PAKISTAN: Peasant courts must be established and the Sindh Tenancy Act, 1950 to be amended to end bonded labour

Thousands of peasants from different parts of the Sindh province are on a long march demanding amendments in the Sindh Tenancy Act, 1950. The demand is to obtain equal status for the peasants while they share the harvest with the landlords, irrespective of the loan they have availed from the landlords for agriculture. The practice as of now is that the landlord apportions large quantity of the harvest, claiming interest and repayment of the original loan, thereby retaining the peasants in a state of perpetual debt. 

The peasants’ protest in the form of a long march started on 15, February. It is scheduled to finish on 26 February. The march will terminate outside the Sindh Assembly building at Karachi, the capital of Sind province. The march will cover an estimated 250 kilometers. The peasants are demanding the establishment of Hari Courts (peasants’ courts) to resolve their issues, particularly concerning the loans, which keep them indebted to the landlords for generations. They have suggested amendments to the Sindh Tenancy Act, 1950 and have demanded several important and necessary changes to the 58-year-old law. The amendments are expected to protect the peasants from exploitation by the landlords. The peasants are also demanding the implementation of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992, in its letter and spirit. Please find the recommendations made by the peasants and civil society here: 

The Sindh Tenancy Act, 1950 is the result of the long struggle by the peasant organisations of the forties. The law is the result of continuous protest and processions, the peasants and the civil society held, outside the Sindh Assembly. The Act provides for the rights, obligations and remedies that are available to the Haris (tillers/peasants) as well as to the Zamindar (landlord). 

One of the main issues that led to the enactment was the controversy stemming out from disputes related to the loans taken by the Haris from the Zamindars. Often, the practice was, the Zamindars dictated the terms of these loans to the detriment of the peasants. The law therefore recommended that borrowing and lending and any dispute thereof, be regulated strictly under the Sindh Tenancy Act 1950. The law also fixed a time limit of such lending or borrowing and further required written documents as proof for financial transactions. The law as of now requires a complete overhaul owing to the drastic changes that have taken place in socio-economic structure, changes in the modes of production and the new modes of exploitation the landlords have invented to circumvent the existing provisions of the law. 62 percent population in the province is peasants. 

The powerful feudal class, with the passing of time, converted loans, borrowing or lending to the peasants, into bonded labour. With the patronage of the army and the civil servants, who received fertile land along the rivers for their service to the country, the land lords openly defied the Sindh Tenancy Act 1950. With the help of the army and the civil bureaucracy, the landlords cum politicians prevented the establishment of Hari Courts. 

From the early nineties, human rights organisations have taken up the issue of bonded labour and have helped in obtaining the release of the hundreds of bonded laborers including their families in the country. It was found that, since generations, not only the peasant families were bonded to the landlords for petty sums of loans, but even their cattle were bonded. The movement against the bonded labour gained strength and momentum with the support from the public and the media, whereas, on the other hand, the landlords and the politicians resisted the movement and prevented enactment of laws in favour of the peasants. 

Seeing the strong movement against the practice of bonded labour, and the non compliance of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992 by the landlords and politicians, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) made its entry by offering loans to the Sindh government. The ADB wanted advances from the ADB to be distributed among the landlords for settling peasant loans. They argued that through this process, the issue of bonded labour in Pakistan would be settled for ever. This loan however was never requested by any party under the Sindh Tenancy Act, 1950. But the ADB allegedly took the advantage to enter into a dispute between the government and peasants, the purpose being to enmesh the government into the loan web, which will obviously be paid by the country’s tax payers in years to come. 

In the year 2000, the ADB made a deal with the administration to provide loan to the Sindh government to settle the issue of bonded labour or that of the loan holders by providing loan to the landlords through the Sindh government. The ADB proposed a financial package of USD 62 million in which the loan from the ADB would be 83 percent of the total amount, which would amount to USD 51.85 million, whereas the Sindh government will provide USD 10.50 million. 

According to the agreement between the Sindh government and the ADB, a project with the name Sindh Rural Development Project (SRDP) was established, which was expected to be complete its objective of eliminating bonded labour or clearing outstanding loans from the peasants until 2004. The areas or districts which came under this project are Sanghar, Mirpukhas, Thatta and Badin districts and its municipal towns. The peasants and human rights organisations rejected the offer made by the ADB and termed it as an act to strengthen the feudal class and the government officials. The ADB loan was also viewed as additional trap to burden the peasants in the province. The civil society was of the opinion that the loan will be wasted by the government officials and a part of the ADB loan will be spent on the landlords who will distribute the amount to their henchmen, whereas, the peasants will remain in bonded labour. 

In the meantime, the Sindh High Court, Hyderabad Circuit on 17, July 2002, came out with a decision to amend the Sindh Tenancy Act, 1950 and directed to amend it according to needs of the peasants who are also share holders of the crop. In his observation, Honourable Justice Qurban Ali, observed that it is significant that the peasant share holders are bare footed and with nothing to wear, whereas the landlords drive Pajeros and live in palaces. From the provisions of the Sindh Tenancy Act, 1950 it is abundantly clear that a special forum is to be provided to regulate the relationship between the Haris and Zamindars. 

In the Sindh Tenancy Act, 1950 a Mukhtiarkar (government officer) is to maintain the record of tenants and the tenancies. In practice however, no proper records are maintained, which generates much controversy. Therefore, the Hyderabad Bench of the Sindh High Court held that it is obligatory on the part of the Mukhtiarkar to make such entries periodically and to update the records regularly. The Court also suggested remedies to be provided against defaulting Mukhtiarkars who fail to perform their job. 

Hardly 26 percent of the rural households have land ownership in Sindh, which is the lowest in Pakistan. Sindh has the highest percentage of single land holdings exceeding 100 acres and such farms form 15 percent of the total farming area.

Seven years after availing the loan from the ADB and the formation of the SRDP, it was proved that the apprehensions of the peasant organisations and the civil society concerning the ADB proposal were true. The report of the ADB itself says that no field work was done during the planned period and only some roads were made. Whereas, the peasant organisations and the civil society organisations claim that the SRDP also was a failure. 

Ironically, some streets were constructed after demolishing peasant houses with the false promise that those affected by the construction would be provided alternative houses. In fact the roads, for which the houses were demolished are yet to be constructed and the evictees thrown to the street. 

An alarming share of the ADB loan was used to construct luxurious office buildings, to purchase caravans of vehicles spending millions of rupees and the rest was siphoned into salaries and allowances of the government staff. Some amounts were also given to the landlords. But these sums were never audited or subjected to any transparent accounting. The main purpose of the SRDP was to provide training to the government officials involved in the project and to provide the basic needs of health. This was never met. 

The criminal negligence on the part of the politicians who were the members of the assembly in Sindh province helped corruption to flourish in the ABD/SRDP deal. A political group, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), who claims to represent the urban middle class, supported the landlords in not implementing the SRD project. The MQM is known for working out political arrangements to remain in power, irrespective of the government that rule Pakistan. It was part of the dictatorship led by General Musharraf and is also a part of the current administration that came to power after ending the dictatorship. 

During 2007, the then Speaker of the Sindh Assembly formed a 12 member Special Committee following the directives of Sindh High Court to amend the Sindh Tenancy Act, 1950 in favor of the peasants. The suggestions from the peasants were also presented to Committee through its Chairman Mr. Anwar Ali Mahar of the Pakistan People’s Party. Most of the suggestions were endorsed by the Sindh Abadgar Board, an organisation of the landlords. 

The middle class political leadership of the province supported the landlords and did nothing for ending the feudal system. The urban middle class party¡¦s main purpose was not to save the peasants but to recruit its cadres into the SRDP. This committee has still not done any work on the issue of bonded labour and the misuse of millions of dollars from the ADB 

The ADB is happy that it was successful in providing a huge loan to the Sindh government and expresses no concern about the wastage of the loan. It is now the duty of the provincial government to pay off the debt with huge interest accumulated thereon to the ADB. 

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) supports the long march of the peasants seeking amendments as recommended by several peasant organisations and other civil society groups to the Sindh Tenancy Act, 1950. The AHRC urges the Sindh provincial government to establish Hari Courts without any delay to resolve the peasant disputes with regard to their loans which never come to an end, even after many generations. The government should make it compulsory for every landlord or the tenancies to document their income and expenses. The amendments sought for by the peasants can be viewed here. 

The AHRC expects restraint from the Sindh government on 26 February, when the peasants observe a sit-in outside the Sindh Assembly building. 

The government should also bring the corrupt officials and politicians who misappropriated the huge amounts of funds which were taken as loan by the Sindh government in the name of elimination of bonded labour before the court of law.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-040-2009
Countries : Pakistan,