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Tied to the land

Pakistan has embarked on poverty reduction strategies that do not include land reform – a thorny issue in a country where most farmland belongs to wealthy landowners.

At 60, Ahmed Khan looks wrinkled beyond his age from a life of poverty, tied to land he ploughs daily from dawn to dusk for a rich landowner who takes two-thirds of the crop.

"My father lived like this, and now my four sons are also bound to the land," said Khan, a poor, illiterate sharecropper in Pakistan, where most farmland is owned by powerful landowners who dominate the politics and economy of this poor South Asian nation.

Throughout Pakistan, millions of sharecroppers like Khan work on land they do not own, giving between half and two-thirds of their crops to landlords. The farms they work on can be modest or vast in scale – some landowners own up to 30,000 hectares of land. Typically, farmers like Khan cultivate five-hectare plots, earning between US$30 to $55 a month in wages and crop shares.

Workers often end up tied to the land, after taking a loan from a landowner and offering to pay it back by working. Sometimes whole families end up in this type of debt bondage, working to pay off a loan on which the interest keeps accumulating.

Debts are also sometimes passed on to the next generation, condemning whole families to a life of servitude, according to international human rights organisations that condemn the practice.

"Since I was a child I don't remember ever having more than a single pair of clothes," said Khan, squatting for a rest in a patch of green next to his wheat fields, his baggy shirt and trousers coloured with earth, and a dirty turban balanced atop a sunburnt forehead.

"I am tired, I want to rest, but I can't because I have to eat and feed my family. Who can change my life?" he despaired.

Khan's predicament is typical in Pakistan, a country of 170 million people that is trapped in poverty in large part because of its skewed land distribution, international institutions like the World Bank and The Asian Development Bank (ADB) say.

In a country where about half the workforce is engaged in agriculture, the key to improving lives is in redistributing land more equitably, independent organisations and observers agree. That would free farmers from virtual bondage and boost productivity in a country which is blessed with arable land, water and the largest irrigation system in the world, but still remains a net importer of food.

"Most empirical evidence indicates that productivity of land on large farms in Pakistan is less than that of small farms," said a 2004 World Bank report, saying that landless farmers produce 20 percent less than farmers who own their own land.

Yields remain low because many landowners are absentee landlords, and without ownership the farmers themselves have little or no access to agricultural credits, the right fertilisers, appropriate technology or marketing know-how.

A 2004 report by the ADB linked poverty "more to social than to economic factors. For example, cultivated land is highly unequally distributed in Pakistan," it said. "Access to land, which is the basic factor of production, is crucial to reduce poverty in rural areas," the report concluded.

"The poverty in rural areas is endemic because feudalism has monopolised the rural economy and dominates the political and social life of the rural people," said Mehnaz Ajmal of Pakistan's independent Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI). "Land reform is a very critical question for any successful poverty reduction strategy."

Off the agenda

But in the corridors of power, where wealthy landowners have exercised influence directly or behind the scenes throughout Pakistan's unstable 59-year history, land reform is kept off the agenda.

When Pakistan's current military government introduced its first full poverty reduction strategy in 2003 – an international prerequisite for World Bank loans and debt relief from the International Monetary Fund – it did not include land reform.

"The development challenges for Pakistan include achieving accelerated and sustained broad-based economic growth particularly in rural areas," said the then Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz in the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), the official document laying out the anti-poverty roadmap.

The World Bank has welcomed Pakistan's anti-poverty strategies, but its 2004 report said, "A more detailed rural development strategy is still needed." It noted that "distribution of land is highly skewed … [and is] a major cause of income inequality in rural Pakistan."

Pakistan's government continues to receive significant loans and grants from international institutions, even though it has failed to tackle what many believe is a root cause of poverty.

The IMF and World Bank have pledged $1 billion in loans to Pakistan, and the latter also committed $500 million in investment projects between 2004 and 2007. The ADB's commitments from 2004 to 2006 have totalled nearly $2 billion.

Earlier this year the World Bank said that preliminary analysis of Pakistan's economic policies suggested "a sizeable reduction in poverty."

Usman Ghani, joint economic adviser at the Finance Ministry, conceded that land reform was a highly political issue. "It is not part of the PRSP because it requires a strong political will, and only the leadership of the country can decide on it," he said.

"The PRSP does mention some important aspects of poverty alleviation, such as health, water and education," said Ghani. "Education, especially, can play an important role in poverty reduction," he added.

Perpetuating poverty and ignorance

Khan, the villager, said he has never dared approach the landowner to ask for anything, like education for his children.

"We can't even imagine sitting down with the personal servants of the landlord to share our hardships. How, then, can we ever even dream of talking to the landlord himself?" added Khan, saying he is enslaved to the land not only by financial debts to his landlord, but because he and his children have no education or skills.

"The feudals are against physical or social development, thinking that if the people under them become more informed, aware or empowered, their own hold over them will diminish," said Ajmal, of the SDPI.

Since it was carved out of India after the end of British colonial rule, Pakistan has had a chequered history of military rule, coups d'état and short-lived civilian governments led by a cross-section of leaders, some of whom did make serious attempts at land reform.

In 1977, President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto set a land ownership ceiling of about four hectares of irrigated land and eight hectares of non-irrigated land. But the measures were stalled because rich landowners, who have always dominated politics and would be the main losers if reforms went ahead, never implemented them seriously.

The current military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has so far failed to act on a promise to abolish feudalism, which he made immediately after seizing power in a bloodless 1999 coup.

Land ownership still remains highly concentrated, with more than half of the arable land in farms of 50 hectares or more. Even now the list of the country's legislators reads like a Who's Who of the large landowners, such as Hamid Nasir Chatta, Malik Allah Yar Khan and Sardar Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari, a former president of Pakistan.

"The big landlords pervade the political system and establishments, so it is very difficult to get rid of the feudal system," said Shahid ur Rehman, a leading Islamabad-based journalist who has written extensively about the overarching influence of the country's richest families in nearly every aspect of the nation's life.

He said that the feudal elite has grown bigger and stronger as the two other powerful pillars that control Pakistan – the military and bureaucracy – have joined the ranks of the landowners by marrying into the feudal families or acquiring land through shady deals inside the government.

The power of the feudal lords over their subjects goes beyond just control of the land, according to the ADB report.

Large landowners or tribal chiefs exercise "considerable control over the decisions, personal and otherwise, of people living in the area of their jurisdiction, as well as over their access to social infrastructure facilities," the report said.

Landowners win elected legislative posts largely by exercising their power over people living on their lands.

But Mehr Khan, a landowner in the Attock district of Pakistan's northern Punjab province, denied that he or his like were responsible for perpetuating poverty.

"There are no big lands or estates any more, and inputs are so expensive that a landlord cannot even maintain large estates," he said. "Earlier, people used to control peasants through their ownership, but it is now very difficult to treat people in the same way. I don't think we are the cause of poverty at any level," he said.

Rehman, the journalist, said that most landowners do not declare their full assets, which are sometimes kept in the names of other family members or under fictitious names.

Irshad Ahmed, a poor landless farmer who has spent his whole life in the village of Kahutra in Attock, does not much care that his labour helps feed the nation or that agriculture accounts for about a quarter of the Gross Domestic Product, and three-quarters of export earnings.

"I know only that I am working for my family's survival, and that if I don't work no one will feed my children, not even the government," said Ahmed, sipping milky tea from a broken cup inside a two-roomed cottage of mud and straw without electricity.

"For generations all we have done is work on land that belonged to others. We have never owned land. It has owned us."

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