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Pakistan: The Tenants’ Struggle on Okara Military Farms

Analysis and an interview with the leader of Anjuman Mazarain Punjab

by Aoun Sahi, 19 April 2009

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The News

The tenant commandments

Confrontation between the tenants and the security forces at Okara military farms pushes AMP into action

By Aoun Sahi

The murder of three tenants allegedly by an agriculture land contractor of the military farm in Kulyana Estate, Okara, on April 6, 2009, has once again brought to light the growing tension between the farm authorities and the tenants in the region.

On April 7, 2009, thousands of tenants from different military farms gathered at Chak 28A-2R in Kulyana Estate as a protest to attend the funeral of three fellow villagers. "I’ve come all the way from (the military farms at) Haveli Lakha in District Pakpattan to offer my condolences," said Iqbal Bibi, 45, a mother of four, while talking to TNS. "They were not my relatives; I am here because I can relate with them."

Iqbal Bibi was accompanied by her family and about 500 others from her village. "We are not afraid of being killed. The military and its agents can kill us but they cannot force us to quit our stance. One day they will have to account for their atrocities."

District Okara’s history shows the seeds of trouble between the military farm administrations and the tenants were sown at the turn of the century when the former forcibly tried to replace the age-old crop-sharing system of cultivation with cash-rent and yearly lease system. The tenants who had tilled the land through generations felt the new system was meant to have them evicted.

"There was no problem between the military farm administrations and the tenants before the introduction of the new system in June 2000," says Nadeem Ashraf, Vice President, Anjuman Mazarain Punjab (AMP), talking exclusively to TNS. (For a detailed version, see the interview with AMP Secretary General, Mehar Abdul Sattar

The farm authorities wanted to change the status of tenants to that of ’contractors’ because under The Punjab Tenancy Act 1887 the tenants enjoyed certain rights and it would be hard to evict them from the lands they have been cultivating for ages. The new system would see them leaving the land at a six-month notice.

Interestingly, the tyrannies on the part of the farm administration served to unite the tenants belonging to different villages and farms, giving birth to a radical movement under the flag of AMP.

Academics believe that the military, in a bid to implement the new system of agriculture, forced the tenants to resist. "Till 2000, these people were giving 50 per cent of their crops to the military and were actually serving the military like anything," says Asad Farooq, Assistant Professor, Department of Law and Policy, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS.

Currently penning a book on the tenants’ movement, Farooq says the movement in Okara is a "very healthy sign for a society where we only hear about terrorism, fundamentalism and Talibanisation.

"AMP is talking about the real issues of the people of Pakistan. There is a complete shift in the attitude of the tenants over the past nine years since the movement began. And if they (the tenants) succeed in evolving a substantial political force it will be a giant leap towards the solution of Pakistan’s problems."

Locals claim during the period from 2000 till present times, 11 tenants have been killed in different incidents by the law-enforcing agencies of Pakistan or by the influential civilian contractor of agriculture land of the area. The farm administrations have also variously applied all available tactics to pressurise the tenants to accept the new system of cultivation.

"In 2002, Pakistan Rangers put our village under virtual siege for two months. They stopped irrigation canal water to our Chak for three months and cut the main telephone line of the village while seven employees of different military farms of the village were also terminated because their parents/relatives living in Chaks of the military farms were involved in anti-state activities," says Muhammad Ibrahim, a 60 years old Numberdar of Chak 4/4L.

"So far, they have been reinstated. They also arrested more than 400 people including children from the village. To mount more pressure on the tenants, the farm administration arrested the sons-in-law of many residents of the village."

According to Ibrahim, these "tactics" further strengthen them to oppose the new system of cultivation. "Today, the AMP tenants are in possession of the 12,000 acres of land out of a total of 17,000 acres of the Okara military farm. They dare not come to us to collect the cash rent."

Justifying their rejection of the new cash rent system, he says, "In Kulyana Estate alone, the farm authorities introduced the (cash rent) system at a very minimal rate of Rs 300 per acre per annum. The rate has reached up to 30,000 per acre per annum now and, resultantly, 50 per cent of the original tenants have been deprived of these lands because they could not pay the rent on time."

The situation is no different in the other military farms in the region. "The tenants are in possession of 7,000 out of a total of 10,000 acres of land in the Probenabad and Bayal Ganj military farms while 2,200 out of 3,200 acres in Renala Khurd military farms is in their possession as well."

"Until 2002, we were ready to give a share of our crops to the farm management but when they started killing our friends we refused to pay them a penny," says ShabbirAhmed Sajjad, President, AMP, Probenabad and Bayal Ganj military farms.

According to Sajjad, the military farm administration is not in legal possession of the land "yet they are allotting the land to retired military officials on the pretext of stud farming".

The ancestors of a majority of the tenants came to these farms in the first decade of the 20th century, when the British founded agricultural research, livestock and dairy farms across approximately 68,000 acres of land in different districts of what now constitutes Pakistan’s Punjab. At that time, the greater part of the area was dry forest and could not be used for commercial agriculture. The British government initiated a canal irrigation project and lured both Christian and Muslim families to till the farms. The new settlers were promised permanent ownership of the land once they succeeded in making it fertile. In 1913, when the land was brought to life by the farmers, the then Punjab government leased it out to different departments, including the Royal Army, through Colonisation of Government Lands (Punjab) Act 1912, for 20 years.

As per the official records of the Okara Revenue Department, "This land was transferred by the government of Punjab to the Central Government (Ministry of Defence) on lease vide Memo No. 1844-S dated 9-8-1913 (not available in the office) for a period of 20 years at the rate of 15000/- per annum for the entire land. The record of payment of rent/lease money is neither available in the office nor provided by the military authorities."

According to a high official of the revenue department of District Okara, the royal army did not bother to extend the lease agreement with the Punjab government and kept the ’possession’ with it until partition. "After partition, Pakistan army as a successor to the Royal Army took over the possession of the land. They, too, have never paid rent or lease of the land to the Punjab government. The Ministry of Defence wrote a letter to the Punjab government in December 1999 to get the possession of the land free of cost. The value of the land of military farm in Okara alone, as calculated by Revenue Officer, was Rs 4 billion in 2001. So, Board of Revenue, Punjab, through letter D.O. No. 14-2001/631-CL-V dated April 13, 2001, refused to do so on legal grounds."

An official in the District Coordination Office informed TNS that a high level meeting of Rangers, DCO, MNAs and MPAs on the issue of confrontation between the tenants and the military farm administration had also taken place. Sohail Shahzad, DCO Okara, initially not accessible, was available on the phone the next day. He confirmed that the government meant to resolve the issue, "We have forwarded a report to the provincial government explaining the ground realities on the issue. All stakeholders including the political people have been taken on board because we want to reach an agreement. We do not want to impose a decision that can lead to any untoward situation.

"I can assure you that a serious development is underway and should be in place in the next two to four months."

Farooq Tariq, spokesperson for Labour Party Pakistan, the only political party supporting tenants since 2000, insists that the Punjab government has not contacted the leadership of the tenants on the issue. "They should be taken into confidence if the government is serious about solving the issue. To me, the solution is very simple: give the land ownership right to the tenants."

"Very simple . . ."

Mehar Abdul Sattar, the 37 years old general secretary of Anjuman Mazarain Punjab (AMP), is a graduate in Plant Pathology from Agriculture University, Faisalabad, and a resident of Chak 4/4L Okara military farm. He was a student when the military farm administration introduced a system of cultivation for tenants in 2000. Being the son of a tenant, Mehar naturally joined the resistance movement, eventually becoming the GS of AMP.

Mehar has had to pay dearly for his commitment to the cause of the tenants. He has been nominated in at least 25 different cases, ranging from wood theft to murder. In 2008, he contested the election to the Provincial Assembly from District Okara. He lost by a small margin, though. Excerpts from an interview with TNS follow.

The News on Sunday: Would you like to share a brief history of AMP with us?

Mehar Abdul Sattar: AMP is a movement of approximately one million tenants of different military farms. It was a corollary of the atrocities committed by the military farm administrations against the tenants of the land. Until 2000, the tenants were completely unaware of their rights. They were serving the military like slaves. But the military high officials had their own plans: they wanted to allot this fertile land to retired military officials in the name of stud farming. The tenants were their only hurdle. So they decided to get rid of them.

In the first phase, they planned to change the status of ’tenants’ to ’contractors’ of land because legally it would be easier for them to evict a contractor from the land. They allured the tenants with minimal cash rent but the latter refused to accept the new system. It was a shock for the military high-ups who then decided to use force. Tenants resisted and this resistance took the shape of a movement named AMP.

TNS: The military farm administration says it had a very cordial relationship with the tenants and blames AMP for provoking confrontation. What do you say?

MAS: This is nonsense. AMP is being blamed because it is not letting the military farm administration to achieve its targets. In June 2000, the military farm administration announced implementing the new system of contracts in these farms while AMP was formed at least one month after the decision. It was purely a movement of tenants. They decided to organise as a group under the banner of AMP. It’s a peaceful movement and seeks to safeguard the rights of the tenants. In fact, it was the first real movement against the dictatorial decisions of the Pervez Musharraf regime.

In the first year or so, we requested the farm management to reverse the decision as we were ready to go back to the crop sharing system of cultivation but they used force against us. We had no option but to resist. We started using all available platforms to expose the oppression of farms administration. In these nine years, at least 11 tenants have been killed in different incidents by the law-enforcing agencies and the gangsters of the area while hundreds others have been injured. They want to kill our movement by making such allegations. But they will have to face humiliation on this front as well.

TNS: On the one hand, AMP criticises the military farm administration for illegal possession of the land, on the other it has been preaching the same to the tenants. How do you justify that?

MAS: To set the record straight, the tenants are not the illegal holders of this land; they have been tilling the land for ages under the Tenancy Act 1887. While there is no record available with the revenue department that the Royal Army got the lease of the land extended beyond 1934, but they kept on holding the land until 1947. After partition, Pakistan Army did the same and took possession of land through its Veterinary and Farm Crop (RVFC) department in the name of stud farming. In 2000, the Ministry of Defence wrote to the Punjab government for acquiring the permanent possession of the land, but the Board of Revenue refused to comply on legal grounds. Therefore, the military is not even a party on this land. In fact, Punjab government and tenants are two parties to decide the issue.

TNS: Don’t you think ’Malki Ya Maut’ (ownership or death) is a very extreme stance?

MAS: AMP has not coined this slogan. The tenants adopted it after the security forces started committing atrocities against them. In 2001, a tenant was killed in Renala Khurd military farm while in 2002 three others were killed in different incidents. False cases of murder of two tenants were registered against me and other leaders of AMP in 2002-03. For outsiders it can be a crude slogan but for us who have faced the wrath of the security agencies there is no other option.

Our stance means that we are willing to pay any price for our rights. We will die of hunger if thrown out of this land. It would be the end of the world for us. We have no other source of income and nowhere to go.

TNS: So what’s the solution?

MAS: Very simple: give land ownership rights to the tenants.

— Aoun Sahi

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