111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

Is land reform off the menu – I?

In a recent TV interview, Imran Khan, Chairman TI, has revealed that a great debate has been going on in his party regarding land reforms. However, the arguments and proponents and the opponents are roughly balancing, hence no decision has yet been taken. However, Imran Khan said that he is certainly against absentee landlordism. It is almost obvious that had TI not inducted the so-called electables, the decision in favour of land reforms would have been much easier. Many political parties are mulling over the issue. It may not be a bad idea to review the issue with some data and facts and possibly offer some innovative solutions.

Pakistan made two attempts at land reforms, once by General Ayub Khan and the other by Z.A. Bhutto. Not much was achieved; hence no further attempts were made in this respect, even by PPP governments. Presently, a modest Kutcha land distribution programme is being implemented in Sindh. The rationale for land reforms would remain as long as there is grinding poverty, millions of landless peasants and under-utilisation of the land possessed by the big and super landlords.

Some people argue that between 1970 and 2010, in a period of 40 years, large farms have already been redistributed due to Islamic inheritance law. Many differ with this, arguing that this phenomenon may be restricted to Central Punjab only, where average land parcels happen to be small. In Sindh and Southern Punjab, the same does not pertain.

Quite a few Muslim clerics have given Fatwas against land reforms, as according to them private property cannot be confiscated. However, cleric opinion is divided in the case of land, as many argue that land is for the tiller. And in case of colonies where land had been awarded to the collaborators of the colonists, the sanctity and legality of such property is questioned under Shariah laws. Particularly in the sub-continent, the colonialist regime conferred revenue collecting rights and not the land ownership .This somehow got converted into titles. Some research is required on this issue.

Ironically, even the capitalist USAID and the World Bank have supported land reforms in the past in many strife-prone regions. The Taliban issue seems to have created a new rationale for land reforms among the donor agencies. It is being argued that Talibans may exploit the issue and would most probably be successful in drawing support from the landless poor farmers and enhance their appeal and domain. There is significant evidence that most of the Taliban and their supporters come from the landless class. A recent USAID papers has recommended encouragement and support to GOP in pursuing land reform.

Source: Mahmood Hassan Khan, “Under development and agrarian structure in Pakistan,” Vanguard, 1994

A NEW LAND REFORM PACKAGE In Pakistan, 28% of the total landmass is being under cultivation, and huge chunks of land remain unutilised. About 6.6 million households own 6.6 million farms over a total farm area of 50 million acres. Only some 80% of this farm area is actually cultivated. The remaining 20% of the farm area remains uncultivated. Small farms utilise up to 95% of the available farm land, while large farms owned by big and powerful landlords remain uncultivated to the extent of almost 50%. A total of 2.66 million acres of farm area remains uncultivated in the large farm category (100 acres plus). Some 30,000 landlord families could benefit one million plus landless families, if uncultivated land is given away to the latter under some land distribution scheme, if not land reforms exactly. In land reforms, usually land is forcibly taken away under legislation or revolution without any compensation.

There is also a case for bringing more land under agriculture. Perhaps ten million more acres could be added by new land expansion and development activity probably in the next ten years. This would mean one million acres per year of new land to be transferred to the landless. One would argue, where would the water come from? We are already short of water. We are currently wasting water under existing flood irrigation practices. The new land under the landless families would be from the very beginning on more efficient Drip Irrigation (D.I.), which may be cheap as well as efficient. The landless poor beneficiary would be more inclined and capable to introduce bucket and pipe drip irrigation. He would not have much choice. He does not have many choices in life either.

Thus about 14 million acres of land (10 million new and 4 million existing unutilised) could be distributed among the landless over a period of some ten years, benefiting 5-6 million families, with a farm of 2.5 acres each, practically solving the issue of landlines, if not of poverty totally. Even after getting 2.5 acres, he would not be totally out of the clutch of the grinding poverty. But he would get hope and the tools, to handle the economic problems of his family.

Pakistan would need more land under cultivation to feed its ever-increasing population, as productivity increases are too far and few. The diseconomy of scale, if any, of the small farms should be taken care of by an organised Co-operative movement that could take care of the credit and inputs. Land is the only thing that governments can afford to give free, may be charge some development cost in the long run under a concessionary credit scheme. Land remains on earth. It does not evaporate or disappear. It is excellent collateral for the poor. After all if a country belongs to its people, they should all own some piece of land, however small it may be.

Land has been distributed in Pakistan among the rich and powerful and literally given away at dirt prices. Some effort would have to be made to include the poor in this largesse. There is a mass appeal and appetite for land confiscation by the state without compensation. Hence the two attempts at land reforms, even though unsuccessful. Any new land distribution scheme should be careful and respect the federalism requirements and the local and regional rights. It should not import people from the outside, unless in special cases, where demand and supply gaps may exist.

Perhaps absentee ownership of uncultivated land does not come under the Islamic provision and protection of private property. A new consensus required, especially now that the threat of Godless Communism is gone. On the other hand, the big landlords may be induced by the State to do away with their excess unutilised land by imposing a variety of taxes including the much dreaded and opposed Income Tax.

Excess land can be acquired by provincial governments under a land bond scheme carrying a reasonable interest rate. The poor land allotee may also be required to pay off a part of the land price under a concessionary credit scheme. Similar schemes have been implemented in Japan, South Korea and Germany immediately after the Second World War.


1) Number of households / population increased by 25% during the two censuses (1990-2000).

2) Number of farms increased from 5.071 million to 6.6 million: 1.549 million farms added: an increase of 30.54%; total Farm area increased by only 6.15 %; 0.6% increase p.a.

3) Number of farms under 1 hectare (ha) remained almost the same; however, farm area under this category increased by 68.47 %, an addition of 483,000 ha. The percentage of these farms in the total number of farms increased from 27 % to 36%.

4) Number of largest farms, 60 ha and more, decreased from 15000 to 14000, a decrease of 1000 farms; area under these farms also decreased from 1.936 million ha to 1.683 million ha a decrease of 15% in area.

5) In 1990, 27% farms had 4% of total farm area, while the largest farms (60 ha and more and, less than 0.5 % of the total number of farms) had 10% of the total farm area. In 2000, 36% farms (under 1 ha) had 6% of the total farm area, while large farms had 8% of the total farm area. Has the skewdness decreased? In 1990, the large farms’ total area was 2.75 times higher than the total area of small farms( under 1 ha) area, the same ratio decreased to 1.42 times only; skewedness and disparity still quite high, but appears to have been reduced by almost 100%, under this indicator.

6) In Pakistan about, 6.6 million farming families own 6.6 million farms, over a farm area of 50 million acres (average size 8 Acres), of which 20% farm area remains uncultivated. 58% Farms or farm households have only 10% of the total farm area, call them very small farmers (under 5 acres); 37% small farmers (5-25 acres) own 47% of the farm area; 5% larger farmers (25-100 acres) own 26% and 0.5% (30,000 families) of super land lords (100 acres plus) own 11% of the total farm areas.

7) Some 19% of the total farm area remains uncultivated. In small farms up to 93% of farm land remains cultivated. This percentage goes down with the increase inform size. At 100 acres plus, roughly one-half (50%) of the land area remains uncultivated and utilised.

8) About 2.6 million acres of farm area in large farm size category remains unutilised, which is under the control of 30,000 super landlord families. Another 1.5 million acres remain uncultivated in 50-100 Acres plot size. Potentially about 2.6-4 million acres (50%) of unutilised farm lands is “distributable”. Two million landless could benefit.

Source: Author’s Estimates; basic data 1) Agricultural Census 1998. 2) FBS Statistical Yearbooks, various years.

Landless peasants can be given a 1-2 Acre farm each, at 50% of the purchase cost under 4% p.a. and 20 yrs repayment. Alternatively GOP and provincial governments could develop 2-4 million acres over a period of 7-10 yrs, possibly under budgetary outlay than the procurement of private land. The Government of Sindh is already implementing such a programme at a modest scale by converting kutcha forest land but without forest, to agricultural land and distributing among landless. This can be done with much ease in Balochistan, where large tracts of land remain unutilised. For political and possibly good reasons, land in Balochistan can only go to the Baloch and hence only 1.0 million families could benefit. Almost all the households in Balochistan could get a reasonably sized farm. In Punjab, the problem is difficult due to large population and in NWFP the land is limited, although in both the cases there are less populated areas tribal belt in NWFP and southern Punjab. Instead of giving lands to reward Generals and bureaucrats and large real estate investors, the scarce land should go to the landless.

Land is the only thing governments, mostly provincial, have. Budgetary resources are limited and cannot almost always be enough, be it BISP or Zakat fund.


There was a total of 8.22 million ha of culturable waste land available to be cultivated, perhaps all of it government land, almost half of it (3.97 million ha) is in Balochistan. There are only 1.163 million households in Balochistan. If this land is distributed, every household in Balochistan gets 3.41 ha (8.5 acres), much more land than most of the household in Punjab. One doesn’t have to take it away from someone; The Government and the province of Balochistan have this with themselves. Likewise, KP has 1.21 million ha of culturable waste land, and only 2.77 million house-holds. KP has a land area problem, and about 0.5 ha (1.25 acres) could be distributed to every family in KP. Some 1.29 million farms in the country are under 0.5 ha. It is better than being totally landless. Some of the allotted lands would be sold, because every one cannot enter into agriculture. Ultimately, if 50% of the house-holds end up selling the allotted land, the average farm size increases to 1 ha, which should be quite sufficient to produce food for a family or produce products of an equivalent value.

Alternatively, GoKP could allot the available wasteland to 50% of the families, to get the same result. In Sindh and Punjab, landless are high in number and the available cultural wasteland much less. Nevertheless, 1.6 million ha of this land available in Punjab, could be distributed among 3 million households. Similarly, in Sindh, 1.44 million ha could go to another 2 million house holds. A total of 6 million households, out of a total of 14 million rural households can thus get land, without resorting to redistribution. There is a big if in it. The land may not have been grabbed already by the powerful. It has come to public light only after the floods. In Sindh, most of the sailabi land had been grabbed by the powerful landlords, and had been put to share-cropping.

Akhtar Ali, "Is land reform off the menu – I?," Business recorder. 2013-02-06.