Shahid Hussain Raja
reforms and the imposition of tax on income derived from
agriculture, which is presently exempt in the majority of
countries like Pakistan, are two issues that attract a lot
of attention in the print media, particularly at the time of
While supporting the
imposition of agricultural income tax on equity grounds.
I have certain
reservations about land reforms, which advocates of these
reforms unfortunately confuse with a related but distinct
issue of agrarian reforms.
Land reforms are
essentially carried out to distribute lands.
The state’s as well as those
confiscated from large estate holders, to landless farmers
along with some changes in the tenurial relations.
Agrarian reforms, on the
other hand, are meant to transform the entire socio-economic
landscape of the rural areas of a country by introducing
fundamental structural and institutional changes in the
political economy of the agriculture sector.
While agrarian reforms are
the need of the day, the time for land reforms has gone
forever in the face of several socio-economic-cum-political
realities and sheer technological imperatives.
Who can deny the need for agrarian reforms to improve the
quality of the lives of the farmers by providing them a
better legal and regulatory framework for sale and purchase
of land, empowering the marginalised sections of rural
society, mainstreaming of gender, improving rural
infrastructure, altering production relations by promoting
cooperative and contract farming, rationalising the role of
the middlemen etc?
Frankly, all these are issues
of improving governance in rural areas and are not related
to land reforms as such. However, it is equating the
all-encompassing concept of agrarian reforms with a narrower
concept of land reforms by some people that creates
confusion at the conceptual and practical levels.
Historically, land reforms have been carried out at the
initial stages of the development process when agriculture
is contributing more than half of the GDP of a country as it
used to in Pakistan until the 1960s.
Now it contributes to around
20 percent of the GDP and is not a dominant source of wealth
notwithstanding its overall economic importance.
India did carry out, albeit at a limited scale, land reforms
in its part of Punjab primarily to accommodate the Sikh
migrants from Pakistan in the wake of Partition.
The time to do so in Pakistan
was in the 1950s and 1960s when it started its planned
development. Land reforms could have been made a part of the
overall planning process to carry out the needed
socio-economic restructuring of Pakistan.
However, we missed the bus
due to the nature of our political economy. Efforts made by
the Ayub regime in this respect suffered from design flaws
and implementation inadequacies.
The same happened to those
carried out by Bhutto for the same reasons. While the
decision of the appellate bench of the Shariah Court has
sealed their fate, the technological imperatives now demand
quite the opposite.
Pakistan needs to push its technological frontier in the
agriculture sector to enhance its productivity, not only to
improve the quality of life of those in the rural areas of
Pakistan but also of other citizens by ensuring their food
security on the one hand and increasing the pace of its
industrial sector, for which agriculture provides the raw
material and much needed market, on the other.
Both need an efficient,
productive and profitable agriculture sector whose growth is
sustainable and outputs are competitive. This is possible
only if we increase the pace of farm mechanisation and
technological innovation in all the agricultural operations.
In order to introduce technology at a commercial scale, the
size of the farms is the basic condition.
If we redistribute lands and
each farmer gets a parcel of land on which a tractor is not
even economical, how we can increase our productivity?
Land reforms for the sake of land reforms or social justice
are not a practical public policy option.
Granted we can distribute
state lands free of charge to the landless tenants and which
every successive regime in Pakistan has been doing, we
cannot redistribute private lands, confiscated or purchased,
to landless farmers on moral grounds or as a sound economic
On what grounds can you confiscate the personal property of
someone? If this is acceptable on the basis of social
justice, then it should also apply to all the other sectors
of the society without discrimination.
Does the authority dare touch
the property of tycoons, industrial magnates and the
commercial Mafiosi? Purchasing land from the big landlords
at market price and then redistributing it to the landless
farmers is a non-starter, not possible to carry out by a
financially bankrupt state.
Agricultural transformation demands restructuring – not
merely fine tuning – the political economy of the rural
areas that are an integral subset of the overall economic
structure of Pakistan.
In this connection, I will
draw the attention of the learned advocates of land reforms
to some pressing issues needing greater attention of the
government and the advocacy groups.
First, there is a dire need of improving the agricultural
terms of trade so that robbing the peasants of their
rightful share, as has been going on for the last six
decades, can be reversed.
There is a need to
rationalise the input and output prices and ensure that the
farmers get fair returns for their efforts by improving the
marketing infrastructure which at present squeezes the
farmers and fleeces the consumers.
Second, we need to enhance the productivity of the
agricultural sector at the micro and macro levels by
increasing efficiency in all agricultural operations through
public, as well as private, sector investment in R&D,
extension services, rural infrastructure, marketing, value
addition etc. Unfortunately, the flow of investment funds
towards agriculture, which has recently picked up, is still
far below the desired levels.
Third, we need to make agricultural produce competitive in
the rapidly globalising world by reducing cost of
production, improving its quality and meeting global food
Here advocacy groups can make
a substantial contribution by raising the awareness for
enforcing stricter food safety standards.
Fourth, there is urgent need to take adaptive and mitigating
measures to ensure sustainability of the agriculture sector
in the face of looming threat of climate change by promoting
environment-friendly good agricultural practices through
creating awareness and promulgating a legal/regulatory
framework with adequate incentives and rewards.
Last but not the least is saving valuable arable land from
its conversion at alarming rates by the property developers
and industrial concerns through pressure on the government
to formulate a comprehensive land use policy.
All the above-mentioned challenges can be tackled only by
treating agriculture as a pivot for bringing the needed
productivity increase by promoting farm mechanisation to
reap efficiency gains, encouraging commercial farming
through an appropriate legal/regulatory framework,
modernising its marketing channels to ensure fair returns to
the farmers and investing in R&D, extension and rural
However, it needs to be emphasised that the gains from this
enhanced productivity be made available to all stakeholders
without distinction. Urban areas need good public goods and
services but so do we.
Visit any village of Sindh or
Balochistan, even southern Punjab and see the deplorable
conditions of the roads, schools, hospitals and you will
realise the gravity of the situation. Yes, we do need
reforms – agrarian, not land.