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Current Affairs

Listen to the Peasants

Listen to the peasants
I.A. Rehman
Published 27/11/2014

DESPITE the din created by power-hungry political gladiators, the country’s peasants have been able to attract public attention over the past several weeks. They have a right to be heard.

There have been demonstrations in a number of towns, especially in Punjab, by peasants against the low prices of cotton, shortage of water, non-availability of relief for those affected by calamities, and denial of cultivators’ right to land. The simultaneous eruption of these protests across a large part of the country amply demonstrates the degree of unrest among the rural have-nots. The causes for that can easily be ascertained.

That agriculture on which over 60pc of the population depends, and in which at least 43.7pc of the labour force is engaged, provides only around 20pc of the GDP, alone is sufficient to offer an idea of the kind of stagnation in the primary sector that Pakistan has been living with.

When the authors of the latest Economic Survey say that “Pakistan agriculture needs a major transformation if it has to significantly contribute towards the improvement of livelihoods of the population as well as macroeconomic welfare and prosperity”, one gets the feeling that the government is not averse to agriculture’s radical reorganisation. There is little evidence on the ground to sustain such hopes.

For one thing, the increase in food insecurity should cause anxiety to anyone in authority whose conscience is not dead. According to the Food Security Analysis 2013, no less than 50.6pc of the population is caloric-energy deficient and the situation in Gilgit-Baltistan, Fata, Balochistan and Sindh is quite serious.
Peasants across the land want the immediate allotment of state land to landless tenants.

At the same time, there is nothing on record to show that the issue of land hunger caused by a skewed land ownership pattern has been solved or it is on the government’s agenda at all. From the peasantry’s point of view, this is the central cause of its poverty and Pakistan’s economic woes.

One part of the peasants’ narrative relates to their years-old struggle for transfer of ownership of land to them, from those who have lost any entitlement to it, and which they have been cultivating for generations. The case of the peasants settled on the so-called military and seed farms in Okara, Khanewal and Multan districts is a classic example of the state’s lack of interest in the peasantry’s real grievances.

Occupying large tracts of land, these tenants have been in a stand-off vis-à-vis the authorities for a decade. During this period, they have not been paying crop-share to the ‘owners’ they do not recognise. As a result, they have been able to harvest good crops and raise their standard of living. Some of their settlements look like model villages — well-planned houses and lanes, schools (for girls, in particular), community centres and water/electricity facilities.

Strangely enough, the government is not interested in charging these hereditary tenants for the irrigation water they use and are willing to pay for. This must be one of the unique instances of the government’s foregoing its revenue without any reason.

The slogan ‘ownership or death’ often reverberates in these settlements but the government does not stop pretending it cannot hear it. Promises have been made by the Punjab chief minister more than once that the tenants’ demands were about to be conceded. He will invite serious problems if the fruitless dilly-dallying is continued any further.

Anyone who sits down with the peasants and tenants will find much food for thought that should be served to the policymakers.

A large number of cultivators are complaining of shortage of water to irrigate their lands. They belong to all parts of the country — Naseerabad in Balochistan, Layyah in Punjab, Hyderabad in Sindh and Dera Ismail Khan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Naseerabad peasants are also complaining of landlords’ seizure of unsettled lands and non-availability of the relief that was promised after the floods.

That poorer peasants are deprived of their share of canal water by their privileged and well-armed neighbours is a common complaint. The aggrieved peasants belong to Rahim Yar Khan and Charsadda.

And what would one say to the peasant from Jampur tehsil of Rajanpur district who is told month after month that the revenue record of his village has been lost?

But one thing on which peasants across the land are unanimous is their demand for land reform and they spell it out in detail — immediate allotment of all state lands to landless tenants, a lowering of the ceiling on land holdings and distribution of the resumed land among tenants, state credit for peasants, relief in taxes and other charges on farm inputs, et al.

These peasants are aware of the bar to land reform raised by the Supreme Court Shariat appellate bench. They are not the peasants one met 20 to 30 years ago, who stopped arguing the moment the verdict of the religious court was thrown at them. Today’s peasantry has thrown up a fairly articulate activist to fight for its rights. He is aware of the religious court’s decision against land reform but refuses to accept its finality. He believes parliament must find a way to re-establish the people’s right to land. And he cites three basic imperatives for land reform.

Firstly, he argues that no genuine democracy can be established in Pakistan without an honest land reform which will reduce inequality not only in the rural sector but also across the board.

Secondly, the national economy will get a boost when a large number of peasants and tenants become free producers of wealth after joining the ranks of owner-cultivators.

And, thirdly, the goal of social equality will be achieved only if the peasantry is freed of social differentiation and discrimination.

This new peasant will not give up without getting his due. He should be listened to because he is offering salvation to the whole community.

Published in Dawn, November 27th , 2014

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