An acre for every woman . . . and man…

by Najma Sadeque

Published in You! the Women’s Magazine – The News

Hunger can’t wait until politicians emerge from their personal political priorities to attend to their elected duties. It is the denial of land to peasants that has caused most hunger and loss of livelihoods. The floods just made matters worse. You! takes a look…

or over three decades, the matter of land reform has been idling in cold storage. And for the past decade our wealthy, politically powerful landowners, each owning thousands, or hundreds of thousands of acres, have triumphantly treated land reform as a closed subject. Because a controversial Supreme Court judgement determined that it was unIslamic. And yet the judgement was not a unanimous one. The bench consisted of five judges, two of them drawn from the Ulema. The decision was split 3-2 against land reform.

The religious trusts that benefitted from the decision may have been justified since they claimed that the lands in their possession were used exclusively to serve humanity. But governments conveniently applied the judgement not only to the trusts which were mostly urban institutions, but to all agricultural lands, mainly the millions of acres owned by feudal and tribal families and individuals. These lands were used for pure profit by the owners and certainly not for the benefit of humanity.

The tussle began when the Qazlbash Waqf, a charitable endowment, lost much of its lands under the 1997 land reforms of Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The Qazlbash Waqf approached the Shariat benches of the High Court and Supreme Court where almost 70 petitions against land reforms were filed. Arguments continued until a final decision was made in 1990. There was understandably no resistance to it under General Zia’s repressive rule, but disappointingly, the issue was not raised again by the elected democracies of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif either, not even to distinguish between ‘waqf’ property and feudal and agro-business landholdings.

Today, under Pakistan’s devastated conditions and mass hunger, it has become imperative that this judgement be re-examined and revised. Drastically changed circumstances demand solutions to answer pressing problems, not blindly adhere to judgements for their own sake.

The judgement had said that the state has no right to interfere with property that has been dedicated to Allah, or to forcibly acquire it without compensation – ideas derived mainly from Maulana Maudoodi. The dissenting views of Justice Nasim Hasan Shah and Justice Shafi ur Rehman who opined that social welfare and equality in Islam called for land reform so as to end poverty and reform society, were disregarded.

The majority view also contended that Islam has imposed no quantitative ceiling on land ownership or any other commodity as long as it has not been acquired by violating others rights, or by causing others to lose their means of making a legitimate income. This makes the judgement a matter of opinion from a very limited point of view. The fact remains that jagirdari and feudalism – essentially land grabbing – were exacerbated or created by the British colonials, and their ways were hardly democratic or Islamic. They certainly violated the rights of an entire sub-continent. Millions of peasants burdened by crippling taxation and tributes left little to keep body and soul together, and were ultimately driven to landlessness through debt.

The claim that Muslim individuals are allowed to acquire unlimited wealth by legitimate means is equally contentious. In a world of finite resources and growing populations, some cannot be allowed to own unlimited amount of resources – even if acquired by ‘legitimate’ means – as it leaves the others with less and less until there’s nothing adequate left for the majority to survive on. That has already happened globally and in Pakistan.

Finally, the judgement does not sit well with environmental, ecological and agricultural realities, which most likely did not exist when it was made. And makes it all the more reason to take it up anew and revise it keeping in view real human needs and rights as they currently stand. Indeed, suo moto notice needs to be taken for the sake of the hungering masses, especially women and children.

Although the state will never admit it, Pakistan suffers from mass hunger and faces famine at the moment. All one has to do is to weigh minimum wages (or less) earned by the majority against the current prices of food, fuel and utilities. Then one realises that what once fed a family for a month, even if inadequately, could now feed them only for a week or fortnight at the most. So how do they manage? – Simply by eating less and stretching the food. By going to bed hungry every night. And the weakened silently dying off. It is something that the elite and feudal wealthy cannot imagine and cannot be bothered with.

And yet this hunger is totally unnecessary and avoidable. It always has been. While inequitable economic policies, globalisation and WTO have exacerbated global hunger and loss of livelihoods, the basic culprit, especially in Pakistan, has been feudal and tribal concentration of land, and its denial to what should be millions of family farms.

The people are hungry now. They have to eat now. People have a right to food and the land to produce it – something that rulers forget. How can excess, monopolistic land ownership be unIslamic when it causes mass deprivation? Hunger can’t wait until politicians emerge from their personal political priorities to attend to their elected duties. It is the denial of land to peasants that has caused most hunger and loss of livelihoods. The floods just made matters worse…

No matter how advanced or how undeveloped a country is, some essentials remain unchangeably the same for all. Everybody has to eat and food has to be grown. Agriculture is indispensable and no other sector provides more livelihoods or requires more labour – using eco-friendly natural methods. But if all the prime agricultural land of Pakistan – over two-thirds of all farmland – remain concentrated in the hands of feudal and tribal families, they would scarcely benefit society. And it would be better distributed to create tens of millions self-sufficient but surplus-producing family farms.

Especially over the past couple of decades, scores of independent institutions all over the world – especially in the west itself – have been doggedly making practical demonstrations of chemical-free, healthier and renewable output of small-scale farms as compared to capital-intensive, unnecessarily expensive and toxic industrial farming. In other words, the traditional methods used on one or a few acres of family farms, usually the women, not only produce far more – between twice to ten times as much – but also remain the best, providing healthy, nutritious food of the highest order, and are indefinitely renewable. They could produce more than domestic needs; that is, for export too.

After all the faces of starving, desperate and dying people flashed on television, one expected it to have moved the hardest of hearts. It didn’t happen. A government is only as good as the succour it provides to the least of its citizens – whose right is it to receive their share of the country’ resources. This one is not what the women of this country need or deserve.

It’s action time!

In Pakistan, it is the small farmers who meet the entire domestic food needs for citizens, whether they themselves eat well or not; big farmer-businessmen and feudals produce only for industries or exports. In virtually every culture and country, women have been the main food producers for families and communities, and this has not changed for most developing countries including Pakistan where they are paid badly or completely unpaid. Comparatively few women own land, and when they do inherit it, they are compelled to ‘gift’ it to their male relatives.

The present circumstances demand the immediate turning over of land to the tiller to feed the hungry in the process of creating livelihoods, and enable permanent food security. Because women’s concerns by nature turn to fulfilling family needs first, her exclusive ownership and protection against anyone including family from taking it away from her, will elicit maximum productivity.

In cases where the man of the family does not already own land, it would be desirable to give him an acre too, also exclusively owned by him, to forestall any resentment and friction. Besides, as a citizen, he too has a right to land. Male peasants however tend to have an unhelpful attitude towards household food security. Rather than growing mixed vegetables, fruits and grains (that also produce saleable surplus), they prefer to grow a cash crop or two and fulfil household needs from the cash earned. Since he is subject to the whims of the money-lender, middleman, and market, it seldom turns out that way with smallholders. Yet he remains stubborn in his approach until debt forces him to sell his land off to his creditors. With household food security met by the woman, he needs to borrow less if at all, and is in a better bargaining position, and can contribute to a better standard of living for the family.

The present government’s recent scheme of distributing land to women has been unsatisfactory. For the peasant woman, it is not humanly possible to cultivate more than an acre by low-cost or no-cost traditional means, with a little help from family members; half an acre would produce all the food needs for a family of 10-12 children and adults, while the other half would partly left fallow and provide space for livestock, two or four-legged, and still leave some surplus for sale for cash or barter.

Yet landholdings given away were much larger – some as much as over 20 acres – which needs expensive purchased inputs or plenty of hired labour; these may have gone to women, but not necessarily within their control or use. Allowing such land to be saleable after 15 years also defeats the purpose of creating farmer-entrepreneurs as all family farms were once upon a time.

Once they have consolidated their position, women peasants could take inspiration from women farmer’s co-operatives elsewhere in the world. One of the most successful in recent times has been ‘KUDUMBASHREE’, under which a quarter of a million women peasants from all over Kerala, India, have come together to form farming collectives, covering a total of over 62,000 acres. They jointly lease and cultivate land, retain their household needs, and then sell the surplus to the local market, the proceeds of which are equally shared. The only fear is the loss of lease, for which they need to acquire the right to land so that each one acquires a minimum acreage of land from the state whose tenants they can safely remain for life in exchange for a nominal tax, since they are providing a public service. The same needs to be done here.


About denebsumbul

Documentarian, Activist, Journalist, Photographer, Capacity Trainer
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