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.

Shakil Adil/AP
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.

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.

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.

The practice extends up the chain of command in Pakistan's government. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi both hail from large feudal families in southern Punjab and have the added bonus of belonging to families with ancestors who are considered saints in the Sufi Islamic tradition.

Who owns the land?

Pakistan’s Army, the country’s most powerful institution, meanwhile, is unlikely to be the agent of change, says Dr. Ali, because of its own vested interests. “Over the years, the Army has granted large amounts of land to retired generals and brigadiers. So it’s not in anyone’s interest to have any land reform.”

Feudalism, in turn, perpetuates inequality and prevents a genuine representative democracy from taking root, says Ali.

“I always call it feudal democracy because it’s not the people’s democracy, and they are not interested in solving the problems of common people,” he says, highlighting the mismanagement evident during and after the floods.

Despite the fact that agriculture accounts for almost a quarter of Pakistan’s economy, Pakistan's lawmakers have seemingly safeguarded their own interests by ensuring that there is no agricultural income tax.

Still bonded labor

In rural Sindh, where, through a combination of wealth and religious standing, landlord power is most pronounced, thousands of laborers remain in bonded labor for debts accrued by their forefathers, and are confined to their villages to carry out hard labor till their death, according to IA Rehman, secretary-general of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which regularly undertakes missions to have such laborers freed.

“Many peasants [in Sindh] are still standing in water or living in camps, and don’t want to go back to their lands because of the loans they took. They’re not in a position to pay a penny,” says Younis Rahu, secretary general of the leftist Sindh Labour Relief Committee.

If the workers do not return to their fields to cultivate the lands, this might undercut the position of the landlords there, says Ali. But he’s not hopeful.

“The whole local administration is under their control – the police and the bureaucrats. So it’s impossible to have any peasant movement," he says.

“They [the landlords] are brutal towards their peasants, to make them realize that they don’t have any power, and if you disobey they are in the power to punish you and put you in prison. Fear is their tool to dominate their people.”

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