While the revolutionary rhetoric of the MQM continues, it has not abdicated the parliamentary route to change — not yet, at least. By sponsoring and securing support of other parties in favour of the first-ever resolution against feudalism in parliament on September 3, 2010, the MQM not only acted in accordance with its manifesto, but also the spirit of the Constitution. Article 3 calls for elimination of all forms of exploitation, Article 23 permits acquisition of property subject to being reasonable in public interest and Article 38 (a) envisages equitable adjustment of landlords-tenants rights. The resolution confirms that feudalism is not dead. Another resolution adopted against martial law reaffirms the supremacy of the constitution. The MQM has indicated that the matter will not rest at the passage of the resolution, a land reform bill will be tabled soon. That’s the legitimate way to move forward. Now there are many bills before parliament on various subjects, moved solely to place a different viewpoint on record. There is no hope for these to become acts. It will be rather opportunistic to move the land reform bill in the same manner, and to claim that the feudal majority did not let it go through. Even more self-serving will be the “didn’t we say so” conclusion to justify the supplements to the constitutional path. If the MQM means business, it will have to pursue the bill with due diligence, at a professional as well as a political level.
At the professional level, the bill has to reflect the results of the research here and abroad. The conventional wisdom is that productivity declines as the farm size increases. The counter argument, not well-researched in our case, is that land reforms are a folly and may well lead to a production breakdown. Corporate agriculture is the answer. These are efficiency arguments. The strongest argument for land reforms is the enormous burden of rural poverty, which is clearly associated with the rapidly rising landlessness. The poor need assets to sustain their livelihoods, which in case of rural areas are titles to land.
The constitutional path requires that reasonable compensation be made for the land acquired. In its present state of finances, the government cannot pay up. Nor can the landless poor. The international financial institutions have extended billions of dollars of soft term credits to eradicate rural poverty, with the outcome to reverse of the stated objective. The time has come for a major credit to buy excess land and enable the landless poor to acquire it on easy installments. Asset ownership is likely to reduce poverty faster than all the alternatives tried thus far. Other important issues to be sorted out include the land ceiling on individual or family ownership, consolidation and fragmentation resulting from inheritance laws. Family rather than individual ceiling is preferable, as the latter has been grossly abused in the past efforts of land reform.
While the professional work is necessary to inform a quality draft of the bill, it is not sufficient for its passage. After the eighteenth amendment, opinions differ whether a land reform bill should be tabled in the national assembly or provincial assemblies. Extensive and patient political work will be required to bring all parties on board. The senior partner in the ruling coalition, the PPP, should be convinced that the bill will enable it to fulfill its original mandate. There is every reason to make it an official bill. At the end of the day, the political process must produce an acceptable compromise. This route may be messy and longer, but it is the only route to sustainable social change.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 10th, 2010.