The Senate Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting should be thanked for reminding the political leadership that this country’s problems go far deeper than the issue of corruption that continues to dominate the national political discourse. Last week, the Committee invited veteran lawyer Abid Hassan Minto to brief it on his petition to the Supreme Court of Pakistan seeking dismissal of a Federal Shariat Court (FSC) ruling from 1989 that had declared agricultural land reforms as un-Islamic.
Since provinces regulate matters pertaining to land revenue following 18th constitutional amendment — the Committee rightly urged them to support efforts for a new law to initiate agricultural land reforms, notwithstanding the FSC decision.
One hopes that the provinces will consider the suggestion based on socio-economic merits of land reforms.
There are arguments both pro- and anti- reforms insofar as the latter’s impact on economic growth is concerned. The provincial legislators would do well to invite experts to weigh in on both sets of arguments before reaching a conclusion on the economic impact of proposed reforms.
Regardless, there is considerable empirical evidence from other developing countries where redistribution of agricultural land had been effective in poverty reduction, particularly among disadvantaged groups like women, as well as religious and ethnic minorities.
Reforms may be warranted also in view of the highly skewed pattern of land ownership in the country. The latest agricultural census of Pakistan in 2010 showed that 40 percent of farms in the country were reportedly owned by just four percent of farmers. In contrast, an overwhelming 90 percent of farmers owned less than 44 percent of farms. Calls for land reforms had once been a regular feature of Pakistani political discourse – spearheaded by a motley group of left-of-centre student groups, political parties, peasants and trade union bodies. But lately, socio-economic concerns of the vast majority of the Pakistani population that is connected to the agricultural sector of the economy seem to have disappeared amid power plays among various state institutions in federal and provincial capitals.
Apart from socio-economic arguments that, nonetheless, should have the final say in the debate on land reforms, provincial legislators should also bear in mind that the 1989 FSC judgement was a three-two split. The verdict holding land reforms as un-Islamic was neither unanimous nor should it be seen as defining a religious principle frozen in time. Debate on land reforms from within Islamic jurisprudential tradition is still possible, and in fact some scholars have referred to the need for recognising land as a trust, rather than as a commodity to be owned privately. Seen this way, use of land for agricultural purposes could be dictated by public rather than private interests.
Also noteworthy is the fact that the FSC remains a controversial body insofar as it was constituted in 1980 by a military dictatorship known for its misusing religion for political purposes. That the fate of millions of Pakistani men and women associated with the agricultural sector hinges on a decision of such a body is lamentable. *
Published in Daily Times, June 20th, 2017.