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Farm Ownership and Land Reform

At independence Pakistan was a country with a great many small-scale farms and a small number of very large estates. Distribution of landownership was badly skewed. Less than 1 percent of the farms consisted of more than 25 percent of the total agricultural land. Many owners of large holdings were absentee landlords, contributing little to production but extracting as much as possible from the sharecroppers who farmed the land. At the other extreme, about 65 percent of the farmers held some 15 percent of the farmland in holdings of about two hectares or less. Approximately 50 percent of the farmland was cultivated by tenants, including sharecroppers, most of whom had little security and few rights. An additional large number of landless rural inhabitants worked as agricultural laborers. Farm laborers and many tenants were extremely poor, uneducated, and undernourished, in sharp contrast to the wealth, status, and political power of the landlord elite.

After independence the country's political leaders recognized the need for more equitable ownership of farmland and security of tenancy. In the early 1950s, provincial governments attempted to eliminate some of the absentee landlords or rent collectors, but they had little success in the face of strong opposition. Security of tenancy was also legislated in the provinces, but because of their dependent position, tenant farmers benefited only slightly. In fact, the reforms created an atmosphere of uncertainty in the countryside and intensified the animosity between wealthy landlords and small farmers and sharecroppers.

In January 1959, accepting the recommendations of a special commission on the subject, General Mohammad Ayub Khan's government issued new land reform regulations that aimed to boost agricultural output, promote social justice, and ensure security of tenure (see The Ayub Khan Era , ch. 1). A ceiling of about 200 hectares of irrigated land and 400 hectares of nonirrigated land was placed on individual ownership; compensation was paid to owners for land surrendered. Numerous exemptions, including title transfers to family members, limited the impact of the ceilings. Slightly fewer than 1 million hectares of land were surrendered, of which a little more than 250,000 hectares were sold to about 50,000 tenants. The land reform regulations made no serious attempt to break up large estates or to lessen the power or privileges of the landed elite. However, the measures attempted to provide some security of tenure to tenants, consolidate existing holdings, and prevent fragmentation of farm plots. An average holding of about five hectares was considered necessary for a family's subsistence, and a holding of about twenty to twenty-five hectares was pronounced as a desirable "economic" holding.

In March 1972, the Bhutto government announced further land reform measures, which went into effect in 1973 (see Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and a New Constitutional System , ch. 1). The landownership ceiling was officially lowered to about five hectares of irrigated land and about twelve hectares of nonirrigated land; exceptions were in theory limited to an additional 20 percent of land for owners having tractors and tube wells. The ceiling could also be extended for poor-quality land. Owners of expropriated excess land received no compensation, and beneficiaries were not charged for land distributed. Official statistics showed that by 1977 only about 520,000 hectares had been surrendered, and nearly 285,000 hectares had been redistributed to about 71,000 farmers.

The 1973 measure required landlords to pay all taxes, water charges, seed costs, and one-half of the cost of fertilizer and other inputs. It prohibited eviction of tenants as long as they cultivated the land, and it gave tenants first rights of purchase. Other regulations increased tenants' security of tenure and prescribed lower rent rates than had existed.

In 1977 the Bhutto government further reduced ceilings on private ownership of farmland to about four hectares of irrigated land and about eight hectares of nonirrigated land. In an additional measure, agricultural income became taxable, although small farmers owning ten hectares or fewer--the majority of the farm population--were exempted. The military regime of Zia ul-Haq that ousted Bhutto neglected to implement these later reforms. Governments in the 1980s and early 1990s avoided significant land reform measures, perhaps because they drew much of their support from landowners in the countryside.

Government policies designed to reduce the concentration of landownership had some effect, but their significance was difficult to measure because of limited data. In 1993 the most recent agricultural census was that of 1980, which was used to compare statistics with the agricultural census of 1960. Between 1960 and 1980, the number of farms declined by 17 percent and farms decreased in area by 4 percent, resulting in slightly larger farms. This decline in the number of farms was confined to marginal farms of two hectares or fewer, which in 1980 represented 34 percent of all farms, constituting 7 percent of the farm hectarage. At the other extreme, the number of very large farms of sixty hectares or more was 14,000--both in 1960 and in 1980--although the average size of the biggest farms was smaller in 1980. The number of farms between two and ten hectares increased during this time. Greater use of higher-yielding seeds requiring heavier applications of fertilizers, installations of private tube wells, and mechanization accounted for much of the shift away from very small farms toward mid-sized farms, as owners of the latter undertook cultivation instead of renting out part of their land. Observers believed that this trend had continued in the 1980s and early 1990s.

In early 1994, land reform remained a controversial and complex issue. Large landowners retain their power over small farmers and tenants, especially in the interior of Sindh, which has a feudal agricultural establishment. Tenancy continues on a large-scale: one-third of Pakistan's farmers are tenant farmers, including almost one-half of the farmers in Sindh. Tenant farmers typically give almost 50 percent of what they produce to landlords. Fragmented holdings remain a substantial and widespread problem. Studies indicate that larger farms are usually less productive per hectare or unit of water than smaller ones.

Data as of April 1994

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