The political economy of land in Pakistan

Published: July 23, 2012
The writer is a development consultant and a PhD student at the University of Melbourne

The writer is a development consultant and a PhD student at the University of Melbourne

A famous adage which claims that ‘to rule over land is to rule over people’ makes a lot of sense in the case of countries like our own, where a bulk of the national population still resides and works in the agrarian sector. While terms like feudalism are contested, it is useful to consider the issue of land rights from a multidisciplinary political economy lens, which seeks to simultaneously understand economic implications of political decisions and vice versa.

The extraction of rural surplus from the Indian subcontinent enabled the Mughals to fund empire building opulence and warfare through an increasingly sophisticated land administration system. Peasant revolts against this exploitation were identified as one of the reasons for the downfall of the Mughals. Under the historic mansabdari system, however, agrarian tillers were at least rooted to the land they cultivated since mansabdars appointed above them were state representatives designated to collect revenues from land, which essentially belonged to the empire — rather than to mansabdars themselves.

The British desire to fuel industrialisation in England through boosting cash cropping in its colonies led to experimentation with provision of private property rights in the subcontinent based on the presumption that this would incentivise productivity and investment in agriculture. Sidestepping the poor rural populace, the British preferred giving land rights to the upper peasantry. Moreover, the colonial government gave titles and land grants to ‘noblemen’ willing to recognise their authority and the British Raj also began using land for inducing military recruitment and breeding horses for the cavalry, under the ghora paal (horse breeding) scheme. Economic historians have identified this latter colonial policy of using land for military purposes as setting the stage for the growing influence of the military in the country’s political economy.

Unlike India, landlords with large landholdings dominated the Muslim League and continued to sabotage effective land reforms in the country. Over time, landholding interests not only pervaded the establishment but also acquired industrial interests. It is thus not uncommon for large landed Pakistani families to have family members in the national and provincial parliaments serving as senior bureaucrats and army officials, as well as owning sugar and cotton mills.

A political economy perspective further sheds light on broader configuration of production relations at both national and global levels. The IMF and the World Bank have actively sought to influence agricultural production processes and policies through liberalisation of the agricultural sector — in developing countries which receive their loans — in a bid to integrate them into a global trade regime.

In Pakistan, such trends have led to the growing convergence of local and international interests with regards to land- use. Such a state of affairs has been aptly described by a Pakistani scholar as  ‘the neoliberal security state’. Its manifestations are observable through the army’s involvement in fertiliser production, through prominent ministers engaging in corporate farming and through donor attempts to fund computerisation of land records to further facilitate agribusiness or to provide to the rural poor without addressing their basic land tenure rights. However, the above strategies remain incapable of empowering the vast proportion of our poor rural populace. In fact, the barriers to effective citizenship rights in Pakistan, which fuel a range of disparities — ranging from gender, class, caste and ethnic problems — correspond closely with the hierarchy of existing claims and rights to land. With the Supreme Court having declared land reforms un-Islamic and the establishment and parliamentarians still adamant on preserving the status quo of land ownership and donor agencies focusing on liberalisation of the agricultural sector, it should be no surprise why large parts of Pakistan continue to experience growing food insecurity, poor human development and ineffective democratic governance.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (16)

  • Tobu Alu
    Jul 24, 2012 - 8:21AM

    Well written, only Pakistanis will be able to change the status quo. If history is any guide in this matter, Europe’s history could provide some insight what may happen in Pakistan. It took a pretty long time (and many deaths) to dismantle the power of the elites (nobility, church, later the early industrialists etc. in Europe). As long as religious institutions and customs (including a strong hierarchical tradition) control the mindset of most Pakistanis no change is likely to happen in the near future. These institutions customs and traditions have the tendency to preserve the status quo. As long as the poor continue to live (on a shoestring) and remain uneducated and basically cut-off of the outside world no upheaval can be expected. With most institutions “manned” with those who want to preserve their power and own interests democracy will very likely not bring any significant change any time soon. Democracy assumes an educated (minimal) and critical populace, rule of law, and above all honesty in the hearts and minds of the rulers (and a lot more), none are sufficiently present in Pakistan. An “upheaval” may only arrive when the poor have nothing to lose anymore (starving to death), when the poor get desperate (no hope), when they are aware that life does not have to be lived this way (knowledge about the outside world). However, elites are usually clever enough to make sure that this does not happen. Give them food aid or subsidies, give them a paracetamol for a heart attack, or say that is was all God’s will. Unfortunately, likely only a nation wide prolonged natural and/or human disaster that cannot be cured by throwing a handful of peanuts to the poor by the elite or for that matter by the international donor community (which is only contributing to maintaining the status quo) seems to have a chance of bringing some change. If this is too pessimistic let us see whether the next election can bring an enlightened crowd with clean hands and a serious wish to lead Pakistan into the 21th century.


  • wonderer
    Jul 24, 2012 - 9:57AM

    “With the Supreme Court having declared land reforms un-Islamic……….”

    I would like to know what is so un-islamic about land reforms? Will someone please oblige?


  • Jul 24, 2012 - 10:45AM

    Feudal power and influence are gradually fading.

    Over the last two decades, Pakistan has continued to offer much greater upward economic and social mobility to its citizens than neighboring India. Since 1990, Pakistan’s middle class had expanded by 36.5% and India’s by only 12.8%, according to an ADB report on Asia’s rising middle class released in 2010.

    Unfortunately for Pakistan, the size of the middle class was very small when it came into existence, and the country was dominated by a small powerful feudal elite created by the British rulers to sustain their colonial rule. And the urban middle class remained small for decades. The situation has, however, finally begun to change in the the last decade of 1999-2009 with a combination of increasing urbanization and faster economic expansion that fueled significant job creation in the industrial and services sectors to enable middle class growth.


  • yousaf
    Jul 24, 2012 - 1:59PM

    @author::Should have mentioned the pre-Mughal era of the concept of land-holding in the sub-continent


  • tazeen
    Jul 24, 2012 - 3:42PM

    i would like to second the request for clarification of landreforms being declared unislamic


  • Musa
    Jul 24, 2012 - 4:04PM

    If land reforms are to be conducted then, people with multiple houses should loose house, people with multiple cars should loose them, people with multiple factories should loose them. The const grants the right to private property, secondly you ungrateful people Pakistan was made on the lands owned by the landowners. This land has been with us before the mughals and it will remain with us Insha Allah long after you are gone!! We will fight till the death for our land, also this country was created by the same landowners that you now vilify. The Pakistan movement and everything as funded by the landowners so go and get a real perspective on history!!
    the areas under pakistan except for a few main areas were considered ungovernable by the Brittish and hence them giving this to us when we were the rulers before the Brittish arrived. Please stop spreading false propaganda.


  • Rashid Khan
    Jul 24, 2012 - 5:23PM

    Thank you author. Questions for the author:
    1 You present the Mughals as a powerful modern state. I thought the Mughals had limited power outside central areas. What form of land holding existed in those areas ? For example, on the map it looks like FATA is controlled by the Pak state but we know it is not. Just because the Mughals said they ruled a territory doe not mean they really did.
    1. Did’t the old pre-Mughal form of land holding persist in other areas ?
    2. Surely land must have been brought and sold even before British times ?
    3. This is a very important issue. Please present a more deeper analysis of the history of land holdings.
    4. My opinion is that the British were more powerful and they were able to change land holdings patterns more than the Mughals. Am I correct, sir ?


  • l khan
    Jul 24, 2012 - 6:44PM

    Big holdings make economic sense. Look at Zimbwabe where land taken from white farmers and distributed as small holdings made them from an exporter to almost another famine struck country/ AS the economy grows so wiil opportunities and industry alongwith services will do that never small farms,Wake up and discuss what u know not what world bank wants poor countries to do———remain in poverty.


  • Nazir Ahmed
    Jul 24, 2012 - 7:02PM

    @Rashid Khan:

    Good questions. Since the author is doing his reaserch, it would be very educative for most of us if he can give broad picture of ownership of land in present day Pakistan since the times even before Mughals where some record can be found.

    I personally am of the opinion that land belongs to Allah and its control should be with the State who should lease it to the people who want to work on it. That should solve the problem of agricultural workers and ensure food security.


  • Ali
    Jul 25, 2012 - 12:20AM

    @ Wonderer “With the Supreme Court having declared land reforms un-Islamic……….” It is because of a multitude of reasons. Consider this as it is mentioned, how the feudal class of Pakistan has penetrated the legislating brass over here, secondly, this is also a fact that Islam over here again because a lot of our Mullah’s are the representatives of the same class of people, has given the right of holding private property and uncontrolled rate of profit. So basically no matter how you acquire something, is not a problem, you have the right to own it. One more thing, in 1972-74 Bhutto did some land reforms, but later took it back. Because, Peoples party although being created out of a people rebellion, had it’s authority personal consisting of the same class of feudals and industrialist, took back those land reforms. In fact, Bhutto himself warned the peasants and workers, to stop occupying lands and industries.
    @ Yousaf exactly the Asiatic mode should have been mentioned, the beauty of it, the communal system.


  • Raja Islam
    Jul 25, 2012 - 2:28AM

    Islam allows private holding of property including land. In a communist form of government all assets including land are owned by the state and not by individuals. A socialist government limits ownership and redistributes assets including land amongst individuals in order to maintain equality of wealth.

    Islam does not permit taking away private property by force as every individual has the right to own assets.


  • Muhammad Shoaib Akif
    Jul 25, 2012 - 2:29AM

    @ Rashid Khan Mughal had position in the subcontinent but not the power. They ruled through warlords. So, their writ was not there out of Dehli. They did not have a standing army and transport system either. British needed food and men for their army and administration which was provided by martial races of Punjab. That’s why they had to turn the susbsistence farming of pre-Mughal era into a commercial farming through feudal for which they had to do some land reforms in the name of allotments. Since it was and it is still now out of the reach/capacity of common people to have access to agricultural inputs, hence big land holders were prefered over small ones. Before British, land was neither bought nor sold on cash but in kind. Why poverty and food insecurity remains till now here is partly due to lack of genuine land reforms and predominantly due to share of wealth of people and provinces -revenue- in the state’s budget which is very low and that too goes to non-developmental expeditures considerably.


  • Raja Islam
    Jul 25, 2012 - 2:31AM

    @Nazir Ahmed:
    If land belongs to God then what gives the state the right to lease it out as it would not belong to the state. The state is not God. Similarly all food, grain, cattle, lakes, natural resources, etc. also belong to God. Then should it be the state that takes ownership away from individuals and decides who has the right over these assets?

    To me these are asinine arguments and will not take us anywhere.


  • Raja Islam
    Jul 25, 2012 - 2:33AM

    Agree with you. The land reform bogey is raised by the have nots and by the people who don’t want to see the sons of the soil in positions of influence and power and want to usurp the rights of the locals.


  • Muhammad Shoaib Akif
    Jul 25, 2012 - 2:36AM

    Preistly class always acted as parasites in every religion. They don’t work nor do they want others to work but worship. They, being parasites, support parasitic class of capitalists and feudal who, in turn, feed the parasitic priestly class. Thus, vicious cycle goes on and poverty goes up.


  • Rashid Khan
    Jul 25, 2012 - 6:34AM

    @I Khan
    I disagree we need smaller holdings. My understanding is that in many parts of India it has been a huge success. For example, in Punjab and Guajart. More recently Bengal also had a successful land reform. Culturally some of the landowners come from classes that are not interested in agriculture. The Rajputs are an infamous example. British scholars observed Rajputs as being indolent and spend thrift, lacking in any interest or acumen in agriculture. I think the British were correct. In my opinion, the problem is that most feudals culturally see themselves as martial and look down on agriculture. Yes land reform should have done long ago. It is more difficult to do now but that does not mean it should not be done.


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