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Biggest hurdle to Pakistan flood recovery: Wealthy landowners

The absence Pakistan’s landowners, who use their money and influence to gain seats in parliament, highlights deep social divisions going back to independence.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent / September 29, 2010

Pakistani soldiers reinforce Toori embankment in Toori, Pakistan, on Aug. 8. Allegations that powerful government officials and landowners used their influence to divert floodwaters away from their property and over the villages and fields of millions of poor citizens have stoked outrage in Pakistan.

Shakil Adil/AP

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Islamabad, Pakistan

Like millions of other farmers across Pakistan, Abdur Razzaq of district Kot Addu lost the majority of his crops and livestock to the floodwaters that swept through the country in August. He estimates his financial loss this year around $3,000 – a huge blow given the poverty in rural Pakistan.

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But his problems are compounded by the $2,000 in rent he owes to his feudal landlord, who, he says, is not inclined to forgive.

“If I ask him to defer payment, I would only have to pay back with greater interest,” he says. Instead, Mr. Razzaq says he will sell his animals at a discount and attempt to start fresh.

Those who refuse to pay – or can't – are forced out of their homes by armed gangs sent by the landlord’s family, and sometimes set upon by dogs.

Razzaq’s dilemma strikes at the heart of a phenomenon that is not only creating a hurdle in the post-flood rehabilitation phase, but has stunted Pakistan’s political and economic development since the country gained independence from Britain in 1947: a deep division between classes, leading to abuse of power.

IN PICTURES: Pakistan floods

According to leading Pakistani historian Mubarak Ali, author of “Feudalism,” the problem lies with Pakistan’s two largest political parties, the ruling Pakistan People’s Party and the Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N), whose representatives in southern Punjab and Sindh province consist almost exclusively of wealthy landowners.

Since the floods hit, Pakistan’s rural landowning class, who use their money and influence to gain seats in parliament, have made headlines for being conspicuously absent from their constituencies in their hour of need, diverting floodwaters to save their own lands, and for failing to disburse aid money entrusted to them to pass on to their communities.

While India managed to largely abolish feudalism, powerful landlords in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh who chose to side with the All Muslim League, the party led by Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, were rewarded by being allowed to keep their land and titles. The situation has remained mostly unchanged, despite nominal attempts at land reform by populist leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s.

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