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Asia

Is a new land reform bill in Pakistan doomed to failure?

The Pakistani and international media have written off a land reform bill and yet nobody denies its vital necessity. So where's the catch, asks Arun Chowdhury in this opinion piece.

Does the land belong to those who work it?

Does the land belong to those who work it?

The bill was moved by the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) a party with its power base in Pakistan's southern commercial hub, the troubled and troublesome city of Karachi.

The bill is very clearly targeted at the feudal land-owning system of Pakistan. It aims to effect a redistribution of land, which was the objective of previous land reforms as well, proposed in 1959, 1972 and 1977.

The instrument proposed to achieve this objective has always been the imposition of a ceiling on the amount of agricultural land a person can possess: which has gone down from 500 acres of irrigated land in 1959, to 150 acres in 1972, to 100 acres in 1977. The MQM wants it reduced to just 36 acres - a radical proposal.

All these attempts at land reform have failed, and possibly will continue to fail in a country such as Pakistan since the structures of political power follow closely the age-old feudal structures, in which landholding plays a central role. The overwhelming majority of Pakistan’s parliamentarians come from the landholding class. The army is the biggest landholder in the country.

And there are ways of circumventing constrictive legislation by transferring the title, on paper, to others within the family or the clan. There is the possibility of getting the classification of the land, in terms of arability, changed by pulling the right strings. There is the problem of the indebtedness of the tenant farmers. The lines of power and powerlessness, possession and dispossession merge, submerge and re-emerge. It is not as if the imposition of a ceiling will be able to erase all that.

So why has this land reform bill, which is "doomed to fail", as all the news agencies are trumpeting unisono, suddenly become the talk of the town? It is because radicalization is taking on a different face in every country in South Asia: in Pakistan, it is being called Talibanization. Will the Taliban take up MQM's cry, jump on to that bandwagon? Or will they take the stand of the religious parties of the past, who considered all land reforms to be "un-Islamic"?

Perhaps some experts are right when they suggest that a tenure reform instead of a full-fledged land reform could perhaps be a first, more pragmatic step. After all, the Pakistan People's Party has land reform on its manifesto. Maybe even other mainstream parties will come to understand that, since there is no alternative, they should take the reins in their hands and determine the tempo themselves.

Author: Arun Chowdhury
Editor: Anne Thomas