The neglected landless of Pakistan

The neglected landless

Dr. Zafar Altaf

Pakistan has as much as 44 percent landless in the country and the number is growing because the ability of the agriculture sector to absorb them in gainful employment is limited. Percentage terms create an illusion that is not necessary and, therefore, I will be discussing absolute numbers. The number of landless by provinces would indicate where poverty is rampant and where the numbers are less. But that by itself may not be correct because the number of landless may be indicated as not so severe in Balochistan whereas the fact is that it is the most seriously affected province and the severely handicapped province has been made to suffer even more because the current fight against terror has severely affected the trading possibilities that were present in the province.

I always maintained that Quetta area was and is where success of capitalism is visible. Government officials used to talk of smuggling and I used to talk of free trade. Quetta serves as a prime example of faulty man-made policies, a fetish to try and control every aspect of human life. This attitude emanates from the colonialist era when their colonial masters tyrannised the subcontinent subjects.

Pakistan does not suffer from the caste system hierarchy as India does but the kammis are a lower social subject and has been called that because of the demeaning nature of the work that is carried out by them. They are the nearest to the Dalits of India, though not with the same kind of social smear. The kammis are unskilled and have a major problem in Pakistan’s rural sector, as it is impossible to provide them with meaningful jobs. That is one aspect of poverty and the other aspect is that because of the nature of the job that they are carrying out they are unemployable in any other position in the rural or urban areas. The wages that they take are also barely subsistence and they are in a hand-to-mouth situation because of the debilitating nature of the work that strangles their ability to move up the social scale.

When the village chaks were established n the 19th century the ordering of services was based on some land allocation to the blacksmith, to the wood craftsman (tarkhan) and to other functionaries necessary for the requirements of the villagers. The manner of payment besides the small land holding of two to three acres was to be augmented by the payment in kind to the service provider and not cash, so that a barter economy developed. This barter economy performed well for over a century but then modern communication systems affected the policy then made. The system now is in a flux.

No amount of Western concepts of elasticity will help as the system belies the kind of culture where the elasticity system was developed by the academia in the West. To try and develop a model was then a waste of time though it does give a picture as if those sitting in Islamabad or the donor agencies know everything about the landless and how to fix their employment and income status. What is true for the income aspects is also true for the measuring of poverty. Can they say in urban areas how many calories does an educated individual imbibes every day? That sort of measurement is possible only in the most diet-conscious countries and not in Pakistan. A dollar a day or two dollars a day is equally meaningless in times of galloping and poisonous inflation.

The diversification of sources of income is not possible and Pakistan is struck with the current situation and does not know how to get out of the system that has the stamp of centuries on it. The haris of Sindh may be able to get a handle as the democratic government of that province is providing land to them as permanent assets. If they can hold on to these assets then there is hope for them. The next step would be to take them to a new level of mental living. Assets by themselves are not enough. They have to live their new experiences. One way would be to enable them to make decisions and for that purpose to allow them the right of knowledge through the agriculture services that they deserve. They have suffered enough. Other provinces may have to follow suit. This could work provided the new asset farmer is taken through a year of decision-making in the agriculture sector and I know that the tribal leader in Chagi has already given the tribal lands to his followers.

Very early in the agricultural system I had considered how to fix wages for the rural labour. I was helped by the legal minds of the country and someone who had worked on the urban minimum wages — my father. The two concepts that he gave me were from the legal system — one was creating a legal fiction that is to create a hierarchy of jobs done in the rural areas and the second one was balance of convenience. The two when meshed in tandem gave a surprising result and pronto we had a system of wages that was no longer dependent on the whims of the feudal or the powerful.

The early linkage of the powerful and the lower level is in rapid change. The powerful and the well-to-do are no longer responsible for the rural landless. Pakistan’s statistical system has not measured the limits of landless. The numbers have been culled from various sources. Since these are landless it stands to reason that these are the ones who are very poor for I am not bothered by measuring the poor for that is neither here nor there. I have been following the poverty figures ever since I bought the first World Bank publication in 1977 with the title ‘Assault on World Poverty’ catchy but barren.

Agricultural growth does help the landless find seasonal employment. If that seasonal employment is due better growth the landless tend to have better income. The dissatisfaction is in terms of not being gainfully employed for the entire year. That falls in policy because the non-farm sector has not been developed in the rural areas that the Chinese did with what they called ‘spark technologies’. Why has Pakistan not been able to do this; simply because the economic behaviour of the major players left much to be desired. Over-invoicing and siphoning of funds is their major effort.

The income generation is from the funds that are handed out to the entrepreneurs – these are not normal risk-bearing entrepreneurs rather the economy suffers because of them. Agriculture suffers in another way. Because the landless are not skilled in any discipline the productivity of the land suffers and the major debacle in the farm sector may well be because of this.

Pakistan’s social safety net is poor for it cannot provide for the entire poor and in fact Pakistan, despite the modification of the Zakat system, may not be able to meet the growing demands from the sector. Can the large farmer be induced to become an entrepreneur? In my book, nothing is impossible and I have been able to motivate sardars to take on jobs and to feel for the poor and this present system can be developed in such a way that the farmer, the large one takes on risky ventures. Some will no doubt fail but simplistic capitalist interventions will prove to be successful.

The rural system is in distress and there is nothing that the last government did to ameliorate the lot of the landless. The situation demands that the amount of assets created for the rich be equalled by the same amount of assets to be created for the poor. A handful of people have acquired assets and have created havoc in the otherwise stable system. Is Pakistan in the bubble economy much as the US? Bubbles are of many kinds. Pakistan’s bubble economy cannot handle the shock and will force to beg. The overlords of poverty ran away just when the system was to take into account these activities.

The writer is a former federal secretary