The MQM has submitted a land reform bill to the National Assembly Secretariat this past week. Let us put aside for now contentions that this is just an attempt by the urban-based MQM to make inroads into Sindh and other rural areas of the country. Also, let the improbability of the draft legislation passing to become an actual law, considering the opposition of landowners in major political parties, not deter us from focusing on the basic issue at hand. It remains hard to refute the fact that lack of access to land remains a major underlying cause of poverty in the rural economy where a major proportion of our national workforce resides.
Before turning our attention to this new bill itself, let us reconsider the history of earlier land reforms in Pakistan. After an initial lacklustre attempt by Ayub Khan, two further land reform initiatives were launched under the Bhutto government. But all three attempts (1959, 1972 and 1977) failed to reduce the size of large estates and are estimated to have benefited less than 10 per cent of landless farmers in the country. Part of the failure was because ceilings were placed on individual ownerships, allowing landed families to legally transfer their lands to other family members, and thus avoid redistribution of their properties.
The MQM bill rightly proposes that the land ownership ceilings should apply to families, not individuals. It has also drastically reduced the ceiling size to a maximum of 30 acres irrigated or 54 acres arid (barani) land. The bill proposes that all excess land, with the exemption of those held by registered charitable trusts and waqfs, be resumed by provincial governments for redistribution.
Owners of land expropriated by the government are meant to be paid compensation according to rates determined by a land reform commission. Even if the state does not have enough funds for this purpose, donors like the World Bank or USAID should step in to provide the required funds, as was done in many South American countries. However, care must be exercised to ensure that landlords do not discard their worst pieces of land, and be compensated handsomely for them.
It is also important to realise that just giving landless sharecroppers, agricultural labourers, and small land-owners redistributed land is not going to be enough. The MQM bill proposes that cooperative farming societies be formed to help farmers become more productive. International experience, however, indicates that many other institutional measures are needed to help poor farmers actually boost agricultural productivity, including better access to irrigation, required agricultural inputs, and improved market access.
The MQM has, however, refuted former Prime Minster Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali’s proclamation declaring land reforms to be a dead issue for Pakistan, by first moving a resolution for land reforms, and now presenting this new bill. But there are several other bills pending before parliament which have achieved little more than placing a different point of view on record. It would be a shame if this land reform bill ultimately results in doing no more than scoring political points against feudal opponents. If the MQM is serious, it will have to pursue its bill, and this may require making some sacrifices, such as considering the possibility of ensuring household security for urban squatter settlement dwellers within Karachi as well, where nearly half the city’s population currently resides on land controlled by powerful land mafias, enjoying undue political backing.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 15th, 2010.