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Land Reforms for Sustainable Democracy
Dr. Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: The Daily Times
Dated: Thursday, July 18, 2002

One of the defining features of democracy is the recognition that all human beings are equal as citizens of the state, just as the basis of feudalism is the perception that the feudal lord is inherently superior to the serf. In a democratic system the fundamental equality of all citizens is guaranteed in the constitution and the practice of law. By contrast, in feudalism the superiority of the feudal lord and the subordination of the serf are built into the structure of the localized state where law and authority are both embodied in the person of the feudal lord. Consequently, any opposition to the feudal is a threat to the basis of feudal power and must be demolished in a way that demonstrates the arbitrary authority of the feudal. Since feudal power is embodied in the individual, its exercise against the opponent has a personalized dimension of humiliation and terror. Examples of this abound in Pakistan. Two recent cases are illustrative: In the political sphere there is the case of Mr. Najam Sethi during the Nawaz Sharif government, when he was physically beaten, dragged from his home and incarcerated because he dared to speak against the policies of the government. In the social sphere the horrendous case of Mukhtaran Bibi in Muzzaffargarh where she was publicly gang raped, is another painful example of the same phenomenon.

One of the fundamental obstacles to building a democratic state in Pakistan is the persistence of feudal economic and political power at the local level, and indeed in the very political culture within which both state and society function. As Pakistan’s experience during the 1990s has shown, the major manifestation of this phenomenon is: Use of the state apparatus by whichever government is in power to bring the opposition under its heel. Conversely the opposition attempts to bring an elected government down by whatever means necessary even if it means involving the army. During Pakistan’s brief interludes of democracy between various periods of military rule, the elected government and opposition tended to get locked into a visceral vendetta, where the existence of one became intolerable for the other. The conduct of those in authority has been as if they were above the law. At a social level there is a perception that the status of the individual is determined by the extent to which he/she can operate above the law. Power in its feudal form therefore means being able to transcend legal authority.

The persistence of such features in the political culture and the functioning of the state tend to erode the internal balance between various institutions of the state on the one hand and between state and society on the other. Consequently, there is a danger that an increasing number of common citizens in society begin to lose confidence in both the viability of laws and the ability of executive authority to implement them. Overtime there is then a tendency of individuals to organize themselves into armed groups, mobilized on the basis of various sub-national identities (whether ethnic, linguistic or regional) which are psychologically proximate to the individual and which can generate an intense emotional charge. Such tendencies were immensely exacerbated during the Zia regime which cultivated sectarian groups as a matter of state policy. The emergence of such groups equipped with weapons, and the apparatus of social control within their domains, tend to progressively fragment the nation and undermine the authority of the state. Such a process if allowed to continue, can lead to a situation where both the nation and the state may begin to disintegrate.

At an economic level the existence of a powerful landed elite is indicated by the fact that 30 percent of total farm area is owned by landowners with ownership holdings above 150 acres, and yet they constitute less than one percent of the total number of landowners. Elements of this landed elite dominate the major political parties, local governments, institutions and markets for credit and agriculture input distribution.

When the ‘Green Revolution’ technology became available in the late 1960s it became possible to substantially accelerate agriculture growth through an elite farmer strategy which concentrated the new inputs on large farms. Now the crucial determinant in yield differences became not the labour input per acre in which small family farms had been at an advantage in earlier decades, but the application of the seed-water-fertilizer package to which the large landlords with their greater financial power had superior access. Thus the ‘Green Revolution’ had made it possible to accelerate agricultural growth without having to bring about any real change in the rural power structure. Today, after almost four decades of the elite farmer strategy, the imperative of land reform is re-emerging, albeit in a more complex form than before. As the large farms approach the maximum yield per acre with the available technology, further growth in agricultural output increasingly depends on raising the yield per acre of small farms and reversing the trend of land degradation brought about by improper agricultural practices.

The small-farm sector whose yield potential remains to be fully utilized, constitutes a substantial part of the agrarian economy. Farms below 25 acres constitute over 80 percent of the total number of farms and over 50 percent of the total farm area. From the viewpoint of raising the yield per acre of small farms (i.e. farms of less than 25 acres) the critical consideration is that almost 50 percent of the total farm area in the small farm sector is tenant operated. Since tenants lose half of any increase in output to the landlord, they lack the incentive to invest in technology which could raise yield per acre. Because of their weak financial and social position they also lack the ability to make such investments. Their ability to invest is further eroded by a nexus of social and economic dependence on the landlord which deprives the tenant of much of his investible surplus.

This problem is further exacerbated by the absence of an efficient land market where productive land can move to the more efficient operator. Flexible and secure tenancy contracts, and a competitive land market which can allow efficient operation of farm land, can only emerge if the extra economic power currently enjoyed by the feudal elite is constrained. Thus the objective of raising yields in the small farm sector is inseparable from removing the institutional constraints to growth arising out of tenancy within feudal power. A land reforms program that gives land to the tiller is therefore an essential first step in providing the small farmers with both the incentive and the ability to raise their yields/acre.

Thus the imperative of land reform today arises not only from the need to accelerate agricultural growth and alleviate rural poverty, but also from the need to build a sustainable democracy. A society based on tolerance, merit and the supremacy of law would require overcoming feudal forms in the conditions of production, in society, and in the very functioning of the State.

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