Unlike in the rest of the world, land is the common and most important factor behind modern state building, political culture, socioeconomic development and transformation, urbanization and ethnic conflicts in South Asian countries.
Shared climate, water and natural resources along with broader ethnic similarities are not the only bonds among the people of this region; it is primarily land, and thereby economy and culture, that shapes the universality of South Asia. The division is only in the governance and security, which necessitates borders.
The landmass in the region is the sign of its richness, with 4.77 million square kilometers of land offering 2.62 million square kilometers for agriculture. Out of the total land in South Asia, 39 percent land is arable, 11 percent comprises permanent pastures and 17 percent is forest and wood land, according to World Bank and FAO studies.
Political dynamics of land are embodied in the political economy; however with two major factors across the region—the unjust land utilization and management, pushing 500 million rural people into the web of vulnerability; and 60 percent human mass depending on land related livelihood. Nepal and Bhutan’s 90 percent, Bangladesh’s 71.9 percent, India and Pakistan’s 70 percent and Sri Lanka’s 37 percent population is rural and their livelihood, directly or indirectly, is associated with land. Agriculture contributes 25 percent to the GDP of the region.
Keeping 28 percent urban mass of the region in the background, which will double up over the next decade, it can be seen that the region and its countries are undergoing a massive transformation in human history that was only witnessed before during the renaissance era in Europe. The socio-economic transformation always carries with it a degree of political turmoil, breakthroughs in fields of science, arts and literature and always culminates into new social contracts, though after many conflicts.
Will the region and countrywide gradual transformations be in unison across the board? Will there be new social contracts in individual countries or will a collective will and identity of the region emerge as well? And finally, will this transformation be able to address crucial questions including inter-state conflicts, national questions within the federations, class dynamics, manmade religious antagonism and finally, the collective niche for a universal view of South Asia?
Land in South Asia has many contours. The rural population in almost all countries of the region is chained under feudal and semi-feudal relations that are shared by the feudal lords with the capitalist and emerging urban population. The latter, juxtaposing its historical essence, has been minimizing the velocity of transformation; mostly due to the nexus between land and power which strengthened during the state building process in various countries of the region.
Land and land related population today is facing pressing issues that include land concentration, increase in landlessness, rural unemployment and consequently migration, residential land insecurities and increasing commercialization of land, occupation of public land by security forces and government departments, bonded labor, agriculture pricing and wages as well as degradation of land.
The extensive urbanization process in the region is mostly centered in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and is gripped by land related chaos; therefore, urban land management along with national land policies in the region is unavoidable.
Besides, land has become a major source of conflict—in Nepal and India it is between various ethnic, social and tribal groups; in Bangladesh, it exists because of land scarcity and in Pakistan, due to various forms of land grab by the ethnic militants and mafia in the urban areas, feudal lords in the rural hubs and security forces in the whole country.
Peasantry, rural population and civil society of the region have been struggling to tackle issues related to land rights. The ongoing yearlong Jan Satyagarha by Ekta Parishad in India, the two week-long ‘Sindh Peasants Long March’ for tenancy legislation in Sindh in 2009, fishing communities movement in coastal districts of Sindh in 2005, resistance by the peasants of Okara military form in Punjab in the last decade in Pakistan, and the Kirshok movement in Bangladesh are documented examples of the struggle around land and rural livelihood rights.
Apart from being the core of power, politics and state formation in South Asia, land is also a major source of livelihood, food security and housing. The region shares the colonial land utilization legacy rooted in the highly land concentrated feudalism. Post-colonial South Asian states built and transformed themselves through majority of landholding aristocracy. Therefore, until the land rights regime is not appropriately addressed, achieving inclusive and pluralistic democracies, enduring peace as well as sustainable food sovereignty and security in the region will be impossible.
Land and agrarian reforms in the region should be carried out by focusing on ‘land security’, including the sustainable use and utilization of land, a ‘rights’ framework and prevailing food sovereignty.
The nexus of power and land needs to be redefined by transforming land from being a source of socio-political influence into the source of collective prosperity, ensuring economic well being of the majority and their participation in the democratic process. Besides, decentralization of land combined with land entitlement rights and redistribution of land to the landless poor can help the region in resolving local conflicts and increasing agricultural productivity.
Urban land utilization and land commercialization should carefully be regularized to ensure the rights of indigenous communities and adequate housing, as well as establishing ecologically vibrant human settlements.
Agricultural labor and peasantry should legislatively be recognized as labor and provided with social security along with the right to form trade unions for collective bargaining. By altering existing legal frameworks of the tenure and tenancy concerning peasantry, appropriate legislation should be introduced according to existing realities and needs. Besides, a judicial mechanism for peasants and agriculture workers should be established, similar to the labor courts.
The land rights of tribal, forest and indigenous communities particularly of Dalits, women and minorities should be ensured. Bonded labor and other forms of slavery in South Asia should be abolished.
Agriculture should be modernized sustainably to enhance production but land grabbing in the name of corporate agriculture farming should not be permitted. Agriculture land utilization must be linked with the sustainable and judicious use of water resources. Given the climate volatility of the region, land acquisition in sea waters should be banned and marine natural resources exploration should be stopped.
Time has come for a South Asian movement around land rights; and the civil society of the region needs to respond to it. It is the prime responsibility of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to adopt a charter for land rights, which should be agreed upon and followed by the all stakeholders to ensure land security in the region.
Renaissance of South Asia is not a dream. It is deeply rooted in the socio-economic and political development of the region, which is underway—although slow paced, and state and governance reforms as well as new social contracts. Here, SAARC has to play a major role in fostering the discussion about the dynamics of social transformation, economic development and interdependency within the region.
The author is Executive Director, Institute for Social Movements, Pakistan.