scapegoats of choice. It is a very easy way for us urbanites to disown ourselves from many of our own sins.
    [/quote]

    Adil, cannot agree with you more on this. As you point out, feudalism is a specific case of a systemic problem: the gap between the rich and the poor.

    One thing we’ve seen throughout history in every country and every era is that there cannot be any wealth without OWNERSHIP. The ‘kissans’ of Pakistan will never get out of the vicious cycle until they start owning their own land (however little that may be).

    We can look at African-Americans in the U.S. as an example…slavery was banned during the 1860s but the new mechanisms of “share-cropping” etc kept many people very poor.

    Plus, there are lots of other problems with access to water for irrigation, etc. Also, some of the governmental policies are just plain, retarded. For instance, there was this scheme that was intended to help poor farmers by making it easier for them to purchase tractors and other essential equipment…however, the richest landowners took the most advantage out of that scheme, making their grip tighter than ever.

    At the end of the day, any solution will have to involve OWNERSHIP. And since most farmers are very poor, some sort of loan mechanism has to be put into place…are there any Grahmeen Bank-like projects in Pakistan?

  2. Ali Choudhury says:
    February 5th, 2007 6:14 am

    It’s going to require a strong middle class which can override the political heft of feudals, particularly those in Sind where land inequality is much greater.

    That’s going to take time.

  3. Irfanullah says:
    February 5th, 2007 6:34 am

    [quote comment="32946"]That’s going to take time.[/quote]

    How much time do we need…. 60 years is not enough!!

    It is really a question of political will.

  4. mansoor says:
    February 5th, 2007 7:06 am

    did anyone notice the guy making the speech in the first picture looks a lot like yoda from star wars??? :P

    specially when he’s in the middle of the minar :D

  5. Irfanullah says:
    February 5th, 2007 8:44 am

    Mansoor, the person you mention (in the photo) is probably Abid Hasan Manto. A major leader of the the left in Pakistan who has spent a lifetime rasing issues of worker rights, and teh rights or peasants and the poor.

  6. Adnan Ahmad says:
    February 5th, 2007 9:14 am

    After extremism and terrorism that goes with it feudalism is the next most important issue pakistan faces today. There is an intriguing line in the post about people not even talking about the rural poor any more. It is true. Cities and their problems have grown and media since based in the cities focuses only on urban issues. Priorities should be set straight just by looking at the quantity of wheat, rice, cotton and even milk produced in the country and their part in GDP. Currently if you dig a little a deeper you’ll notice that almost all of the govt. ministers and some of them quite young come from powerful feudal families. With them in place how can you even think about any land reforms taking place?

  7. king_faisal says:
    February 5th, 2007 10:06 am

    actually all segments of urban population are impacted by what goes on in the hinterland. here is why:

    1. food prices. increase in urban incomes is causing increase in demand for food products. agriculture production though has been growing at a much lower rate than the other sectors and this is causing food price inflation. to counter inflation, sbp has been trying to reduce demand by raising interest rates thereby driving up finance costs for business as well as individuals. as admitted by sbp governor recently, food prices refuse to come down due to supply constraints as result of scarcity of inputs namely arable land and water. waderas obviously dont want competition and thereby do all they can to prevent change in the industry landscape. dams are being opposed because more water means more area under cultivation. my suggestion to increase agriculture production would be to construct a canal from indus to balochistan and offer free land to haris for all over pakistan for farming. increase in production will increase income of haris and reduce food prices. surplus can be used for exports.

    2. rural-urban migration. stagnating rural incomes is causing unsustainable migration to cities. this migration is putting huge strain on already khusta city infrastructure. furthermore crime rates are spiking up as divide between rural and urban incomes becomes even greater.

    3. regressive political institutions. waderas being the most powerful group in pak contro; political groups. waderas will be the biggest losers if things change in pak. so to preserve the existing system, waderas dominate politics. they have resources to build political machines. More importantly waderas can use caste/biradari/provincial slogans to build support base.

    bottomline is that pakistan will not develop without change in the centuries old socio-economic structure of the hinterland. the way this process shapes up will determine the future of pak.

  8. Ali Choudhury says:
    February 5th, 2007 10:53 am

    “How much time do we need…. 60 years is not enough!!

    It is really a question of political will. ”

    The country’s been going backwards or sideways for a big chunk of those sixty years. It is a question of political will, but it’s not like Musharraf or anybody else can implement land reform without putting a lot of important noses out of joint which he would rather not.

    The political will has to flow from the bottom-up. It’ll probably require urban areas to grow much larger so voters there outnumber rural ones that landlords control in numbers, wealth and influence.

  9. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:
    February 5th, 2007 11:33 am

    A social and cultural revolution in Pakistan to overthrow the entrenched establishment??? Would that be the answer? Would Mullah-Military-Feudal troika let that happen? Not willingly.

  10. Irfanullah says:
    February 5th, 2007 11:58 am

    I am convinced that land reform is not that difficult and the could get past the politicos if you wanted it. Essentially Bhutto already did a large part of it. In Sindh we still need more and in Punjab loopholes have to be filled. The Chaudhris and urban politicians might even like it. The question is whether Musharraf has the political courage to take this on. If he tried, it could be an easy win for him.And if the World Bank pushes he will end up doing it.

  11. Ali Choudhury says:
    February 5th, 2007 12:23 pm

    Bhutto was a popularly elected leader with an undeniable mandate and tremendous street following. Musharraf led a coup against a democratic government after Nawaz Sharif tried to remove him thanks to the clusterf**k that was Kargil.

    The bad taste left by the Bhutto and Sharif governments and the uptick in economic fortunes since 9/11 mean people are more or less happy for him to stay, but he can’t do whatever he wants.

    The last thing Pakistan needs is the violence and turmoil caused by revolution. What it needs is continued evolution towards an affluent society. Once\if the middle class gains critical mass, then and only then will necessary change be pushed through.

  12. Aqil Sajjad says:
    February 5th, 2007 12:52 pm

    Musharraf has shown no interest in land reforms and the political governments aren’t going to do so for obvious reasons.

    It therefore seems that the emergance of a larger middle class and a bourgeois elite is the only route for the fading away of feudalism.

    Pakistan had a growing bourgeois class in the 1960s, but the nationalization by Bhutto stopped its development and dealt a serious blow to Pakistan’s industrial development. With that also went a growing threat to feudalism.

  13. Roshan Malik says:
    February 5th, 2007 1:24 pm

    Adil you brought a very important topic on ATP. I had an oppurtunity to participate in Kisan Conference two years back when it was held in Toba Tek Singh. Of course it is a great effort by the activist who are seeking the rights of small and landless farmers. No doubt land reforms is one of the key area which will not only reduce rural poverty but will also bring down the unequal distribution of wealth in the country. It will also facilitate to undermine the power of feudal system in our country by empowering the poor and landless in the rural areas.
    Unfortunately, the Board of Investment adopted the policy of Corporate Agriculture Farming to attract foreign investment rather than distributing government lands to the landless poor. (You can see the details of this policy in an article which I wrote in the News back in 2003. Here ).
    Ironically none of the mainstream political parties in our country have Land Reforms on their agenda. Even most of the politicians and political parties supported the cause of Anjuman Muzareen in Okara and Khacha Khoh, but when they came to power the joined the other camp.

  14. king_faisal says:
    February 5th, 2007 1:25 pm

    bhutto socialism was a ruse – ironic even considering his feudal background. furthermore he appointed as chief ministers mumtaz bhutto and khar, both of whom belonged to the leading feudal families of pak. bhutto’s goal in nationalisation was to eliminate threat posed by industrial elite to the feudals. bhutto further tried to marginalise the influence of karachi which was the industrial heart of pakistan by imposing sindhi on karachites. this lead to the language riots and opened a whole new can of worms in karachi politics. its also important to remember that up until that time pakistan’s economy was among the best performing in the developing world and if pakistan had grown at even 1/3rd the rate of south korea, pakistan’s gdp per capita currently would be around $6,000 rather than around $900 today. pakistan’s economic growth in the first 25 years of its existence was an impressive achievement considering there was minimal industry in pak at the time of its existence. if bhutto had not destroyed pakistani industry, pakistani entrepreneurs would be taking over foreign companies rather the other way around which is the trend these days.

    the extent to which bhutto succeeded can be gauged from the fact that while agriculture constitutes 20% of pakistan’s gdp, the sector contributes practically nothing to tax revenue. in contrast a mid ranking employee of a private sector corporation will pay about 25% of his or her salary in taxes. interestingly according to daily times, cbr wants to go after agriculture sector but are being prevented by musharraf:

    http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2007%5C01%5C14%5Cstory_14-1-2007_pg7_1

    Musharraf unlikely to allow tax on agricultural income

    ..The government’s reluctance in approving the measures was also attributed to the fact that 2007 was election year, and such a move could seriously jeopardise the prospects of the ruling coalition, particularly the PML-Q, they added. During fiscal year 2006, the agriculture sector’s share in GDP was 21.6 percent when its growth decelerated with harvests of major crops, such as cotton, sugarcane and wheat, falling below the set targets.

  15. Attaullah says:
    February 6th, 2007 3:27 am

    Thank you for bringing up this key issue. I do think we in the so-called middle class have to raise our voices. The feudals themselves wont speak up and the rural poor cannot. So it is up to us. Yes, Musharraf has done nothing but if we and newspapers started making noise I think he might see that land reform is politically useful for him and economically good for the country. So, lets write to newspapers and urge our journalists friends to take this up.

  16. peacenik says:
    February 5th, 2007 2:51 pm

    Land reforms are indeed the need of today’s Pakistan. Not only the reduction in the size of agro-estates of our feudal lords, but also the readjustment of small land holdings. A 100 acre estate is generally not as productive as a 15acre land, unless ofcourse it is run as a corporate farm. What’s also required is the redistribution/readjustment of small land holdings. In many parts of Pakistan, especially in Sarhad and Punjab, poor farmers hold lands in kanals and even marlas; pieces of land that can’t even feed their families. We need a law to stop further division of agricultural land. Trimming down the agricultural estates of influential feudals may not be possible in the near future, but some much needed reforms can be brought about given sustained public pressure through media. Any ideas? shouldn’t we be writing more letters to the editor and other media outlets?

  17. Aqil Sajjad says:
    February 5th, 2007 3:26 pm

    The following article has some interesting data:
    http://www.dawn.com/2007/01/29/ebr3.htm

    One quote from the article:
    “Even merely a 10 per cent tax on income from agriculture, which accounts for 22 per cent of national income, would yield Rs. 160-190 billion in income tax revenues. It is grossly unjust that while a salaried person pays not just income tax but more and more withholding taxes on utilities and bank transactions, large landlords’ incomes should go completely untaxed.”

    Note that this year’s defense budget is somewhere around Rs. 270b (if I recall correctly). Now, if this defense budget is rationalized, as it should be, how much could we save at best?
    Probably less than 160-190b (the above figure for tax potential from agricultural income tax)
    So clearly, we have a pre-occupation with the defense budget, while there are clearly other sectors that are starving the economy of funds with a similar magnitude.

    Don’t get me wrong; I am all for cutting the defense budget, but I can’t help saying that this single track obsession with the defense budget while completely ignoring other areas has something to do with the fact that many of us think less for ourselves and more on the basis of the propaganda from the political opposition and our eastern neighbour.

  18. Ali Choudhury says:
    February 5th, 2007 6:59 pm

    There is undoubtedly a lot of hidden expenditure that doesn’t get reflected in the books. Military pensions for instance have been shifted into civilian spending, which is one of the more known accounting sleights of hand. It’s probably also not counting the cost to the Treasury of the military using government assets for its’ own foundations and interests, like the takeover by the Rangers of large numbers of buildings in Karachi.

    Landlords will continue to get an unfair slice of the spoils. It’s the unfortunate consequence of Pakistan being created from the most backward and undeveloped provinces of India.

    Hopefully rising urban incomes will mean they eventually get what’s coming to them.

  19. YLH says:
    February 6th, 2007 2:28 am

    FYI …the guy in the picture is the famous Abid Hassan Minto, a leading lawyer at the LHC Bar, marxist, secularist, progressive, a proud Pakistani and the the nephew of none other than Saadat Hassan Manto…

    On the issue of feudalism… Punjab- being the main recruiting base for the British Indian Army- was deliberately kept as a “regulated” province, where the British ruled by coopting the local notables and feudals who could be called upon to serve the British Army when the time was right… this is precisely why Punjab never produced any major national leaders (like Jinnah, Gandhi etc) in the independence and Pakistan movements… despite the fact that it had no dearth of talent- as evidenced by the great career of the brilliant Zafrullah Khan whose birthday it is today.

    The reason why feudalism was perpetuated in West Pakistan was because the bourgeoisie leadership of Pakistan at the time of partition – after Jinnah’s death- had no popular appeal in this region since it was entirely derived from the provinces that now constitute India.

    Hence, the Punjabi feudals, the ex-unionists, and the Civil Military Bureaucracy had a relatively easy time ousting the early leaders and establishing their stranglehold on Pakistan.

  20. OSMAN says:
    February 6th, 2007 4:21 am

    I agree that something has to be done and that the time is right. But et us also acknowledge that Bhuttos reforms, while not complete specially in Sindh, did make a difference. The task now is to complete the land reform process. If he really wanted to, I think Musharraf could.

  21. Eidee Man says:
    February 6th, 2007 11:47 am

    [quote comment="33043"]FYI …the guy in the picture is the famous Abid Hassan Minto, a leading lawyer at the LHC Bar, marxist, secularist, progressive, a proud Pakistani and the the nephew of none other than Saadat Hassan Manto…
    [/quote]

    marxist..okay…secularist…hmm….and PROGRESSIVE? these words go together??

    Saadat Hassan Manto….who, the drunk mediocre writer?

  22. Zak says:
    February 6th, 2007 1:16 pm

    These debates on feudalism in Pakistan are very deceptive. Most public discourse in Pakistan ..are pseudo opponents of Feudalism. Pakistans urban elites are the worst examples of this, look at the antics of pakistans urbanised political elite. They are feudal by instinct and look at our faujis, they rule through patronage, striking deals to which theya re unaccountable. Feudalism is a mentality as much the ownership of land.

    The most telling sign of the role of the feudal culture in Pakistan is this, mark the ten biggest politically involved land owners in each province, then mark the 10 richest business and politically involved families in each province. Then pick an era, post 2000, post 1990 , post 1980 and so on, get the lists
    and check which parties and who they served the most. Invaribly you will see wealth and land is invariably linked to establishment governments and parties, whether it’s the republican party or the Muslim League Convention or the PML junejo

  23. peacenik says:
    February 6th, 2007 3:45 pm

    Criticize the feudals & the feudal mindset to your heart’s content, but isn’t it abouttime now to launch a campaign to get what we can achieve without much fuss? namely re-adjustment/management of small land holdings? This one step may alone alleviate some of the misery of rural Pakistan. Come on friends, let’s write letters to the editor, get the ball rolling. Let’s begin with a small step, and see it through

  24. Aqil Sajjad says:
    February 7th, 2007 6:23 am

    If Mr. Zak had restricted himself to saying that urban elites also suffer from a feudal mindset, then it would have been hard to disagree, but the idea that the urban elites are worse than rural feudalism is like comparing apples and oranges.

    The military is a meritocracy that is open to anyone who meets a certain criterion, regardless of class or ethnic differences. Even the son of a General with all the safarish has to start as second lt and rise through all the ranks before getting to the top.

    Unlike the military, feudalism completely disallows any class mobility, not to mention how feudals openly discourage people from getting education.

    As bad as the military’s political role is, this basic difference makes comparisons with ‘rural feudalism’ totally unreasonable.

    Having said the above, I do agree with Prof Najam that feudalism is a favourite bogie of urban Pakistanis to absolve themselves of all responsibility.

    Vaissay, there are also a few other similar excuses for inaction (defense budget being one of them). There should be a whole separate discussion on some common lame excuses. That will give me an opportunity to become the most unpopular person on this blog. :)

  25. YLH says:
    February 7th, 2007 7:25 am

    Eidee mian,

    So you think they don’t go together?

  26. Irfanullah says:
    February 7th, 2007 7:41 am

    I agree with Aqil that there is a difference in urban and rural feudalism. I am not a fan of the military. But it is true, it will let mnost people in and then it will let them rise AS LONG AS they conform to the military’s corporate interests. For rural feudalism the interests are entirely heritadry. IT is pointless debating which is worse. Both are sapping the national future.

  27. Zak says:
    February 7th, 2007 1:08 pm

    Mr. Aqil, the assumption that the army is a meritocracy is also a myth, especially considering everyone from Ayub to Musharraf was promoted out of turn! Recruitment is neither uniform across the country nor is promotion. Being from a poor backgroun means little as well, after all many feudals were originally quite poor when they were awarded the land.

    You are also giving the feudals too much credit in their supposed permanence, consider in the 1970 elections in Punjab and sindh and and in sindh in 1988 the feudals overhwelmingly lost election.

    My point has always been , what are the key characteristics of a feudal? You can break them down into through personal enrichment, patronage as a means of creating a constituency and a distinction of law between oneself and the rest.

  28. Ali Choudhury says:
    February 7th, 2007 3:52 pm

    Maybe so but we’re trying to make a distinction between those of a feudal mindset who are inherently against land reform and those for whom it is not an issue they’d actively oppose.

  29. Aqil Sajjad says:
    February 8th, 2007 7:58 am

    “My point has always been , what are the key characteristics of a feudal? You can break them down into through personal enrichment, patronage as a means of creating a constituency and a distinction of law between oneself and the rest.”

    We can’t twist the meanings of words to suit our political position. The word feudal specifically pertains to land ownership in an agrarian setting and inheritance is one of its key features. The military is not based on inheritance and it does allow people to come in if they remain in-line with its ‘corporate interests,’ some out of turn appointments/promotions and other imperfections not withstanding.

    The military needs to be reformed (confined to its role of national defense and disengaged from its commercial ventures), but not abolished as an institution. Feudalism is by definition an oppressive system based on inheritance and subjugation of the people, and hence its very existance is morally wrong. There is absolutely no comparison between the two, though people sympathetic to feudalism do often try to make such arguments.

  30. Irfanullah says:
    February 8th, 2007 8:03 am

    I do not think that feudalism is defined just by land ownership. It is about excessive control and exclusion of others. Feudalism is about some controlling teh destiny of others because of some special place of privilige that they supposedly have… in many cases large land holding and servitude.

  31. Eidee Man says:
    February 11th, 2007 2:43 am

    [quote comment="33300"]I do not think that feudalism is defined just by land ownership. It is about excessive control and exclusion of others. Feudalism is about some controlling teh destiny of others because of some special place of privilige that they supposedly have… in many cases large land holding and servitude.[/quote]

    Irfanullah, you are correct but control and excess power extends from land ownership. Out of all the things you can invest in, real estate has probably been the most versatile since the beginning of mankind itself. If you have much more wealth compared to others surrounding you, you are naturally going to have control over them…and once you get wealthy, it’ll get easier and easier for you to get more money.

  32. Aqil Sajjad says:
    February 11th, 2007 5:11 am

    I agree that excessive power over others is one of the defining features of feudalism, but my understanding is that the term feudal was initially used for the agrarian pre-industrial european society where power and land went hand in hand.
    The term was extended over time and also applied to non-European agrarian settings where a small elite had vast control over the people on their land or feifdoms, some parts of rural Pakistan fitting that kind of description. Since land ownership generally continues on the basis of inheritance, such a set up provides very limited opportunities for class mobility.

    It is not just power that defines and characterizes feudalism. Referring to an industrial society as feudal or calling the military a feudal institution is totally out of place because feudalism relates to a particular mode of production and societal arrangement. The military is not even a mode of production and hence the question of using the term feudal for it does not even arise, its role in power politics not withstanding.

  33. Roshan says:
    February 25th, 2007 11:38 pm

    Here is government new move to offer state owned land for lease rather than distributing among the poor.
    ‘Land bank’ of millions of acres on ECC agenda: http://dawn.com/2007/02/26/top3.htm

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