Tenant farmers become unlikely land owners in Pakistan

Post Source: www.thestar.com

By Rick Westhead

 

Zuhra, 50, was given 2.4 hectares two years ago under a land reform program by the Pakistan government

 

 

FAIZ MUHAMMEDBALOCH,PAKISTAN—Though she grew up as a peasant’s daughter, landless and illiterate, Zainab was a dreamer. She hoped one day she would get married, have a son, and perhaps, if the stars aligned, make a pilgrimage to the holy city ofMecca.

Considering her circumstances, that was dreaming big.

There was no way the 46-year-old could have imagined she would join the ranks ofPakistan’s landowners. Yet two years ago, Zainab was given 1.6 hectares of prime farmland in rural Sindh.

“My friends couldn’t believe it,” said Zainab, her gravelly voice filling her modest two-room home.

“They said you are the lucky one.”

Zainab is among 5,729 peasants in the PakistaniprovinceofSindhwho have received a combined 38,445 hectares of farmland over the past two years under a provincial government program. The rulingPakistanPeople’s Party gave away another 37,231 hectares in March.

About 4,500 of those involved in the land grant program so far have been women, and the March allotment was reserved for women only. The only hook, government officials say, is that the new owners can’t sell their land for at least 15 years.

For President Asif Zardari’s party, which has been deluged with criticism in recent months for everything from its poor handling of last summer’s floods to its half-hearted response after a politician was murdered earlier this year by a religious extremist, news of land reform, even in a small corner of the country, is a rare good-news story.

Aid workers praise the program as significant, consideringPakistan’s checkered history when it comes to the equal distribution of land.

While neighbouringIndiapassed a series of land reforms in the early 1950s that saw millions of hectares of valuable rice, wheat and corn fields distributed among itinerate labourers,Pakistan’s feudal lords prevented that from happening in their own country.

Ever since, land-reform promises from numerous Pakistani leaders have fizzled out.

In 1998, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif pledged his government would seize more than 400,000 hectares from feudal lords and give it to peasants. The feudal lords, Sharif said, were being punished for “betraying the nation in favour of the British” during the period of the British Raj.

But Sharif, like other leaders here, failed to follow through on his promise.

Then, just weeks after his wife Benazir Bhutto was murdered in 2007, Zardari instructed the ministry of revenue to begin the land disbursals.

“It hasn’t been without hitches but it’s been a real feather in his cap and something we’d like to see expanded across the country,” said Claire Seaward, an official with the British aid agency Oxfam.

“It’s helping people who otherwise would never get a leg up get into a position to make their own decisions and own something.”

For 50-year-old Zuhra, a woman with striking eyes and strong opinions, the 2.4 hectares she was given two years ago are allowing her to contemplate buying several cows and goats and trading in her thatched straw home for a new cement-walled model.

“This is the first time I know of that a woman is equal to a man,” she said, rubbing her long fingers, calloused and scarred from decades of working the earth.

“I pray to God for blessings and he has given them.”

Before moving to her own land, Zuhra and her family worked for a nearby land baron and were paid one-quarter of what the crops they tended brought in.

Of course, this beingPakistan, the land disbursal program has had its problems.

Last year, 4,000 tenant farmers were supposed to receive land. But only 1,700 did because rich landlords filed legal challenges — claiming there were water access issues or their families had some ancestral tie to the lands. At one point, 40 per cent of the disbursals were delayed by a legal claim, a figure that has since fallen to about 20 per cent.

“This is change we are trying to bring in and not everyone likes it,” said Faisal u Qaily, a revenue ministry official responsible for the program.

“This is a step towards land reform. I can’t claim it’s going to end poverty, but at least it’s the start of something.”

In an audit of the program, a local aid agency wrote there have been complaints of political favoritism in the selection of beneficiaries, as well as inequalities in the lands distributed.

Last year’s devastating flood was another setback.

Zuhra, a mother of five sons and three daughters, borrowed 25,000 rupees to buy rice seed. If the flood hadn’t drowned her land, the rice would have sold for 180,000 rupees — enough to pay for wheat seed for this summer and perhaps a few livestock.

For now, Zuhra and her family are going back to the other skill they know: stitching. They sell brilliant two-metre square blankets to wholesalers for 150 rupees apiece.

“Things are not perfect, but they are okay,” Zuhra said with a grin. “I own land.”

 

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