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Towards sustainable land reforms in Pakistan

Jul 18, 2011

Panos South Asia's publication Leveling the Playing Field: A survey of land reforms in Pakistan examines conflicts over land that continue to engulf Pakistan's society. The book emphasises on creating a system of political justice to settle these conflicts amicably and shape sustainable land reforms.



In its August 10, 1989 majority judgment, the Supreme Court Shariat Appellate Bench declared that the prescription of a maximum ceiling for a landowner’s holding was un-Islamic. It is, therefore, unsurprising that for many decades land reforms have not appeared as a commitment in the electoral manifestos of the mainstream political parties.

In the debates on land in Pakistan, the emphasis has shifted from redistribution to market efficiency. The recent policy consensus has been on the modernisation of land record administration and the need to define laws that can catalyse corporate farming. 

According to this view, reforms involving land should concentrate on lowering the transaction costs associated with the exchange of land. This policy framework’s objective is to enable local and global capital to take “land to scale,” which is seen as an important precondition for higher productivity.

The book Leveling the playing field: A survey of the land reforms in Pakistan shows how the demise of state-led land reforms has been overshadowed by intense conflicts over lands that continue to engulf Pakistani society and polity. These range from conflicts at the most micro-level, encompassing families and localities, to the macro-level involving the state and global capital. 

After remaining beyond the pale of the development discourse for twenty years, land as a solution to poverty is making a comeback, this time ensconced in a World Bank-driven rubric of land markets. Its positive prescription includes digitising land records and streamlining the patwari (local record keeper) institutions, which would simplify things for many of the poor facing protracted legal battles in property disputes

The book indicates ongoing land conflicts, such as women’s struggle to establish their legal rights over land, or the resistance by Baloch citizens to what they consider to be illegitimate expropriation of their land rights by the federal state. 

Pakistan has seen a relative decline in the importance of the crop economy lately but that does not reduce the economic value of land. 

In fact, the process of economic diversification can lead to an escalation of land values as land is brought into more intensive use for physical infrastructure, industrial, commercial and residential purposes. This process appears to be in evidence in Pakistan. 

The returns on land ownership, moreover, are not simply of a straightforward economic nature.  Control over land and its use is leveraged into advantage in broader spheres in the economy and politics.  Despite the declining salience of crop farming and agrarian reform from the policy and political agendas, the ownership and possession of land remains an arena of intense contest.

The big message of the book is that second-generation land reforms remain an unfinished agenda and that they need to be much broader than the agrarian reform agenda. Furthermore, the agenda for second-generation land reforms is, ultimately, not going to be about the legal enforcement of existing rights and economic efficiency, because it is primarily about social and political justice.

It is going to be informed by claims of distributive justice and historic rights of gender, class, caste, kinship, religion and ethnicity etc. This suggests that a framework of political justice is required to amicably settle land conflicts and shape the agenda for sustainable reform.

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