Land reform now

Published in Dawn

About a decade ago, when the PTI was just a single, boycotted seat from Mianwali, Imran Khan’s book hit the stands. In A Personal History, we found him relating deeply to Iqbal, ‘my greatest influence’, and Iqbal’s ideas of khudi or self-reliance.

But self-reliance has always been a deeply political project. As Iqbal wrote to Jinnah in 1937, ‘How is it possible to solve the problem of Muslim poverty? …The whole future of the League depends on the League’s activity to solve this question.’

The poet had answers of his own. ‘The future of Islam in India,’ he said elsewhere, ‘depends on the emancipation of the Muslim peasantry of the Punjab.’

Noted economists like Dr. Pervez Tahir have unearthed similar themes in Iqbal’s texts, from Bang-i-Dara to Armaghan-i-Hijaz. ‘Private property is the source of all evils,’ Iqbal wrote, and called for its joint ownership: land was ‘not the result of the labour of a particular individual or nation but the common gift of nature…’

Granted, Iqbal the revolutionary is not the Iqbal of our textbooks, who tells tales of oceans and eagles. But in the PTI’s 2013 manifesto, those ideas still made the cut. ‘Our poverty reduction strategy will focus on rural land reforms,’ it reads, ‘such that the maximum numbers of rural households own a minimum-specified area of land.’

An election and five years later, however, the party’s 2018 manifesto dropped the plan and any mention of it. Around the same time, the PTI threw open the doors to the same electables it long despised, before rolling into Islamabad.

With nearly half a term down, the IK administration has sidestepped the core cause of our broken system – our refusal to redistribute land. This country can’t be fixed without it.

Consider: right from 1947, the Muslim League’s landlords throttled redistribution. Then came Ayub, who imposed a ridiculously high land ceiling of 500 acres. Zulfi Bhutto’s two tries in the ‘70s dove closer, but went nowhere. Taken together, Ayub and Bhutto’s reforms may have benefited just 0.02% of the eligible population.

The result, one scholar wrote long ago, is that the state is ‘yet to penetrate the rural areas, the agricultural sector has been largely exempt from taxation, and the landed elite control the flow of national and provincial politics.’ When Nawaz Sharif was elected prime minister in 1990, it was the first time a non-landowner landed the top job in over three decades, save Nurul Amin’s stint of two weeks.

Ironically, land reform was buried the same year: in Qazalbash Waqf v. Chief Land Commissioner (PLD 1990 SC 99), the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court ruled there could be no limits on property, and that land ceilings were un-Islamic. In a hard-hitting dissent, Justice Nasim Hasan Shah held otherwise: ‘In the Islamic perspective, man’s freedom to own property is only relative to the needs of society.’ The author of the majority opinion, Mufti Taqi Usmani, was unmoved, and land reform was killed for good.

It’s time now to start over: Pakistan can no longer allow itself to suffer, especially when all the evidence points the other way. In his extensively researched treatise How Asia Works, author Joe Studwell surveys China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and credits the Asian Miracle to land reform in every single country as the primary step: it cures key inequalities, maximizes agricultural output, creates jobs, and redistributes wealth. As even that ode to Thatcherism, The Economist, was forced to admit, ‘For Asia, the path to prosperity starts with land reform.’

Yet our landed class plays down the problem, pointing to the diminishing size of landholdings. This is code for, ‘Don’t come after us; our kids will fritter it away soon.’ But it’s not theirs to keep, the same way it wasn’t our colonizers’ to give. As it is, the majority of rural households continue to own no agricultural land, with landlessness fuelling poverty.

‘Feudalism’, however, is a slur for many of our commentators, who peg it to middle-class rage (a far worse beast, it seems, than the wadera with his private prisons, or the zamindar that sold himself so cheaply to the British). For that reason, this piece uses the f-word nowhere else. It’s not about -isms, as much as it’s about restoring rights.

Like the rest of the world, Pakistan has a pandemic to get through. But the PTI government has to fulfill its promise from seven years ago too: it must join senior Advocate Supreme Court Abid Hassan Minto’s review petition against Qazalbash, table legislation with lower land ceilings, and empower the federal and provincial land commissions.

Our fossilized elite may well object but, as one of our neighbours remarked, revolution isn’t a dinner party. It would be best to give way to the most moderate solution: in land reform lies the very greatest good.

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