Zamana is a public interest space for learning, reflection, and action on Pakistan.
In its first issue, Zamana delves into the thorny subject of land, tondeuse electrique a batterie, and food rights in Pakistan. The focus is prompted by recent news reports that amidst rising hunger and food crises, the Government of Pakistan plans to give away thousands of acres of farmland to Saudi Arabia and other foreign investors. Zamana invites more commentaries on this issue. Please send your perspective to info @ zamana.org.
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Zamana is a community-oriented space for progressive change in Pakistan. It seeks to provide a platform for learning, reflection, and action, so that as Pakistanis we can become more engaged in shaping the collective future of our country.
While it is currently limited to text-based articles in the English language, Zamana is working towards a multi-lingual forum that will cover critical issues and constructive initiatives in Pakistan through text, audio, image, and video. Apart from occasional special issues - such as the first one on food and land rights - Zamana aims to become an ongoing space for progressive commentaries and campaigns on Pakistan.
We invite Pakistanis from across the spectrum to share their perspectives and initiatives on Zamana. If you are, or can be, a curious and creative artist, blogger, translator, audioproducer or videographer - in any Pakistani language - please get in touch with us at:
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In this issue, we begin to explore some key aspects of food and land insecurity in Pakistan - who has been grabbing land, how have farmers resisted such moves, what have been the causes of food shortages, and how are such shortages discussed problematically in the television media.
The Karachi Press Club is an extraordinary place. Teeming – always – with protest, whether miniscule or formidable, hackneyed or genuine, one of the first things one learns is that the space and the contradictions it embodies can be dispiriting and inspiring in equal measure. So it has proved with one of the more public, memorable campaigns of the past year – the Khaskhelis' struggle for land and justice.
For the best part of four months this year, the pavement that runs along the front wall of the KPC was occupied by landless farmers from Goth Muhammad Issa Khaskheli in Sanghar, Sindh. Numbering a few dozen, they arrived in Karachi wielding a litany of grievances against a local bigwig, Varyaam Faqir, who had been encroaching on the sliver of land on which their village was founded in the 1960s. Prior to his encroachment, the land had been the property of the Sindh Irrigation Department, but had lain vacant before the villagers settled it. A No Objection Certificate (NOC) had been issued by the Department, effectively granting them title.
Varyaam's steady advance on their homes had paralleled his meteoric rise through the economic and political ranks in the district. His story is the stuff of legend. A former goat-herder who used to deliver milk on motorbike, he applied himself to land-grabbing with frightening success. Thanks to a growing army of hangers-on, as well as a burgeoning reputation in Pir Pagara's political fiefdom (the Pakistan Muslim League – Functional), by the time of the Khaskhelis' protest campaign he had succeeded in amassing several thousands of acres of land. In 2003, assisted by pliant local authorities who falsely bore witness to his claim that the Khaskhelis' land was unsettled, Varyaam had his sons registered as the 'owners' of Goth Muhammad Issa Khaskheli.
Four years later, following the villagers' repeated refusal to work the farmland now commanded by Varyaam, some two hundred of Varyaam's henchmen attacked the village. Homes were razed and women beaten in the streets; in total, almost twenty people required medical attention at a distant hospital, including fourteen women and two children. Unbowed, in the 2008 elections, the village doggedly broke rank to vote for the Pakistan's People's Party. It was in the context of these accelerating tensions that a brother of the village's founder, Wali Dad – hearing rumors of a second attack from Varyaam – recommended the tactic of a hunger strike outside the Press Club.
They came to a Karachi still giddy over the restoration of the Chief Justice, in some sense as alive to the importance of protest as it had ever been. And yet, despite the best efforts of a smattering of local journalists and activists, it took tragedy for their hunger-strike to get the attention of the authorities. Some twenty days into their protest, Wali Dad – tormented by threats and phone calls from Varyaam's goons – had a heart attack during morning prayers. He passed away a few hours later. I was with the Khaskhelis that day in the hospital, when the doctor had matter-of-factly told them that his prospects were exceedingly bleak. I remember looking to them, lost for words, expecting my endless despair to mirror their own. But it was they, instead, who were comforting me through tear-filled eyes, reminding me that the struggle had to go on. Resignation – too often the best weapon of the disengaged – was simply not an option.
The Khaskhelis continued to protest, but without much success. Despite a public, written promise that the government would meet the villagers' demands within seven days – which included, now, the registration of an FIR holding Varyaam responsible for Wali Dad's death – the Khaskhelis returned to Goth Muhammad Issa Khaskheli to much fanfare but no avail.
Around a week later, they returned to Karachi. This time, various NGOs, most notably Shirkat Gah and PILER, participated actively in their campaign, providing them with regular food and shelter. Meetings of the Joint Action Committee, a coalition of Karachi NGOs, were called in order to provide political advice. Justice Rashid Rizvi, prominent in the lawyers' movement, offered them pro bono legal help. Meanwhile the Khaskhelis continued to brave threats, the heat, and the willful complicity of the authorities and politicians. Despite the fact that all the major political parties had shamelessly played politics over Wali Dad's body when it had been brought to the Press Club in protest, Karachi's political players – with the important exception of the Labor Party of Pakistan – were entirely absent from the Khaskheli campaign.
It was a single event in early May that turned the tide, one that for me was one of the most enduring memories of the Khaskheli struggle. After repeated postponements of their bail hearing, Varyaam and four accomplices named in the FIR – along with an ominous number of retainers – had gathered in the City Court to hear a young, untested judge decide whether they would be eligible for bail. If not granted, they would be heading to jail. Given the myriad ways in which the establishment had bent to the will of feudals past and present, no one expected much. However, to the complete shock of the dozens of people in attendance, the 33-year old judge presiding over the case ruled in the villagers' favor. Immediately, Varyaam made a run to escape the court’s premises. In a bewildering turn of events – all of which was captured by Geo – both Varyaam and Dr. Hashim, a co-defendant, escaped the premises with the assistance of their henchmen. Though a handful of policemen had made some genuine attempts to grab hold of Varyaam, in the days that followed it became clear that the police establishment had no real interest in pursuing him.
Despite Varyaam's flight, the momentum was now with the Khaskhelis – the fact remained that a man whose clout was formidable and crimes innumerable was now a fugitive from the law. What's more, villagers and friends from Sanghar reported widespread delight in the district, where the video of the scene at the City Court was doing the rounds on cellphones. For the next two months, events slowly but steadily progressed. The villagers organized press conferences, events, and demonstrations to insist that the government deliver on its promise to recognize their right to the village. A compensation cheque for Wali Dad's widow arrived, albeit belatedly. Finally, in early July, came another decisive victory. After the City Court's refusal to grant bail, Varyaam's lawyer had appealed to the Sindh High Court but on July 7th, the High Court upheld the earlier decision. A few days later, Pir Pagara admitted defeat, and conveyed that he was prepared to compromise. On his orders, the Chief Minister signed a summary report that regularized the village.
Three months on, the lessons learned from the Khaskhelis' activism live on, even if the legacy has been more mixed. Reports are emerging that the final compromise reached has not benefited the poorer villagers, who are still waiting for the leading families to make good on as-yet unmet promises. Moreover, the arrangement by which the Joint Action Committee directed the Khaskhelis' tactics in Karachi had also begun to sidetrack much of the villagers' own initiative.
Yet, the Khaskheli campaign still stands as a testament to the possibility and need for collaborative resistance. Particularly as we turn our attention to landlessness and hunger across the country, struggles such as those of the Khaskhelis must gain center stage in our analysis and activism, instead of being erased in the economistic and technical framing that dominates the discourse on “food security”. The very fact that Pakistan's most famous feudal, Pir Pagara, could be bowed by the simple bravery of a few hundred villagers is not something we can afford to forget. Nor the momentous, lingering effect of the lawyers' movement, without which neither the City Court nor the High Court would likely have taken the risks of ruling in the villagers' favor. For those who have been concerned about saving Pakistan, one lesson is clear: many in the grassroots are often already active and struggling, as they cannot afford to comment distantly and cynically at the sorry state of affairs in the country. We need to recognize their struggles and build on them, while – as I learnt from the Khaskheli campaign – being prepared for the complexities and frustrations that the process of progressive politics undoubtedly entails.
Over the last 4 years, the world faced a food crisis of unprecedented proportions. In conjunction with the global financial crisis, Oxfam estimates that the global food crisis has wiped out 30 years of progress in reducing hunger across the world. According to the FAO, 1.02 billion people are going hungry every day (with 840 million people around the world chronically hungry), a number which comes to one-sixth of humanity.
In Pakistan, this crisis manifested itself in a wheat shortage in 2008. The wheat shortage was so severe that the World Bank put it on list of 36 countries that faced a serious food shortage. However, as is the case globally, the problem was not a shortfall in wheat production; in fact, Pakistan had had a bumper wheat crop in 2006-7. The crucial piece of the puzzle here is the complex role played by the World Bank/IMF: Pakistan’s grain reserves were low because these Bretton Woods institutions had pressured the government to sell its wheat on the global market since global wheat prices were at a record high. Consequently, the government exported half a million ton of wheat.
The result, predictably, was a domestic wheat shortage and a concomitant increase in the price of wheat, which went from Rs15 per kg in Jan 2007 to Rs25 per kg in early 2008. Since wheat is the staple food grain, this resulted in near-riots and the deployment of armed troops to supervise the distribution of wheat and flour.
There is thus a close connection between national food security and international policy as promoted by institutions such as the World Bank and World Trade Organization. Such institutional policies have also contributed to poverty and food insecurity in other ways. For example, the rising poverty in the 90s in Pakistan can be traced in large part to the initiation of a new IMF enforced structural adjustment package in 1987-1988. Structural adjustment packages are a bundle of policy measures designed to balance the budget; universally, the first things to go are government expenditures on social sectors such as health and education, as well as welfare provisions such as subsidies for food. Not surprisingly, the results have been quite disastrous, with the most vulnerable sections of the society being the most adversely impacted in direct and indirect ways. In Pakistan, development expenditure went from a high of 9.3% of GDP in 1980-1981, to a little over 3% in 1997-8; by 2000-2001, it had fallen to 2%. Public sector employment is understood, historically, as an anti-poverty measure. Since part of the IMF/WB structural adjustment package is the privatization of key public enterprises such as utilities and transport, structural adjustment in Pakistan has predictably resulted in an increase in unemployment with 43.2% of workers previously employed in public enterprises being laid off by their new employers by the early 1990s. In its latest agreement with the IMF/WB, the GoP has continued this commitment to standard SAP measures.
Internally, the distribution of rural poverty and food insecurity closely reflects land distribution, which is highly unequal in Pakistan and has become more so since the 1980s. Less than half of all rural households (37%) own any agricultural land, while the top 2.5% of households account for over 40% of all land owned. As Akbar Zaidi has noted in his book, Issues in Pakistan’s Economy,
‘In the rural areas, the poor are predominantly sharecroppers. They own the least land, are the smallest landlords, and have not shifted to modern forms of lease contracting. The lack of asset ownership is both a cause of poverty – since assets generate income – as well as a consequence of it – because ownership is the result of past investment. Rural poverty has a very strong link with unequal land ownership and the lack of access to land.’
Research has shown that beyond its income effects, improved land access cheapens the relative price of food for families and, controlling for income, results in better nutritional outcomes, and the multiplier effect of access to land is huge when the linkages between nutrition and educational outcomes is taken into account. Data from China and India shows that China’s relatively more egalitarian land distribution pattern results in better-nourished households than in India. Land access also stabilizes income (which is especially important during economic shocks and downturns) and has a positive effect on investment in children’s education.
A broad-based land reform program is thus critical for reducing rural poverty in Pakistan, and a crucial prerequisite for an improvement in people’s food security. Of course, these land reforms must be substantive in nature – as opposed to the cosmetic ones of the past – and be accompanied by improved access to agricultural inputs as well as the market.
If land reforms have to be undertaken in Pakistan, it is important to note that the military is Pakistan’s biggest land-owner. Issues of skewed patterns of land-ownership, therefore, pertain directly to the Pakistani military’s parasitic relationship to its people. There is another way in which the military is directly connected to people’s food security and wellbeing, and this is through the development and proliferation of a security state. In every budget since independence, Pakistan’s allocations and expenditure on defence has dwarfed that for development. This bloated defence expenditure has diverted money away from investment in other sectors which might directly and indirectly improve the conditions of the poor. We must also focus on the more direct role of the Pakistani military in creating and maintaining conditions of extreme food insecurity today – through military operations in FATA, NWFP and Balochistan. It is worth noting that Dera Bugti – the ancestral village of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, a major Baloch nationalist leader assassinated by the Pakistani army in 2006 – is the district which scores the lowest on food security in all of Pakistan. The development of a genuine democratic federation, defined by a just power and resource sharing agreement, is thus crucial in Pakistan – both from the point of view of its people and for its own viability.
Ultimately, the problem of food insecurity in the contemporary period is not episodic or short-term – it is chronic and structural and must be addressed in those terms. No doubt, food insecurity in Pakistan, as many people highlight, is at some level the result of wastage through inadequate storage, inefficient transportation, deteriorating irrigation systems and inadequate attention to agriculture. However, addressing these issues alone will not be enough to resolve the issue of food insecurity in Pakistan. The underlying structural causes – which have both domestic and international dimensions – must also be acknowledged and addressed.
While the Pakistani government has been organizing road shows in Dubai to shamelessly give away its farmland to foreign clients, the food crisis at home has reached new heights as even the most basic food items have become unaffordable for the vast majority of Pakistanis. The dire state of hunger and poverty of the Pakistani poor became glaringly visible on September 14th 2009, when 19 women were killed in a stampede at a charity event in Karachi where hundreds had gathered to obtain free flour. 25 more were reportedly injured in this terrible incident, which took place in the holy month of Ramadan.
Even more shocking was the way in which this tragedy was discussed by musician-turned-maulana, Junaid Jamshed, in an episode of Aalim Online on Geo TV. Aalim Online is a religious talk show hosted by Aamir Liaquat, the former Minister of State for Religious Affairs. Judging from the callers, the show seems to be especially popular in the poorer and lower-middle class sections of Pakistani society.
Among other things, Aamir Liaquat discussed the stampede incident and his guest Junaid Jamshed – the famed Vital Signs pop singer who is now an Islamic televangelist and owner of a posh clothing chain – came up with a very interesting theory about class differences, hunger, stampede, self-respect and religion.
According to Mr. Junaid Jamshed, it is ok if rich Muslims do not follow religious precepts. But if poor Muslims let go of sacred religious teachings, the whole society would collapse. Junaid Jamshed repeatedly made references to “Ghareeb ka Imaan” (poor people’s faith) and “Ameer ka Imaan” (rich people’s faith), as if different levels of faith and piety have been prescribed for different classes. He went on to say that when poor people embrace the true values of Islam, they are endowed with the gift of self-respect, restraint, and integrity. His theory was that even if people are poor and hungry, they should be patient and cultivate self-respect through following Islamic teachings. This will prevent them from begging, and consequently, they will be saved from the possibility of stampedes. Around minute 16.17 in the video, Junaid Jamshed further said that if poor people just practice restraint and stay hungry for three days, Allah will take the responsibility for providing food for them for one whole year. He goes on to suggest – almost out of anger at the poor, needy masses – that this is an easier and more respectable way to deal with hunger, and it is better to die than to seek charity food to fill stomachs. If all this was not enough, he also added that when poor people beg and go kill themselves in their struggle for food, they also make us – the elite and proper Muslims of Pakistanis – look “zaleel” (disgraced) in the eyes of the world.
This is ironic and wretched beyond belief. A man who probably never had to stay hungry or see his kids hungry and charges Rs. 2000 for a shalwar (loose Pakistani trousers) in his clothing store, is preaching hungry and poor people about self-respect and telling them that they are going against Islam by trying to seek free food. He is completely oblivious to the fact that such self-respect and integrity are luxuries that only the rich can afford, not those who are suffering from chronic poverty and hunger. Imagine what would have been his and his ilk’s reaction had they been suffering from lack of food? I am not sure what I find more offensive when watching him explicate his theory: his obvious, elitist aversion to the poor themselves instead of anger at the conditions that have produced their poverty, or his presumptuous use of Islamic discourse to dismiss the severity of the very real problems of hunger faced by the country’s masses.
Not only did Junaid Jamshed blame the victims of the stampede for their eventual death, he was also annoyed at the beggars who knock on his car windows for alms and blamed them for making the likes of him more indifferent to their plight through such constant haranguing. While I too wish I did not have to face beggars, one has to mobilize to do something about the poverty and structural injustices that are producing the problem of begging and hunger, instead of talking about the poor and needy with disgust and blaming them for making our elite lives oh so uncomfortable.
According to the World Food Program, 24 per cent of the population of Pakistan is under-nourished and 38 per cent of Pakistani children under the age of five are under weight. It calls the state of hunger in Pakistan “alarming.” Should we debate and organize to address this problem, by discussing for example issues of access to land, livelihood, and food, or should we take the Islamic advice of Junaid Jamshed to heart, and just sit around in self-restraint, allowing the situation of hunger to exacerbate further?
Recent reports about the government’s plan to allot thousands of acres of land to foreign countries and private corporations are alarming to say the least. The proponents of the plan argue that this agricultural outsourcing will attract foreign investment, helping the country to reduce its debts while generating greater productivity and rural employment. However, there is little evidence that this plan will offer any major advantages to the rural poor. Far from benefiting the poor, in fact, one is concerned that peasants may be displaced from their lands to ensure access to foreigners. Moreover, if the land that will be given away is indeed lying “idle” as some reports have claimed, why not distribute it amongst landless farmers to ensure their food security instead of privileging the needs of foreign countries? Giving large chunks of land to other states that want to secure food availability for their population goes against the very logic of sustainable local and national development, especially in times of severe food crises that Pakistan is currently facing.
Given the history of exploitative work conditions in Saudi Arabia and Gulf states, it is very likely that the new corporate farms will function like colonial plantations. According to wikipedia, “a plantation is a large farm or estate, usually in a tropical or subtropical country, where crops are grown for sale in distant markets, rather than for local consumption.” Colonial planters, like today’s advocates for corporate farming, saw themselves as investors and innovators of commercial agriculture. The history of plantations in South America, Asia and the Caribbean tells us that far from eradicating poverty, this kind of intensive transnational agriculture accelerates dependency while weakening food sovereignty among the poorer nations.
In Pakistan, there has already been a radical neglect of important livelihood issues as he country has increasingly became embroiled in a series of security crises. A lot more ink has been spilled on explaining the proliferation of religious and sectarian violence, than on the effects of economic factors in feeding these movements. Missing in these analyses is a discussion of enduring forms of structural violence that lie in extreme disparities of wealth, diminishing protections for vulnerable populations like peasant farmers, the mass movement of rural workers to urban slums, and the increasingly precarious access to food. Far from serving the poor, the state has often resorted to a militarized response in order to suppress poor peoples’ struggles for land and sustenance. This is all the more reason for us to suspect the government’s claims of “rural investment” as a justification for its proposal to lease land to foreign investors.
At the military farms in Okara, for example, tenant farmers have been struggling to retain access to the land that they have been tiling for almost a century. Since 2000, the farmers have been defying the military’s edict to impose a new tenancy system of contract farming. They have refused to sign onto a cash tenancy system because it does not guarantee secure, long-term access to the land. In fact, the contract system will make them more vulnerable to evictions. During the course of their struggle, the mazarin (landless peasants) have discovered that the military farmlands are actually owned by the Punjab Government, as the military’s official lease expired long before the creation of Pakistan.
The tenant farmers see the new contract system as a threat to their subsistence and food security. I recall talking to Nazeer Bola, a tenant farmer, about what gave the tenant farmers the will to defy the military in 2003. He simply answered, “We knew that as soon as we accept this contract system, we will be thrown out of these lands. We can accept death but we don’t accept this contract system.” Nazeer gave the example of the slum-dwellers of Karachi to illustrate what life would be like for the mazareen if they lost their rights over their lands. He argued that in contrast with the extreme poverty in the cities, even the poorest group in the village (like the lower caste kammis) had a marla (a small plot) where they could grow enough food to survive, whereas being destitute in the city meant having no place to sleep and no land to grow one’s food.
Instead of giving away land to serve other people’s food needs, the government needs to provide greater support for farmers like Nazeer Bola by ensuring their access to land, as well as by facilitating policies such as farmer cooperatives that can hold distributors accountable and collectively promote the interests of rural families.