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Revitalising the land distribution programme

Pakistan has an agrarian economy with agriculture contributing almost 21 per cent to the GDP and employing 44 per cent of the workforce. In a developing country like Pakistan, effective land reforms can play an important role in reducing poverty and empowering the poor, especially farmers and the agricultural class.

After the failure of the previous regimes to implement appropriate land distribution reforms in the country, the Sindh government led by Pakistan Peopleís Party (PPP) in 2008 announced a major programme of land distribution among the poor peasants in the province. The government announced to distribute about 2, 128, 64 acres of land among the poor peasants in Sindh.

Top priority in this scheme was given to the female workers in all districts of Sindh. The programme has been implemented in seventeen districts of Sindh since September 2008, and is also underway in other districts of the province. However, a million dollar question is about the transparency of this programme. Civil society groups have considered the distribution of land among women as a bold and positive step, as it would have a greater impact on the empowerment of women and reduce discrimination against them.  

A research study conducted by a non-government organisation, Participatory Development Initiatives (PDI) on land reform projects of the present Sindh government, is an eye opener for the ruling PPP party which largely got votes from the rural areas of Sindh and thus won the election.

The research study conducted by the PDI raised some issues and pointed out many flaws in the governmentís land distribution programme. According to it, lack of participation of the civil society in the process of land identification, slow process of land distribution among the landless haris, land guarantees without allotment orders, delayed process of the issuance of ownership documents etc, are some major causes that need to be tacked in order to make the land distribution programme more successful.

According to the PDI study, in Thatta and Badin the land distributed among female peasants is affected by salinity. According to the grantees of such lands, they see little possibility in cultivating them, as both the groundwater aquifers and the surface of the land is saline to such an extent that in some cases, there are heaps of salts clearly visible on the landís surface. In Nawabshah and other districts of Central and Upper Sindh, in a number of cases the land distributed among the landless peasants is severely waterlogged.  Similarly, identification and distribution of disputed land also emerged as one of the key issues of the programme.

In some cases, the land identified as state owned to be distributed among the landless peasants proved to be already under litigation, and the information about the litigation came to the limelight when the land was granted to a farmer. Majority of such cases were reported from Thatta district where more land has been distributed compared to other districts of Sindh. Moreover, the serious issues in this regard are the surfacing cases of appeals made against the lands distributed among female peasants. This on the one hand shows weaknesses in the process of land identification, while on the other hand it has created lots of problems for the poor land grantees. It is notable that rather than ensuring the participation of civil society groups and local non government organisations (NGOs) in such matters, and to make land distribution more transparent and accountable at the district level, the government has allotted lands to relatives and political influential persons. In some cases, poor land grantees have received very small portions of the land, as small as one-and-a-half or two acres, while women belonging to influential families have received even more than 15 acres.

The utmost task of the government is to ensure transparency and eradicate political involvement and nepotism in the implementation of the land distribution programme. Similarly, instead of distributing different quantities of land to different land grantees, a single quantity should be decided for all the land grantees in all districts of Sindh. A monitoring committee should be formed immediately by the government for proper distribution of land in the next phase of the land distribution programme.  PDI, in its research study narrated the case of a landless worker who was exited when she was informed in an open Katchari held at Thatta district that she was one of the grantees of government land, but the allotment orders were not issued and she like other grantees was told to collect her order from the Revenue Office. Although she visited the Revenue Office many times but every time she was told that such land was not allotted in her name, and belonged to some other woman. She now feels that the officials sitting in the Revenue Office were bribed to transfer her piece of land to someone else. She has sent many applications to the concerned authorities but nothing has been done so far.

The underprivileged class living in Sindh is suffering due to unequal land distribution and the extensive rural and urban gap in development. The old system of sharecropping with an unawareness to get access to services is alleviating poverty. The situation is further worsened through water shortages during droughts, and other natural calamities. The prevalence of an unequal land distribution system is thus a major cause of poverty, and significantly enhances vulnerability.  It is the need of hour that the government should revise its land grant policy in consultation with the civil society, and come up with a comprehensive plan and strategy to properly implement the land distribution programme.  

There lies a huge responsibility over the sitting government and civil society to make sure that a proper mechanism exists to monitor the land distribution programme, so that the poor farmers can effectively use land for their economic development. In addition to this, these farmers also need to have access to liberal credit subsidies on imported machineries and capital equipments. This is the only way that we can strengthen our agriculture sector and ensure food security for the future generations. In Pakistan, small farmers receive little support in the form of credit, agricultural extension services, appropriate output prices, and easier marketing opportunities. It is clearly the time that the Pakistani government stepped in to institute significant land reforms and extend support to small farmers.

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