Recently I read some thing calling for land reform in Pakistan. Land reform is important, but leftists need to be clear on the parameters and forms of land reform necessary. Here are some tentative thoughts.
It’s not enough to break up large landholdings and to distribute them amongst small farmers.
For many small farmers who already have possession of land, they lack the capital (that is, money) required to invest in the land to make it intensively productive. They cannot afford fertilizers, pesticides, appropriate seeds, and other forms of inputs needed to make things work out.
Additionally, some kinds of capital, especially machinery, requires extensive (not just intensive) farming. The smallholding patterns, with individual households making individual decisions about crop growth and consumption/sale, will and does get in the way of potential for larger scale farming.
There are also other problems in terms of a lack of return on whatever investment is taking place. Inputs are expensive, and prices for outputs are very low — farmers do not set their own prices, of course. This can result in marginal or even non-existent profit rates.
Due to the lack of capital and lack of return on investment, many agricultural families already have a foot in non-agrarian activities and are looking aggressively to expand that. Additionally, as smallholdings get divided among successive generations through inheritance, the agricultural value of land is replaced by its real estate value.
What this means is that the slogan of “land reforms” is not enough — the Urdu term, zarai islahat, or agrarian reform, is actually far better a call. Agrarian reform would have to look at the whole sets of relationships that are problematic here.
Where large landlords continue to exist, there are at least two options (and surely many more to consider): 1. Break up the lands into smaller holdings for farmers, but provide them with the capital subsidies and price support needed to make agriculture productive and labour-absorbing, while consistently promoting cooperative agriculture — not just for potential economies of scale (these don’t always actually work out) but to absorb rural labour and build cooperative forms of labour and livelihoods. 2. To convert large holdings into state- or collectively-owned farms which provide consistent employment — these also require considerable investment which has to be subsidized.
In addition, it’s important to invest in rural-based industry that can both provide a strong domestic demand for agricultural output, but also absorb rural labour (especially if there are “off seasons” for, e.g., state-owned farms). This isn’t optional, it’s necessary. (It’s also, of course, necessary to develop urban-based industries.) Large-scale industry is important, but it might be both useful and necessary to promote small and medium-sized industries and enterprises as well.
These are just some ideas off the top of my head based on reading the works of many scholars and my own research in rural areas in Pakistan — and I am sure many people who have a lot more experience have a lot more to add.
But it’s very important for leftists to be clear about what land reforms and agrarian reforms mean to them. This is especially the case because there is also a capitalistic and neo-liberal narrative of land reforms which focuses on land alienation and transferability, but which in the long run actually means a lot of people lose out land to the rich and end up with neither employment opportunities nor land to fall back on.
One more note: While this discussion presupposes the importance of the state, it’s also important not to forget that in order for the state to have the capacity or the will to carry out these kinds of reforms and to step in and subsidize agricultural production, its class character has to be assessed. There is no shortage of directives from upper echelons of the Pakistani state commanding land reforms and the development of co-operative farming — especially, for instance, under the PPP regime of the 1970s — that simply did not work out. (“I am not satisfied,” Bhutto tersely wrote to his governors and land commission officials in the 1973.) This is because the state did not actually mobilize, organize and actively empower proletarian and peasant classes to develop the social power necessary, meaning it did not take seriously the reform (or replacement) of the bureaucracy and revenue system which it relied upon to carry out these reforms at the local levels. The power of the landlords generally remained unabated and land reforms were often more successful where movements on the ground more or less just took over the land (northern Charsadda in KP, or Pat feeder in Balochistan).
There can be no meaningful agrarian reform in this day and age without a proletarian/peasant state in place.