A Brief Review of Land Reforms in Pakistan

A Brief Review of Land Reforms in Pakistan


Land signifies different things to different segments of society. Whatever use it may be put to, land is, succinctly, a repository of capital, fertile source of wealth, vehicle of getting into the socio-political mainstream, agency of gaining political leverage, instrument of getting let-in into the corridors of power and means to climbing up the higher rungs of the ladder of societal prestige and status. Besides, it is a hub of agricultural sector and a source of livelihood for millions. Land hosts a varied array of activities. Given the agrarian nature of Pakistani society, not to be hyperbolic, land is the jugular vein of its economy.

Land: the exclusive preserve of a few

The perpetuation of the colonial legacy has had the picture of land ownership in Pakistan very much slant toward the landed and political elites. As per an estimate, nearly four percent of the affluent rural aristocrats monopolize almost half the cultivated land in Pakistan. Since majority of the country’s population lives in the rural areas, its bread and butter mostly hinges on the farming activities. All of the peasants are landless, and to keep their body and soul together they have to till the land of feudal lords, especially absentee landlords who prefer to live a luxurious life in big cities – drawing over half the share of produce as well as rent from the poor serfs. Introducing tangible and effective land reforms has, no doubt, been vital to a country like Pakistan where there are sheer income inequalities, and the gulf between the have-nots and have-lots is ever widening. In a country where over sixty percent of its rural populace starves, the monopolization of more than half the land in a few hands is harrowing, abysmal and tragic. The politicians resort to empty rhetoric that there is a need for reforms in the agriculture sector, but that is only to make headlines in media. Far from it, the state policies are so designed that they sideline and marginalize the poor peasants.

Justifiably, land ownership, up to a reasonable extent, is not exceptionable nor does it entail the state intervention, as from Islamic viewpoint to the contemporary liberal thought, an individual’s right to own property is fully recognized and acknowledged. However, it comes into clash with the canons of law and precepts of morality only when a handful of persons hold such a gigantic tract of land that becomes a source of perpetual exploitation of others, especially the poor.

Landlordism: the colonial remnant

Feudalism is a stumbling block to effecting a dynamic land policy aimed at rationalizing the down-the-line economic segmentation, and land-control by a select few. In the very first place, with the legislative assemblies left as their hostages, these feudal lords vote down if a bill pertaining to land reforms is initiated at all. Secondly, if a piece of legislation successfully makes it in the first phase, they knock down its ‘letter-and-spirit’ execution.

The students of history would attest to the fact that the chief reason for the successful culmination of Pakistan Movement was the switching over of the big landlords of the erstwhile Unionist Party to All India Muslim League as they were apprehensive of the socialistic propensities of the Congress, especially Jawaharlal Nehru.

Notwithstanding that they had always excoriated the Leaguers, they jumped on the bandwagon of the AIML. Their apprehensions did hold true when the feudalism was exterminated ruthlessly soon after independence in India. Pakistan, on the other hand, still has a number of big land-holding families that pay no tax on their agricultural income.

Understandably, by virtue of huge land capital in their hands, they accumulate political capital by coercion, and dominate the seats of power. Needless to say, these Jagirdars were rewarded profusely with big Jagirs by the colonial masters for the services they rendered in consolidation of the imperial domination over the Subcontinent. They played smartly the role of a medium through which the Britain ruled the roost for such long.

These landlords have become a formidable hurdle to developing the infrastructure of the areas they have carved out their fiefdoms in. They virtually resist establishment of schools and hospitals and development of means of communication. People in their respective estates are forced into lives of abject poverty. These Jagirdars are not nice enough to leave a level playing field for landless rivals to contest elections.

East Pakistan: the case of land reforms

East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) took an exemplary lead to throttle the big Jagirdars. The land reforms were executed shortly after the country’s secession from Pakistan. The East Bengal Land Acquisition and Tenancy Act, 1950, abolished rent-receiving interests between tenants cultivating land and the state or landowners, and fixed the ceiling of self-cultivated land at 33 acres. There was a progressive political environment, and what is more, the ruling elite consisted mostly of the urban class. Soon, the landed aristocracy ran totally into the extinction. Needless to say, no member from East Pakistan in the Constituent Assembly of 1954-1956 was a landlord.

Waves of land reforms

The subject of a grave controversy, any discourse on the need for land reforms is whitewashed and is made to look sacrilegious. The land reforms in Pakistan had a chequered history. As stated above, the British felt no need to disturb the status quo as their imperial rule survived on the support of feudal lords. Whatever limited and ineffective measures of reforms were put into the motion straightway, they all dated from the years following independence. However, no such initiative was taken on the western part of the country till the martial law regime of Ayub khan.

The land reforms in Pakistan can be traced to three waves.

1. The First Wave (1959): For around a decade after the publication of the report of the Muslim League Agrarian Reform Committee in 1949, no government was bold enough to adopt the recommendations presented therein. However, upon the installation of the martial law regime in 1958, Ayub Khan set up a Land Reform Commission on October 31, 1958, to suggest a thorough shake-up of the agricultural setup of the country. The reforms known as “Ayub Land Reforms” were carried out under the West Pakistan Land Reforms Regulation 1959. Its salient features included:

(a) None to hold more than 500 acres of irrigated land.
(b) The ownership of the un-irrigated land was fixed at 1000 acres.
(c) Jagirs to be abolished without any compensation.
(d) Additional land in the form of orchards to be owned up to 150 acres.

It also provided for the redistribution of lands amongst the tenants, and others.

2. The Second Wave (1972): The Land Reforms 1972, also called “Bhutto Land Reforms, 1972” constitute the second wave that followed the establishment of Z.A. Bhutto’s democratic government. Regardless of the fact that he himself hailed from an aristocratic background, Bhutto realized the inadequacy of the first wave. By virtue of a martial law regulation, Pakistan Land Reforms Regulation, 1959, was repealed. The new regime sought to secure these objectives: distribution of land anew, discouragement of absentee landlordism, tenancy reforms and application of latest technologies.

Its salient features were:

(a) According to paragraph 8(1), none to be in excess of 150 acres of irrigated land, or 300 of un-irrigated land, or an area equivalent to 15000 PIU (Produce Index Units).
(b) Upon owning a tractor, or having installed a tube-well of at least 10 HP, additional land of 3000 PIU to be possessed.
(c) Land in excess of these limits to be taken without any compensation. The same will be distributed among the tenants.
(d) Land allocated to the tenants not to exceed the subsistence holding.
(e) Landlords to shoulder the expenses of: land revenue, water charges, seed, cesses, etc.

The Sardari system untouched by the previous Ayub regime was wrapped up by Bhutto on April 8, 1976, through the System of Sardari (Abolition) Ordinance. It made illegal for Sardars to receive “Nazranas,” exercise judicial powers, maintain private jails, employ free labour and incarcerate anyone. This was a major move as even Ayub Khan had avoided inviting the wrath of the Baloch Sardars by interfering with the institution of Sardari system.

3. The Third Wave (1977): In the last round, Bhutto regime passed another piece of legislation concerned with the land reforms through an elected parliament on January 5, 1977. It did not go on to overturn the 1972 regulations, but was to operate concurrently with the former. Two chief provisions include:

(a) It curtailed the individual holding of the irrigated land up to 100 acres, and that of the un-irrigated late up to 200 acres.
(b) Agricultural Income Tax to replace the land revenue. The irrigated land of 25 acres or less, and the un-irrigated land of 50 acres or less were exempted from income tax.

The ouster of Bhutto regime marked the demise of these reforms as well.

The subject of land reforms always evokes a tumultuous uproar in Pakistan. What is more interesting in the entire scenario is the religious hue given to it. The land reforms were characterized as utterly un-Islamic – something that raised among the masses a big hullaballoo, as thanks to ignorance, they ran into a religious frenzy. The issue came before the Federal Shariat Court in Qazalbash Waqf vs. Chief Land Commissioner case. The court in its verdict declared the reforms on land as unconstitutional and un-Islamic.

Critical Analysis

1. It is notable here that none of the reforms initiated in the country went any further to create a visible effect; it was only a political gimmick to dupe the masses. From all intents and purposes, no desired change came to the fore.
2. The biggest irony was the very definition of the family. Further, land-holding was fixed on the individual basis, that being the case, every single member of the family could hold the land individually. Even within a family, the living and dead relatives, plus, near and distant ones were included, and that was a big joke. A family consisted of: “Grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, cousins, paternal and maternal uncles, paternal and maternal nephews, and nieces.”
3. Produce-sharing was again discretionary. The poor peasants were left at the mercy of the mighty landlords.
4. The feudal lords found in these reforms opportunity to multiply their wealth. They received hefty compensations even for uncultivable tracts of land.
5. The majority of the powerless tenants were unable to gain the possession of the land in the face of all the mighty landlords.
6. In most cases, land possession reversed back to the original landlords.

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