MELBOURNE/LAHORE: Pakistan is presently caught in the midst of devastation on many fronts: floods, terrorism, sectarianism and street vigilantism. Yet there is another issue that is critically important for Pakistan’s stability: land rights, which are rarely given serious thought beyond Pakistan’s borders. If the Pakistani government, with help from the international community and donor agencies, addresses this problem, they could take a strong step forward in reducing further suffering, as well as mitigating the risk of further destabilization within the country.
This link between land rights and conflict is coming to the international community’s attention. A USAID brief issued earlier this year, “Land tenure and property rights in Pakistan”, asserts that the Taliban is keen to garner support amongst the poorer segments of the population who are angry over unequal distribution of land and unfair owner-tenant contracts in rural areas. And a recently released Woodrow Wilson Center report warns of militant forces tapping into the anti-elite sentiments of poor Pakistanis to recruit new suicide bombers and further destabilize the country.
Where governments have failed to introduce land reform, time and again it has led to uprisings and civil war. Rural discontent fuelled the communist overthrows of regimes in Russia, Vietnam and China. And more recent conflicts in Sudan, Nepal, Zimbabwe, El Salvador and Peru further illustrate how discontent over land tenure and ownership can be used to incite ethnic- and class-based violence.
The situation is similar in Pakistan. Militant groups are exploiting deep resentment over glaring inequalities in property ownership rights to gain recruits and secure support for their cause.
Landlessness is an undisputable reason for poverty and hunger in the rural areas of Pakistan. Almost 70 percent of the rural population owns no land, while a minuscule percentage of landowners control large amounts of cultivable land. Under British rule, private property rights were given primarily to landlords in the Indian subcontinent to gain their support, and the laws of post-independence Pakistani governments continued to favor elite landholders, many of whom have become prominent politicians. It is unsurprising, then, that attempts at land reform have been sporadic and ineffectively implemented.
Adding to this disparity is the fact that agricultural subsidies, improved irrigation benefits, access to fertilizers and improved seed varieties have also benefited wealthy farmers in Pakistan disproportionately. The government’s inability to administer justice and provide basic infrastructure for clean drinking water, sanitation, quality education and healthcare result in an even worse standard of living for poor families in rural areas.
A sluggish economy, the energy crisis, ongoing conflict and natural disasters have also eroded the overall food security of the country. Nearly half the population in the country is estimated to be confronting varying levels of hunger, according to a Swiss study earlier this year.
US President Barack Obama’s National Security Strategy, which outlines the current US administration’s overall approach to security matters, claims that hunger can no longer be treated merely as a humanitarian issue, as it is also a direct cause of conflict. USAID and other major donors must therefore reassess how their pledged support to Pakistan can promote efforts that overcome the growing divide between the minority of haves and the majority of have-nots. These organizations should consider focusing more attention on landless farm workers, who work in the fields and raise livestock but have no assets.
The Pakistan government must also recognize that top-heavy models of development have not trickled down to Pakistan’s poorest and most in need.
Although the situation looks dire, there is also an incredible opportunity right now to implement redistributive strategies using incoming international aid to help landless farm workers purchase cultivatable land, and bolster support services like microloan programs that benefit these workers directly. National and international initiatives like these could go a long way in promoting more sustainable development, easing widespread discontent and financial disparities in the country – and helping create a more secure and stable future for Pakistan.
Syed Mohammad Ali is a development practitioner and columnist for The Express Tribune and The Friday Times in Pakistan. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Melbourne University. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).