Land for people, or corporations?

Earlier this month, a People’s Tribunal on Land Rights was held in Hyderabad, presided over by Justice (retd) Wajiuddin Ahmed, and heavily attended by peasants and activists. Continued failure of governments to restore land to the landless, and trickery in token farmland distribution, was exposed and decried.
All citizens may have realized by now there’s one thing neither the present government nor the PPP have any intention of carrying out — meaningful land reform. Both parties seemingly have an unwritten understanding for taking turns in power, no matter what bad-mouthing they indulge in for public consumption. It’s much like the Democrats and Republicans in America without upsetting the status quo (feudal here, corporate there).
Military landlordship won’t carry out land reforms either – it’s not their job even if Ayub Khan tried – although they should have long relinquished excess land to the state after independence.
For peasants, land is their lifeline. But for those who don’t touch the soil, it is the power of real estate. Whether agriculture, industry, commercial establishments or housing, everything needs land as a base to operate from. It is also political territory; the ultimate bargaining chip.
Things are in bad shape. While our self-congratulatory government may gloat over a temporarily stronger rupee and equally transitory rise in forex reserves some of which lacks satisfactory explanation, employment, prices and quality of life are getting worse.
Any government could have resolved the hunger and unemployment problem decades ago within a few harvests, and spurred the domestic economy to boot. But they won’t. — Because the solution involves land redistribution. If, for example, a mere million acres of feudal land went to half a million families with accessible water, a couple of acres each, it would mean the unearned and excess billions from those acres would no longer accrue to the exploiting few in power.
Furthermore, today’s feudals are also businessmen, just as many of today’s businessmen have adopted the feudal stepping stone to corporatism. They won’t mind parting with land they originally never paid for — if the price is right. — Especially if it’s in foreign exchange that can be stashed abroad. The intent is to lease to or partner with foreign investors, be they governments or private corporations. Not to employ and feed our people, but theirs. Or there are unofficial gains to be made from hocking state land.
But while landlord-politicians and landlord-governments happily keep building their acquisitions the old-fashioned way, greed has blinkered noticing the threats to easy money, thanks to the break-neck developments in the technologies they worship.
It isn’t just in industrial machinery. It has become more lethal in agriculture. – With computerized farming equipment for different tasks that displace farm workers en masse; with genetically-modified seeds designed to withstand huge amounts of toxic pesticides, but which nature and other creatures cannot withstand indefinitely; with chemical fertilizers that kill off all microbial soil life indispensable for churning organic matter into nutrition for green growth. All working together, accelerating the process of dying — of all biodiversity, land, and humans.
Yet amazingly, governments ignore the fact that would-be investors have already decimated their own lands, or their technology no longer works, or is banned in their countries of origin. They now have nowhere else to invest in except weak countries with gullible or corruptible governments, to unsustainably mine our lands to the hilt, abandoning it when it is rendered completely dead.
Just as governments and planners have throughout misled people about foreign investment bringing in new employment, the same deceptive claims are now applied to agriculture. In its infancy, while manufacture has vast room for expansion, there is indeed job growth. But when there’s no longer a parallel artisan economy enabled to cope if not compete, with equal access to credit and other requisites, employment begins to dwindle as technology advances.
Of course, new jobs may be created to master new skills required for new technologies. But they will be comparatively few – because automated equipment is not merely designed to be faster, produce more and efficiently for less, but also to dispense with labour. That is the difference between mass-producing capital machinery and even the most refined of power-operated tools for the artisan. The latter works to the dictates of the artisan’s creativity; it cannot automatically mass-produce pre-determined items at the touch of a button.
Sometimes in history, the advanced technology of the time has been rejected so as not to take away jobs and bread from the mouths of people. The over-riding priority was all human life, not a few. Today’s governments, including our own, are far more amoral. Conscience, people’s rights, hunger and similar problems bounce off like water off a duck’s back.
Large-scale production is not going to exponentially create more jobs. They will only deliver more output, executed by fewer. But it will be much worse in foreign-invested corporate agriculture. Except for a small number of labour, all work will be done by giant, computerized equipment, ploughing, applying chemical fertilizer, seeding, spraying pesticides, and finally harvesting, except for fruits or vegetables or other cash crop for which a machine hasn’t been refined yet – although research and development continues.
It is an unsettling aberration amongst ultra-rich corporates that they’d rather pay a fortune for gaspingly expensive equipment when they have money to blow, rather than choose the cheaper alternative of employing people at decent wages, which would earn country goodwill as well. But investors’ attitudes are impatient and ‘sophisticatedly’ bottom-line cold; profits make no room for empathy. They prefer machines that don’t fall ill from overwork or malnutrition, that won’t go on strike for higher wages, won’t sue when poisoned by chemicals, or earn the ire of activists who want them thrown out of the country for violation of human rights. Machines may fall apart, but there won’t ever be a squeak of complaint.
Have our parliamentarians and planners considered how people will react when the phenomena of a single machine dispensing with 50 or more workers, multiplies itself? When a few thousand agri-machine operators displace tens or hundreds of thousands of workers? How does that help people or the country? — Technology and corporations are not citizens. Nor are governments elected to be real-estate agent to foreign governments and investors!
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing – what decision-makers are ignorant of, is what will destroy. Currently, high-level, highly-politicized, opportunistic officialdom, is fighting tooth and nail to eliminate tried and tested agriculture of thousands of years, to replace it with one that’s been around less than a century, but has already devastated western farmlands.
If their technology is so great, why aren’t they cleaning up their own countries instead of coming to the South? – Because they don’t know how, and there is no other solution, except by letting people return to age-old, small-scale ecological farming as saner elements in the UN are urging for, sans chemicals, sans monoculture, sans genetic modification, without diverting or guzzling scare freshwater. To remember nature is a living, interdependent complex, unlike factories made of lifeless, interchangeable components. Meaning no more large-scale agriculture without a human face; instead, millions of self-reliant families healing our poisoned environment in the process of producing for themselves.
If enough jobs are not created, how will there be a domestic market and economy, especially if almost everything is destined for export? What would the government do if rural protestors cheated of their rights and livelihoods for 66 years, with nothing left to lose, converged in Islamabad? Call in the Rangers?

The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.

ePaper - Nawaiwaqt