by Najma Sadeque
On the eve of Pakistan’s independence, peasant revolt, building up for many years in the subcontinent, culminated in the then-Pakistan Muslim League promising — in writing — to restore land to the tiller. Despite a few examples of tokenism, it never really happened, and instead, the feudal status quo was retained and further strengthened.
It took 65 years, but scattered formations of peasant and farmer groups finally unified into an organised voice in the form of the National Peasants Coalition of Pakistan (NPCP) last year. They don’t have the kind of money needed to make them more visible, but they had supporters like SCOPE and the International Land Coalition to facilitate a recent face-to-face dialogue for the first time.
This was unusual in that, for a change, rural workers were not responding sheeplike to commit votes for the locally dominant political party. This time, the peasants were posing a public question to all parties: what have you to offer on land reforms and agrarian policy, in return for our vote?
Too many governments have gone by with wild promises and narrow initiatives that didn’t upset the apple cart. Peasant citizens constitute the indispensable majority, yet have no place in parliament — they don’t even have land rights and food security, let alone public services that urbanites take for granted. This time, the peasants took the ball in their court with specific demands, the ultimate question being, are you going to give us land reform or not?
All political parties were invited. The five major ones — the PTI, PML-N, PPP, ANP, and MQM — had the courtesy to come. But by the time they concluded their presentations on their seemingly good intentions, it became very clear how far removed they were from real-life farming and small farmers on the ground. In effect, they were not speaking the same “language”.
The two sides came from totally divergent levels and points of view. The politicians elaborated on further potential for industrial agriculture, essentially long-discredited chemical, mechanical monoculture, notwithstanding the degradation of 80 per cent of soils worldwide, including Pakistan. Their facts and figures referred to estates in the hundreds and thousands of acres. They waxed eloquent on what would have delighted big landlords and agri-businessmen who do not till the earth with their own hands — in terms of investing in superfluous, heavy mechanical equipment and hi-tech instruments, non-reproducing hybrid and genetically modified (GM) seeds, and chemical fertilisers that poison soils and microorganisms to death, creating the vicious circle of intensifying the same process, and carrying to human and animal consumers stomachs.
The peasant representatives, on the other hand, were thinking in terms of acquiring a few acres to call their own — 10 would be preferable; but two could do pretty well too, if organically farmed — along with vital, timely bank credit and marketing services to release them from the mercy of factories that did not pay for delivered produce for months or years, or feudal landlords or middlemen who double as exploitative, undercutting moneylenders.
The exception was the PTI, which was lucky enough to be represented by one of the few organic experts and practitioners in the country, Dr Shahid Zia, but it was not clear whether Imran Khan understood the implications, and whether former minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, one of the country’s biggest landlords, would see eye-to-eye with land reform if he found himself at the relinquishing end.
With retorts from peasant representatives, much of them very outraged and angry, it began to dawn on the politicians that there was another kind of agriculture that historically boasted the autonomous small-scale peasant-entrepreneur, which hijacked and harnessed to make the Industrial Revolution possible, but continued to be overlooked and dismissed by our own successive powers that-be.
But answers and commitments were not forthcoming this time. The parties were uninformed and unprepared. They would have to consult with their party leaders and colleagues. Would they simply go through the standard motions and generalised promises? That could ultimately prove fatal, even if delayed by another five years, since this will be the testing time.
Intensive traditional methods involving staggered and simultaneous multiple-cropping have already been demonstrated in many countries of the world including the industrialised ones, whereby small-scale producers yield up to 10 times more than chemical-GM monoculture. In recent years, organic experiments have pushed the boundaries back further. Highly intensive methods can manage with as little as an eighth of an acre, with or without greenhouses, which has now made urban farming a successful enterprise. Land is no longer a limiting factor, although made to seem so by misleading corporate propaganda for the so-called “Green Revolution” methods.
The growing water shortage, too, can be contained, eliminating the irresponsible waste of 50 per cent of agricultural water through canal-lining and other non-dam storage methods, by dispensing with large-scale chemical monoculture that guzzles three times the water than organic, and through agro-forestry which opens up a huge scope for rural women. This was lost on the ANP representative who seemed not to know the theme and rambled on about the party’s history instead, blowing a fuse and threatening to walk out when asked to come to the point.
The MQM is the only party calling for land reforms, but it remains hard-pressed for cooperation from any leading party, including the PPP which did not support its bill. But it could win future dividends by keeping in mind that urban vegetable, herbs, exotics and flower farming are the future of cities greened for climate control, waste recycling, healthier environments and home-based enterprises in which women especially have natural aptitude and a huge stake — provided land mafioso can be kept at bay to encourage countless self-reliant livelihoods that need no foreign aid.
The Peasant Coalition will also have to fine-tune its demands into a step-by-step doable form, and be more inclusive of women peasants who are the most marginalised of all. The only peasant women present at the dialogue were the images displayed on the banner.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 15th, 2013.