Original Articles

Structural reasons for poverty — by Syed Mohammad Ali

Landlords exert immense influence over landless people who often do not even own the land on which their homes are built. This in turn enables them to ensure that, when elections are held, their landless dependents vote according to the specific wishes of the landlord

Many of our national poverty studies have been examining the problem too simply by just measuring the number of people who live below poverty lines devised on the basis of nutritional intake or income levels. However, if poverty is to be overcome, it is important to take account of the simultaneous processes that create poverty since without doing so it is not possible to identify effective means for the poor to overcome their multiple forms of deprivation.

Those who realise the need for a deeper approach towards poverty reduction keep pointing out the need to pay attention to structural issues that lock individuals into an exploitative nexus of power. It is this power nexus that systematically deprives poor people of the opportunities to improve their own lives and those of their next generations.

This above-mentioned nexus is not simply based on power concentrated in the hands of a few who are far removed from the masses. Instead, inequitable power structures percolate right down to the grassroots level, which then serves to actively discriminate against the poor and continues to deprive them of access to vital resources, public services and governance decisions.

Let us illustrate how pervasive power structures are biased to perpetuate poverty by using the example of rural Pakistan. The rural economy remains significant in a country like ours since agriculture still accounts for around a fifth of the national output in Pakistan, and more importantly, over two-fifths of the workforce is employed in this sector.

While there are also off-farm activities that take place in rural areas, this article will focus on farm work to illustrate the specific link between power and land holdings. There are still major parts of predominantly agrarian areas including southern Punjab and Sindh where land ownership remains very unequal, despite the fact that there are very limited opportunities to do anything else but work on a farm. Yet, since agricultural land ownership remains highly unequal, there is a concentration of land in relatively large sized ownership holdings, while a majority of poor people remains landless, which is also a major reason for their powerlessness.

Before proceeding further we need to recognise that it would be too simple to think of rural areas as being homogenous. There are numerous regional variations in rural power structures. Even at the most basic level of on-farm production, rural areas cannot be divided neatly into landlords and their tenants, who either cultivate the farms of a landlord on a share cropping basis or else work on it as agricultural labourers. The agrarian structure is much more complex.

The size and power of landlords can vary significantly. Some landlords have access not only to hundreds of acres of agricultural land, but also simultaneous urban industrial interests and an elaborate network of caste- and class-based alliances. Smaller landlords may have more limited political and economic power, but they are still able to exert ample influence over those who work on their lands. Sharecroppers, on the other hand, can include small landholders themselves who simply want to acquire more land for cultivation, which they may take from landlords or from poorer people who do not have the resources to undertake their own cultivation. But shareholders also include those without access to any of their own land, and are dependent on others to provide the land for cultivation purposes. Then there are the landless poor who cannot do anything else but work on the land of sharecroppers or landlords, as labourers, and are paid either in cash or kind.

The economic implications of working as agricultural labourers, or else sharing a major proportion of their produce with those who own the land, provide fairly straightforward causes for poverty. But there are also important socio-political power relations associated with land ownership that cannot be ignored.

Landlords provide their landless dependents access to credit, and their inability to pay it back promptly traps them and obliges them to work part time on the landlord’s farm as labourers either at less than market wage or no wage at all. In its worst form, this debt obligation can result in generations of bonded labour, the prevalence of which, in our own country, cannot be denied.

Landlords can also exert immense influence over landless people who often do not even own the land on which their homes are built. This in turn enables them to ensure that, when elections are held, their landless dependents vote according to the specific wishes of the landlord, who may be directly contesting the elections, or else may be in favour of a particular candidate, who would in turn do favours for the landlord if he is elected.

While there are several variations, these simple dynamics go a long way in explaining how bigger landlords have acquired their influence. Moreover, the local state apparatus, including administrative and police officials, is also under the sway of the landlords, in turn offering them more protection than to the poor.

These inequitable relations between landlords and the landless are not just theoretical suppositions but reflect ground realities. Survey work done for the National Human Development Report back in 2004 found that poorer landless people were even obliged to pay a larger proportion of their farm produce to the landlord as rent, in comparison to those who have access to their own land, even if they have chosen to enter into sharecropping arrangements.

Lack of access over land thus remains an important underlying factor for endemic poverty, underdevelopment and marginalisation of the poor. Yet, successive governments in our country have not been able to implement effective land reforms, nor have they been able to allocate sufficient state-owned land to the landless. In fact, the previous government is on record for declaring land reforms to be a ‘dead issue’ in Pakistan despite the above mentioned ground realities.

Providing ownership of land to the landless remains necessary, but it is not sufficient to guarantee poverty reduction. Any future attempts in this regard, if they ever reoccur, must be accompanied by adequate provision of agricultural inputs, including seed, fertilisers and irrigation water to the poorer cultivators, or else they will not be able to achieve a basic level of comfort for themselves and their families. If this required support is not provided, the poor may very well sell off whatever meagre land they are provided to meet urgent consumption needs such as health expenditures, marriages, or to sustain their families in the event of crop failures.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at ali@policy.hu

Source: Daily Times, 11 May 2010