DEVELOPMENT: Land issues — IV: What to do for our poorest farmers

Post Source: Daily Times

Syed Mohammad Ali

On-ground research by development agencies has shown that landless and marginal farmers are unable to get land on fixed-leases, as it often requires upfront payments that very poor farmers cannot afford to make Poverty remains a very serious problem for Pakistan as a whole. It is also true that levels of deprivation vary significantly not only across the provinces, but within districts of particular provinces as well. In this article, let us consider the case of Punjab, which, despite being the most populous and prosperous province, has acute poverty concentrated within districts like Bahawalnagar, Bahawalpur, Muzaffargarh and Rajanpur. While I will try to highlight the plight of poor people within these above-mentioned marginalised areas of rural Punjab, this will be done generally enough to enable drawing lessons for other neglected rural areas around Pakistan.

In the poorer districts of Punjab, land distribution remains very unequal. Large tracts of agricultural land are owned by relatively few people, while a majority of the rural poor own very little or no land. Therefore, poverty in all its manifestations — ranging from food insecurity, inadequate health, lack of education, political disempowerment, etc — is still largely correlated with access to land.

It is important to note that land cultivation arrangements have not remained stagnant in the province. Sharecropping patterns in particular have begun to shift drastically in these poorer districts. Sharecropping used to provide poor cultivators access to land owned by large landowners in lieu of a share in the yield produced on this land. It would be simplistic to state that sharecropping was an ideal arrangement. When a poor cultivator has to give away as much as half the produced yield to the owner of the land, it does not seem like a very good deal.

Yet, due to the ineffectiveness of land reforms, sharecropping continued to at least provide an alternative arrangement for those who did not have sufficient land of their own. With the passage of time, sharecropping arrangements have also begun to decline. Findings of the previous Agricultural Census, which was held in 2000, confirmed this fact.

The increasing ability of landowners to use mechanisation to cultivate their own lands, without having to engage in partnerships with smaller farmers, is one cause for the declining trends in sharecropping. The rising cost of hiring managers to supervise sharecropping arrangements, and the tendency of these managers to cheat both sharecroppers and landowners, is another plausible reason.

Whatever has contributed to this trend of declining sharecropping does nonetheless imply that there is now significantly less land available for smaller farmers to cultivate their crops, even on what may have been an unfair cost sharing basis.

Land still seems to be given by landlords on a fixed lease or rent arrangements, but poor farmers find it difficult to secure land in this manner. On-ground research by development agencies has shown that landless and marginal farmers are unable to get land on fixed-leases, as it often requires upfront payments that very poor farmers cannot afford to make. Also, renting land instead of cultivating it under a crop sharing agreement is also a risky proposition for poor farmers, since the landlord has to be paid a fixed amount, no matter what yields are produced, or even if there is a crop failure. When landlords rent or lease land, they are also not obliged to provide loans to smaller farmers for purchasing needed agricultural inputs like seeds or fertiliser. Given that poor farmers have problems gaining access to credit for the timely investment required in these inputs on their own, this is also another big problem.

Such prevailing developments are disturbing as they indicate that landless and marginal farmers within a supposedly affluent province like Punjab are also increasingly unable to gain access to an asset (land) that remains essential for the survival of their households. Lack of access to adequate education and training opportunities, and a dearth of other viable job opportunities around their areas of residence leaves the landless rural masses with little choice but to join the ranks of lowly paid unskilled occupations, such as farm work (khet mazdoori) on daily wages.

Unfortunately, access-to-land problems are likely to worsen further in poorer parts of Punjab as these regions also have the highest rate of population growth. To contend with the implied challenges is not easy.

The preferred strategies of focusing on agricultural productivity and profitability through high-tech interventions, and now increasingly through corporate farming, do not help improve the lives of marginalised cultivators. Conversely, switching to more capital-intensive methods of production invariably results in falling demand for on-farm labour as well as reducing land available for poorer farmers. The results of the Green Revolution provide ample evidence to this effect. Yet, the insistence of introducing new variations of similar top-down approaches have resulted in proposals to begin leasing out large chunks of state-owned uncultivated land to potential investors from foreign countries like the UAE.

The main problem that needs to be addressed in poor districts across Punjab, and also in other agrarian regions of the country, is to devise means that enable poor landless households access to land and to overcome on-ground constraints resulting from concentration of power in the hands of landlords and the marginalisation of poor farmers.

Encouraged by donors like the World Bank, the provincial government has initiated a land record management programme. Modernisation of the land records system so as to prevent their manipulation by patwaris under the influence of large landlords can benefit small and medium sized farmers. However, it is unclear what impact this intervention will actually have on the ground. If land records are merely used to enable easier and more transparent land transactions, without putting in place measures to help the poor secure access to land, it could merely encourage more corporate farming.

Another recently reported proposal from the provincial government to give sizable chunks of forest areas to the educated youth for agricultural purposes is not only prone to land grabbing tendencies, but also controversial from an ecological viewpoint. Moreover, such an intervention will again not do much to help the growing ranks of uneducated, landless cultivators and daily wage agricultural labourers who comprise, perhaps, the most neglected and deprived segments of the agrarian population in Punjab and other provinces.

(To be continued)

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at ali@policy.hu

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