Demand for agrarian restructuring

Food-secure and decent livelihoods can be attained through land redistribution
By A Ercelan, Karamat Ali and Muhammad Ali Shah

Once too often, clad in sherwani or khakis, fawning provincial elites echo Islamabad’s proclamation: the end of mass poverty in the Indus Basin. Bunkum, rebuffs the last Household Integrated Economic Survey 2010-11 [HIES]. For almost the bottom one-third of rural Sindh population, monthly food expenditure provides less than half of an active adult’s daily requirement even if average nourishment was magically achieved by all. Another one-fourth of population consumed only an additional 600 calories or so.
Protein deficiency is no better and could be worse, even among fisherfolk. Stuck with low catch level because of overfishing led by industrial and commercial fishing, high export-led prices lead perversely to harvesters being unable to afford consumption of own catch, more nutritious than cheaper chicken. It is of no comfort that UAE, EU and ASEAN consumers are deservingly better off, resulting in larger foreign exchange reserves for the state.
The National Nutrition Survey 2011 warns that “Sindh appeared as the poorest and food deprived province: 72pc households were found to be food insecure … and 17pc were food insecure with severe hunger.” If the countrywide differential of rural-urban is present in Sindh then rural households are “more food insecure.” Tragically, “over the past 20 years there has been little change in the prevalence of malnutrition.”
It is of course regional deprivation, as witnessed in the Global Hunger Index 2012 (International Food Policy Research Institute) which places South Asia as worse than the middle among 80 countries, excepting Sri Lanka.
More or less, millions of young and old in rural Sindh suffer from undernourishment and malnutrition. Included are children placed at risk of becoming mentally deprived adults, a criminal negligence by society. It is reckless self-indulgence of a minority in a Pakistan that generated annual income per capita in excess of $1000 (Economic Survey).
Migration to decent urban employment and residence is not feasible for the existing scale of deprived rural population. Nothing but extensive agrarian restructuring embracing land, water and forests will work, enabling people to take care of themselves better. Communitarian arrangements are essential to replace a predatory state and the inherently uncaring market.
Does rural Sindh have a serious capability problem of income and prices (i.e. assets and returns) that deny affordability of nutritional standards to vast numbers? Indeed, yes. HIES reports average monthly food budget of the bottom 30pc as under Rs 1000 per capita. An additional 25pc of the population indicate incremental food expenditure of merely Rs 300 per capita.
In a cruel echo, the Labour Force Survey 2010-11 [LFS] indicates that many of our citizens go hungry because of indecently paid wage labour. Nearly one-third of male employees in rural Sindh were unable to provide more than Rs 5,000 to support a month’s family subsistence. Scandalously for an Islamic Republic, similarly exploitative wages were the lot of over twice as many female workers.
Failure to comply with a decent minimum wage without discrimination remains a terrible blot upon Sindh society. The bottom three-fourth of rural Sindh could claim only half as much in agriculture income. Other sources of income did not improve the inequity. There is a ‘black’ economy, yes. However, one cannot but feel that the numbers of impoverished remain sizable despite incomes that escape, and enrich, official notice.
In fact, official income surveys may seriously underestimate destitution in a population made invisible by self-interested blindness.
As matters stand, land remains a crucial asset for distinguishing the hungry from the obese. Vast numbers in Sindh have no land whatsoever. Many others own too little, alongside the very few who have too much; some of the landless manage to rent land but often do so on terms that deny a decent livelihood.
That is what the Agriculture Census 2011 illustrates. For the nearly 11  million acres reported  as private land    in Sindh, land ownership was restricted to less than one million households, constituting less than half of all counted as agricultural households (livestock and farm).
Among the vast majority excluded, fewer than 300,000 landless households gained access as tenant farms; the vast majority of their farms were less than 5 acres. Such asymmetry in economic power is surely one reason          that most      tenant families can expect   improverishment at best, destitution at worst.
Will matters soon improve through expanding education? Yes, but not soon enough if inclusion in schooling improves at the current pace and the quality of public schooling declines more rapidly. Consider: three-fourth of tenant households     in the  Census          report primary schooling at best, with half of tenant families having no member with any formal education whatsoever.
Undeniable injustice is the fact that wage employment has not been the escape route for malnourishment in rural Sindh. HIES      also does not suggest that   self-employment     could have been a boon for many. Across the bottom    75 percent,    self employment in  non-agriculture  contributed less than 5 percent of total income.
The Census indicates that millions are likely to suffer indignity. Oddly, the higher judiciary in Sindh remains largely absent from forceful application of even national law, let alone  constitution and international commitments.
With an average farm household of nearly 8 persons, landless tenants provide subsistence to well over       2          million persons         in Sindh. Among landless tenant farms of Sindh, around 80 thousand households were found indebted in the Census. Of these, the vast majority were especially vulnerable to accumulating debt being   small tenant farms of less than      7.5     acres. Reflecting an uncaring state, and market greed, almost all indebted tenants were stuck with creditors described as ‘commission agents, friends, and relatives.’
Debt-vulnerable citizens are also likely among poorly paid ‘permanent’ employees, especially those living on the employer’s land. The Census estimates Sindh farms to have over 250,000       employees, which would imply well over 2 million persons   in their families.
Who would deny that the above data reinforce urgent democratic demands for labour and tenancy reforms immediately, and soon thereafter for land redistribution in favour of other landless     and near-landless? A fair basis of redistribution may favour those who are currently occupied in farming but fail to achieve a decent income. If enough land can be wrested from the land-obese then near landless families could also regain their rights to a decent livelihood and, hence, to a life with dignity, for their children if not for themselves.
Our approach to required land begins with that needed to meet a nourishment standard in (daily) calories (as 3000 per adult, used by the Asian Floor Wage Campaign) via average Sindh wheat yield (of 1500 kgs per acre, reported in Agricultural Statistics of Pakistan). A simple alternative is derived from average rural Sindh consumption expenditure (of just over Rs 3000 per month per capita, documented in  HIES), enabling the nourishment standard to be met through average patterns of food and nonfood consumption. Among several reasons for crudity is locational variation in wheat yields. Until disaggregated data is officially available we must use the provincial averages.
Simple arithmetic suggests a range of at least 0.50, and upto 2 acres per adult as land needed for owner farming to achieve a minimal nutritional standard. For a beneficiary family of 4 adults and 4 children where a child needs half as much as an adult, the range would be 3 to 12 acres for this recipient family – or about a third to 1.5 acres per capita. We would like to emphasise the crucial importance of a per person entitlement to protect children as well as women.
Where would the land come from? Obviously, public land is the preferred option. One day soon, we hope, the right to information may achieve full disclosure, even of land granted to the armed forces but diverted to commercial gains.
Let us then look only at private landownership in Sindh. The Census reports less than 5 thousand ownership titles to 150 acres and more with over a million acres. Including less wealthy landowners in the 100-150 acre category adds nearly 5 thousand owners and half a million acres for redistribution targeting.
Suppose, liberally, an average of 10 persons per holding. Rather arbitrarily, let us consider 5 acres per capita as ‘justified’ to remain with such landowning families, or a total of nearly half a million acres. Hence ‘surplus’ could well be over a million acres of cultivable land. This would transform over 2 million landless persons to landowner with around 0.5 acres per capita.
Increasing land size and broadening ownership to other landless households and marginal owners is a wise objective of social justice. This would require land resumption from additional landowners. For example, the 50-100 ownership category can yield a surplus for an additional half a million persons.
More responsive and responsible economy managers would build upon the NREGA scheme in India, offering guaranteed employment at a decent wage for a minimum number of days to all men and women. By securing non-farm income, the land redistribution scheme could then benefit more of the landless with smaller land ownership entitlements.
No land redistribution can achieve its objective unless former landless   receive state support in production. Failure would also result if beneficiaries used land for non-farm enterprise.  A collective arrangement in the form of land held in a  cooperative    would  be the most effective organisation for realizing sustainability with equity. We may refer to this as satisfying the objective of food sovereignty. This goes beyond the neo-liberal goal of food availability through inequity-ridden   markets which result in exports of food as well as land grabs amidst mass hunger.
Renewal of democratic elections for local bodies will strengthen demands for local responsiveness, minimizing irrelevant distractions of provincial elites.
We see no reasons to appreciate federal and provincial policy for special economic zones and similar land grabs to aid corporate investors. Instead, we renew calls for redistribution of natural assets on the basis of fairness and justice.
Indicative numbers have been shared, not as incontrovertible policy action but primarily to suggest issues for extensive public debate on matters of fundamental rights. Many of our rural citizens do depend directly upon urban employment, but we postpone discussion of linkages with land redistribution. Foreign worker remittances could dilute or even break the link of livelihood to land, and hence make agrarian reforms less than urgent. Such income inflows are likely, however, to remain restricted to a tiny minority of small farms in rural Sindh, where currently less than 3,000 report foreign remittances in the         Census.
That our concerns are universal can be defended by the repeated emphasis laid by international analysts such as the UN(RISD) upon redressing inequality to eradicate mass poverty, rejecting those who would prolong suffering for generations. Another illustration is the Social Protection Recommendation ratified by ILO members this year, whose objectives of secure and decent livelihoods can be rapidly attained through land redistribution. Calls for food sovereignty by international activists such as in Via Campesina and Jubilee South underscore our demand for agrarian restructuring.
The writers work for Peoples Movements through PFF and PILER, and would welcome critical comments at