HYDERABAD: The word 'peasant' evokes an image of an emaciated person, with a sun-tanned, dark complexion, forced to toil on farmland. He ekes out the small supplies of food with his family in a thatched hut set up temporarily on the landlord's land.
Having its origin in the centuries-old era with pervasive slavery, this status of landless agricultural labour persists till today in a somewhat modified form. Decades of social and political struggles in Sindh, starting in the 1940s with the late comrade Hyder Bux Jatoi as the vanguard, elicited only a modicum of reform.
With this context in consideration, stakeholders at a dialogue in Hyderabad on Wednesday discoursed on ways to improve the relationship between peasants and landlords to advantage of the former. The non-profit Rights Now Pakistan (RNP) and Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research organised the event in which farm owners, peasants, lawyers and rights activists participated.
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"Generation after generation, the children of peasants remain peasants. It's like slavery," commented Ghulam Ali Laghari, a peasant and activist for the rights of his community.
He deplored that even the existing laws like the Sindh Tenancy Act (STA), 1950, and its subsequent amendments are not implemented, which allows exploitation of the farm workers to continue. "The elected governments make tall claims but the fact is no authentic survey of the number of peasants in Sindh has been carried out," Laghari bemoaned.
Mir Amanullah Talpur, a progressive farmer of Mirpurkhas, emphasised that a new relationship between the landlord and peasant is needed. He accused the provincial government of being apathetic on this score. "For seven years, a draft to amend the tenancy act into a 21st century law is pending with the government," he claimed.
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He said the STA, is a copy of the United Kingdom's tenancy law, except the major difference is that the landlord in the UK happens to be a tenant of the state land, which is not the case in Sindh.
Punhal Sario, head of the non-profit Hari Porhiyat [peasant labour] Council demanded establishment of peasant courts and granting of labourer rights. He also complained that over the last few decades the successive governments have been pursued to amend the law for protection of the peasants but to no avail.
"What's my fault in this peasant's condition?" questioned Nabi Bux Sathio, general secretary of the Sindh Chamber of Agriculture, which lobbies mainly for the landlords. He argued that under the STA, the landlord shared 50% of income earned from sale of the crop with the peasant. Under this agreement, the landlord provides land, bears complete cost of seed and water and 50% cost of the machinery used in the cultivation, he said.
"Which other sector of the economy or which industry gives 50% share of the income to the labour?" Sathio asked. He placed the responsibility for improving the lot of peasants squarely on the government, which has the means to provide land to the landless and address issues like health and education.
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Another way, which, according to him can improve financial situation of the peasants, is to declare the agriculture sector an 'industry'. The move will help increase the farm income which is shared by the landlord and farm worker. He said the government should take measures to reduce the cost of farming and fix adequate prices of crops to help enhance income.
"It is a misleading perception that all landlords are rich," contended Mir Abdul Kareem Talpur, a landlord. The RNP's executive advocate Ali Palh acknowledged that grueling labour is extorted from the peasants against incommensurate earnings. He also pointed out that the discussion ignored the perspective of women peasants. Palh suggested that the landlords should pay for the registration of peasants in Employees Old Age Benefit Institution.
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