Kiran Omar


The issue of land reform has been a contentious and difficult one to address in Pakistan. Since its creation, both democratic and military regimes have failed to address this problem seriously. The Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent has a large rural population, and agriculture is an important part of its economy. Since Partition in 1947, India, which abolished feudal holdings, has managed successfully to diversify and broaden its economic base, and has steadily progressed in developing its industrial sector. Such diversification has eluded Pakistan’s economy, which is still heavily dependant on agriculture as its main economic activity.



As the dust from the 18 February elections settles, and the stale banners and posters flap forlornly in the spring breeze, the fledgling government has many pressing issues that clamor for its attention. Certainly, security and the escalating prices of daily commodities, take precedence over any other national concern. In the very short-term, this must be dealt with urgently. However, our governments have a weakness for focusing on the “here and now”, and neglecting the long-term issues that get pushed onto the back burner where they fester and become contentious.


One such long neglected or rather an issue that has only garnered lip service is the question of equitable distribution of land.


Without taking along those who work the land as equal partners, no democratic system can claim to be a real and viable democracy as it is founded on inequity. Large segments of Pakistan’s rural population consist of tenant farmers, who work the land for mostly absentee landlords, who apportion a lion’s share of the produce. While farmers toil in the harsh sun and extreme climates, the feudal lords are found holidaying in the pleasure spots of Europe. Their lifestyles revolve around the polo grounds and racetracks, casinos and lavish  entertainment, when hundreds and thousands struggle to provide a square meal for their families. It is a common site to see in rural Sindh and Punjab, entire families living under thatched huts, alongside their livestock, where even the basic necessities like electricity, running water and sewerage is absent.  Thus those who create wealth are not proportionate partners in the distribution of that wealth. The absentee landlord often owns large tracts of both cultivable and non-cultivable land. These large land holdings are inherited – many of them granted to their ancestors in lieu of serving British colonial interests — and alliances by marriage are used to further augment them. Entire villages of tenant farmers, artisans and agricultural workers are attached to these holdings, and the landlord is the de facto government in the area, to whom the peasants will turn to seek justice, to secure loans, seek employment, settle disputes, etc. A tightly controlled feudal system is entrenched and thrives unabated, in the rural society of Pakistan.


The issue of land reform has been a contentious and difficult one to address in Pakistan. Since its creation, both democratic and military regimes have failed to address this problem seriously. The Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent has a large rural population, and agriculture is an important part of its economy. Since Partition in 1947, India, which abolished feudal holdings, has managed successfully to diversify and broaden its economic base, and has steadily progressed in developing its industrial sector. Such diversification has eluded Pakistan’s economy, which is still heavily dependant on agriculture as its main economic activity.


At the time of Partition, the parts that became Pakistan were areas of agricultural concentration, specifically Punjab and parts of Sindh that were irrigated by the Indus River and its western tributaries the Ravi, Jehlum and the Chenab. Pakistan inherited a developed irrigation system, and over time, this network has expanded into the largest irrigation system in the world. One would naturally assume that with large acreage of fertile, irrigated and naturally watered land, the country should be well on the way towards self-sufficiency in food. This is far from true, and the neglect that has compiled over the years has resulted in the almost continuous need to import staples to make up the domestic short-falls.


Another factor that Pakistan inherited from the British colonial rule was that the western wing of India that became West Pakistan had been assigned as a “Martial belt” by the British. It is from there they recruited soldiers for their colonial army; soldiers that have created their own example in loyalty to authority. It was thus important that this area be maintained as a low-yielding agriculture area with ownership concentrated in a few hands, where for the farmers the only other alternative was service in the British army, and that too loyal service to their officers, even when they were ordered to fight fellow Indians. Even today, Pakistan continues to feel the aftershocks of this policy.


One major factor in the consistently poor performance by the agricultural sector is the concentration of arable and non-arable land in the hands of a relatively small landed elite. This history of this elite segment of “landed gentry” can be traced back to the time of the Mughal emperors and even before them, when it was commonplace for the ruling class to grant “jagirs” or land holdings in the hundreds of acres to favorite courtiers and sycophants of the court. It was also a traditional method of showing favor and rewarding bravery or loyalty to the crown.


It was a rather efficient arrangement since the newly created landlord or “nawab” was expected in return to raise and maintain an army that the ruler of the time could call upon n times of warfare. This system was not unique to the Sub-Continent; it was a typical medieval arrangement between the ruling classes and their loyalists. This system of land distribution was flourishing in Medieval Europe. There were many levels and grades to the landlord class that was thus created, details of which cannot be addressed at this time. Sufficient to say, that by the time the British colonized India, this system was a well established fact of the political and social landscape.


The British colonial rulers used this existing network of large landowners as intermediaries in their administrative machinery. In order to colonies India, the British selectively annexed and abolished some of the many independent, princely states that comprised India as an aftermath of the fall of the vanquished and much weakened Mughal Empire. The landowning class was however maintained and extended patronage and often new land-ownership was created by the ruling British to reward loyalties and create an illusion of benevolence.


The progeny of these landowners were trained and educated at specially created educational institutions that were designed to breed loyalty and reverence towards the colonial masters. Thus a whole generation of Indian youth was raised that thought and acted along the dictates of policy-makers in far away England. These privileged young scions although resident in India, yet followed the thinking and mores of their colonial masters.


Lord Macaulay famously told the British Parliament in 1836…”It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”


The products of Macaulay’s “reforms” were distant and alienated from the problems faced by the people who worked their lands, and the realities that existed on the ground.


However, since they had access to better education by fact of their wealth and station in life, they were in a position of influence in the political life of India. And of course, they were “like us” for the British, thus to be trusted with power and authority. The Unionist Party created in 1936, by Sir Fazl-e-Husain, a recipient of the much coveted knighthood bestowed by the British on their loyalists, was pivotal to the British rule in the Punjab. It was composed of influential Sikh, Hindu and Muslim landowners who were instrumental in preserving and protecting British interests in the province. At the time of Partition, the Unionist Party had become fractured and many of the former members were the driving force behind Jinnah’s Muslim League, and it was largely due to their support that the Muslim League could negotiate the creation of the federation of Pakistan. Jinnah, being the astute politician that he was, realized that in order to push through the demand for the creation of Pakistan, he had to woo and keep the large landowners committees to the Muslim League, and it may have been one of reasons why the Muslim League never made Land Reforms an important item on their agenda.


In the Congress Party, on the other hand, the members were largely smaller landowners, peasants, and members of the professional middle class, who propelled the Congress to declare the abolishment of the “Zamindari system” as one of their priorities upon coming into power. This made the enactment of decisive land reforms in 1950’s, easier to pass in the legislature and later to implement in a meaningful way.


In Pakistan, any efforts made by the governments, both civil and military to attempt at a more equitable redistribution of land and its produce, has met with stiff resistance. As early as the 1950’s, the more progressive elements in the Muslim League, sought to bring about some reforms, but their efforts were thwarted by the rich and powerful landed classes. Since this class has traditionally had easy access to higher education, it has also been successful to entrench itself in the administrative machinery of any civil or even military government that have been in power. Thus a nexus of alliance that has consistently shared power and privilege and blocked all efforts towards redistribution of land or any attempt at making land reforms a part of public debate.


During the regime of Ayub Khan, a military dictator who seized power through a bloodless coup in 1958, a more deliberate attempt was made at bringing about some reforms. However, the military government failed to do this in any substantial way. It was far too preoccupied with keeping the large landowners happy and thus assured the government their support in perpetuating their rule. As a result, only token and minimal land redistribution was implemented, which resulted in selling off the redistributed land at nominal prices to high ranking military personnel and civil administrators. Also on way, the military generals started helping themselves to large land-holdings as a perk of employment. Thus, another land-owning lobby was created. There was absolutely no attempt to improve the lot of the peasants or the tenant farmers. No credit schemes were put in place and no effort was put into developing any agricultural improvement programmes. This policy was purely in the interest of consolidating the support to the military and their active role in government with the concurrence and cooperation of the civil administrator cadre. This unholy alliance thus forged, has served well to keep the military interested and engaged in civil administrative matters.


The land redistribution created a larger group of mid-level landowners who took advantage of their new position to secure agricultural loans and subsidies that were offered by the government, and effectively crippled or in many cases, wiped out the small land-holding peasant groups. Easy access to agricultural loans and mechanization schemes tolled a death knell for rural migrant workers, who depended on providing manual labor in exchange for produce. Indeed, it was the case of doing favors to themselves at the cost of those who toils allowed them to enjoy life. The shrinking rural labor market and bankrupt small farmers, created a surge of migration to urban areas. This flow continues unchecked, and today we see a burgeoning urban population with a crumbling infrastructure that cannot keep up with the growing needs. A gulf between the privileged landed class and the peasants widened and tensions mounted, resulting in the resounding success of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who capitalized on the marginalization and improvisation of the rural poor, especially in the Punjab. The PPP swept the polls in 1970 by claiming to give voice to the rural poor and promising empowerment through better land redistribution and produce sharing policies. The PPP’s greatest appeal was and still today is the empowerment of the rural poor and the psychological linkage of democracy and creation of a new and better social order. The PPP, however, founded and controlled by the big landowners, was unable to deliver on these promises, and even began to actively attract the large landowners to support the party. The PPP had created an enduring myth of promoting the cause of the poor and the marginalized, specifically the landless rural workers. This aura has successfully propelled the Party as one of the most popular parties with the largest popular following.


The coup by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977 returned the country once again to the same status quo of civilian/military administration. No specific or noteworthy steps were taken to alleviate the deteriorating conditions in the rural areas.

The skewed land distribution system prevalent in Pakistan has spawned multiple problems. As mentioned earlier, the tide of rural/urban migration has accelerated further burdening an already weak and insufficient infrastructure. The country’s urban centers and large cities are not designed to sustain the influx of population from the outlying rural areas. The system of roads, education, sanitation, health-care, etc. is hopelessly inadequate and in most cases, antiquated, to effectively meet the needs of their exploding populations. The stranglehold of the large landowners, prevent any effective measures to be undertaken to provide basic services locally to the rural populations. The issue is further complicated by the fact that these landowners are absentee landlords, and therefore are ideologically and physically absent from the areas under their ownership. The urgency of the issues is not dealt with and it is only at the time of national elections that the landlords will visit their constituencies to woo prospective voters.


The Reagan-funded Afghan campaign against Soviet occupation has added another aspect to the landowners in Baluchistan and NWFP; they have become armed warlords and landlords. This has only created more problems of violence, armed resistance against deprivation, and the urge to grab more power and resources.


The land-owning classes create a culture where access to education and even civic facilities is controlled and denied to lower strata of society. The education available to them is mostly very rudimentary and impractical, and only of a religious nature, provided free by local clerics in mosque schools or madrassas.  Post 9/11 Pakistan is faced with the growing problem of radical militancy in the guise of Islam, the breeding grounds of which are perceived to be these institutions.

These madrassas, offering free education and room and board draw upon a steady flow of recruits from amongst the youth in the rural areas. The young people have no education, no employable skills, live in abject poverty and have no hope of improving their situation in life. The state having largely abandoned its obligation to provide education, these madrassas are an attractive incentive for poor families where at least one child amongst many will get educated, clothed and sheltered for free. In return the indoctrination they receive is purported to be in compliance with Islamic ideology and teachings of the school’s founders.


The World Bank and UNDP estimate (2002 study) that the poverty rate in Pakistan ranges between 28-32%. The incidence of poverty is higher in the rural areas as compared to the cities. It is estimated that 40 million people live below the poverty line and out of these, 30 million live in the rural areas (UNDP 2002; Human Development Report).


A recent study, begun in 2003, and conducted over a 2-yr period, by the John F. Kennedy School of Government of Harvard Univ. looked at educational choices made by Pakistani parents.  The study was co-authored by Dr. Asim Ijaz Khwaja Asst. professor of Public Policy at Harvard, and commissioned by the World Bank. It revealed, among other things, that a large majority of the rural and urban poor, if given a choice, would not send their children to these madrassas. Their dire circumstances and the complete inability of the State to provide them with adequate and effective education, is a major motivation towards enrolling at least one child in the family into a madrassa. The study also revealed a growing awareness of the value that these families saw, in practical education that could lead to their children attaining marketable skills and entering the workforce to improve their economic prospects.

Family units in the rural areas are large and resources available per family are severely constrained. The lack of education and awareness of the importance of population planning has brought Pakistan’s population to almost 170 million (2007 census).


The unfair land distribution is severely limiting the country’s ability to improve agricultural output to support this burgeoning population. Until the tiller of the land is not empowered by ownership, access to credit schemes, improved seeds, better technology and other essential agricultural assistance, per hectare yield will remain low and growth sluggish. The incentive for the farmer is diminished when a large portion of the produce he grows is lifted by the land lord and the farmer receives on a small, inadequate share. The poor farmer is bound in a cycle of poverty and indebtedness to the landowner. Generous tax incentives that have been granted by both military and civil governments, to large and middling landowners, have left the both the rural poor and the struggle urban middle classes frustrated and resentful.


The issue is: Will the newly forming democratically government be brave enough to put land reforms amongst the top issues on its agenda? If Pakistan is to move towards being a progressive, free and democratic country, it must release its rural poor from their unending cycle of poverty and dependence on an outmoded and imbalanced societal structure. The country must move decisively towards establishing a society where resources are more justly and equitably distributed. Those who create wealth must have a share in the wealth. The landed aristocracy neither creates wealth nor shares it, and only perpetuates a system that does not allow the country to move forward in any constructive way. Indeed they do not even allow the “trickle down” effect because a large portion of the money generated by the tillers is spent by these landlords in overseas pleasure spots or acquiring imported symbols of luxury and power. This group successfully controls and blocks any movement towards real democracy and freedom of expression. It prevents any grass-roots movement towards economic prosperity and improvement in the lives of the rural poor.


Although land reforms alone cannot cure the country of all its ills and cannot assure by themselves, economic growth and rural prosperity, they can pave the way towards these goals. By enacting these reforms, the rural poor can have hope for a better future and organize their lives in a dignified and purposeful way. Poverty robs people of their inherent rights of dignity and self-respect. It is important for the state to foster and safeguard these values for the nation to be able to take its due place amongst the nations of the world. A country’s greatest asset is its citizens and the State’s greatest responsibility lies in ensuring that its citizens are able to live in a safe, dignified and free manner. The duty of the citizens is to struggle and clamor to be heard and flight for their due rights as embodied in the Constitution of the land.


The struggle for faint voices to be heard continues, as immortalized in the words of one of Pakistan’s most celebrated poets Faiz Ahmad Faiz.


Excerpts from the English translation; the full text of the poem in Urdu (Roman script) follows this excerpt:


This stained light, this night-bitten dawn

This is not the dawn we yearned for

The night is as oppressive as ever.

The time for the liberation of heart and mind has not come as yet.

Continue your arduous journey.

Press on, the destination is still far away.


SUBHE-AZAADI   by Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Yeh daagh daagh ujaala, yeh shab gazida sahar

Woh intizaar tha jis ka, yeh woh sahar to nahin


Yeh woh sahar to nahin jis ki aarzoo lay kar

Chaley tthey yaar key miljaegi kahin na kahin

Falak kay dasht mein tarron ki akhiri manzil


Kahin to hoga shab-e-sust mauj ka saahil

Kahin to ja key lageyga safina-e-ghum-e-dil.

Suna hai ho bhi chukaa hai firaag-e-zulmat-o-noor

Suna hai ho bhi chukaa hai wasal-e-manzil-o-gaam

Badal chuka hai bahut ahle-dard ka dastoor

Nishat-e-wasl hallal-o-azab-e-hijr haraam

Jigar ki aag, nazar ki umang, dil ki jalan

Kisi pe chaara-e-hijraan ka kuchh asar hi nahin

Kahan se aayee nigar-e-sabah kidhar ko gayee

Abhi chiragh-e-ser-e-rah ko kuchh khabar hi nahin

Abhi garaani-e-shab mein kami nahin aaee

Nijat-e-dida-o-dil ki ghari nahin aaee

Chale chalo ke wo manzil abhi nahin aaee


{Kiran Omar ( lives in Montreal and has been a resource person for CERAS (South Asia Center, Montreal), INSAF Bulletin and other institutions on socio-political developments in Pakistan.)

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