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Floods raise spectre of social unrest and polarization

The PML-N (Pakistan Muslim league) leader and Chief Minister of the largest province, Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, continues to warn the ruling classes and rich of Pakistan of a possible backlash from the rural poor.
He is talking about possible unrest from the poor affected by the floods if the government fails to provide relief and re-house for them. In a media interview, he said that if the affected rural population fails to be re-housed then it must be prepared to face angry and violent protests in Lahore and other cities. There are other politicians in the country who are issuing calls for revolution and rebellion against feudal lords and corrupt politicians. Serious capitalist commentators and intellectuals are also warning the ruling elite about possible unrest and violent protests and marches.

The more serious far-sighted sections of the ruling elite are worried about the situation and what the future holds. There are small scale protests and demonstrations already taking place in most of the flood affected areas. They can feel the growing anger and discontent of the poor masses. They are also blaming each other for this situation, which is becoming potentially more dangerous with every passing day. The situation was not very optimistic for the ruling elite before the floods. Now the floods have made the situation more complicated and explosive.

Nearly a month after floods that devastated twenty percent of the country and hit at least 20 million people, the spectre of social unrest and polarisation are stalking the nation. Torrential rains have had a catastrophic impact on people. The consequential economic losses could see the country default on an IMF loan and leave eight million people dependent on aid for survival. There is mounting anger against the government.

Flood survivors camping out in miserable conditions – up to ten million of them still without shelter- have staged angry protests against the government, shutting main highways and police were mobilised. Devastation of farm land and transport links mean that food prices rocketed, fanning frustration among the masses.

Besides inflation, people have suffered an electricity crisis for years, but now the floodwaters have forced power stations to close, exacerbating energy cuts and leaving entire communities without power.

Alienation towards the government has increased and, in the long run, can result in massive internal instability, widespread unrest and social disintegration, if a socialist alternative is not embrace by the working class and the poor. The reactionary pro-capitalist opposition could capitalize on this situation in the long-term. Reactionary religious extremists could benefit, if the working class movement fails to build an alternative platform of struggle. In the absence of a strong working class movement, the religious extremist forces can move to fill the political vacuum that already exists in society.

The government is already very weak and continues to hang by a thread. If the opposition parties decide to join the protests, the unrest and protests can be very powerful and can bring the government down. If the clashes between the protesters and government get out of control, the military could be compelled to move in to try and ‘pacify’ the protest movement. The Al-Qaeda-linked reactionary extremist groups and other Islamic extremist forces also can take advantage of the situation and make big gains. This all depends on the balance of forces at critical conjunctures. The role of the working class will be key and decisive.

The media has castigated the government response to the crisis in talk shows, scathing editorials and a series of damaging news reports. Private TV channels are constantly exposing the weaknesses and incapability of the government. So far, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) have yet to agitate en masse against the government. As the PML-N heads the provincial government in Punjab, one of the worst hit areas, some observers believe the mainstream opposition could also come unstuck over the disaster. In Muzafar Garh, one of the worst-affected districts of southern Punjab, officials openly admit it is beyond their capability to reach out to the 2.5 million local victims. People are blocking roads and highways, looting food trucks and protesting at not getting relief. The situation could easily get out of control, at some point, most likely when the reconstruction phase starts as the floods recede.

In Sindh province, where flooding has ravaged valuable rice and cotton crops and killed livestock, the adviser to the Chief Minister and renowned economist, Qaiser Bengali, acknowledged the dangers: “There is a great social risk. Food prices are really high, lots of crops have been destroyed and lots of cattle died, so if we do not pay attention to these issues, there will be huge demonstrations. Pakistan is so fragile that the government can be threatened as soon as there is social unrest. It is less a matter of the government than a matter of stability of the state”.

Concerns have been widely raised that in the long-term religious charities, which are exploiting the aid vacuum to provide welfare, could flourish in some areas and can increase their influence in the local communities. Qaisar Bengali stated: “People will say religious groups deliver, the state does not, and so the power of the mosque and of the religious schools will get stronger”.

Threat of rural discontent
The failure of Pakistan’s rulers to provide basic levels of services to its citizens has justifiably provoked widespread disillusionment and despondency. Besides the human suffering caused by this repeated failure to provide public welfare, the ongoing conflict with militant reactionary extremists has created a dangerous situation. The brewing discontent potentially provides the basis for further de-stablisation. The majority of the Pakistani population still lives in rural areas. There exist enormous widespread social inequalities in these areas.

Poverty in rural Pakistan is still strongly correlated with landlessness. Almost 70% of the rural population has no land, while a minuscule percentage of large landowners control a major proportion of cultivable land. This unequal land ownership persists across the country, despite the fact that agriculture is the most feasible livelihood for the rural poor, who lack education and other skills, resulting in little employment options within their localities. This situation explains why so many poor farmers agree to crop sharing agreements, whereby they give away half of their produce to a landowner, just for getting access to a piece of land.

Recent research indicates that land distribution patterns have been changing for the worse. Besides continued concentration of land in a few hands, there is a reduction in the total area given out to sharecroppers. The demand for capital-intensive cash crops and the growing influence of the multinational agricultural business interests may be factors behind this trend. It is, nonetheless, a cause of greater problems and stress for the rural poor. Many rural families are now making ends meet by livestock rearing, sending family members to find work in cities, or working as daily wage labourers for measly wages.

Two previous governments, led by General Ayub Khan and Zulifqar Ali Bhutto, in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively tried to undertake half-hearted land reforms and redistribution measures. Yet both these attempts had major weaknesses and lacked effective implementation. There was hardly any impact on redistribution of land holdings. After the judiciary decided against the need for land reforms back in the early 1980s, the motivation and justification for introducing further reforms dissipated.

Occupation of Military land
On the other hand, attempts to prohibit tenants’ evictions from property owned by landlords, or exacting free or bonded labour from the poor, have been sporadic. A poor farmer alone can hardly afford to take a stand against unjust treatment and exploitation by a feudal lord. The latter is backed by the local administration and police. Furthermore, the military and civil bureaucracy has not only developed a vested interest in preserving existing land ownership patterns. The military also came into direct conflict with poor tenant farmers working on the Okara Military Farms, some years ago. The dispute occurred when tenants resisted attempts to put in place new contract arrangements that would have increased profits for military farms but undermined their right to continue cultivating these lands. Thousands of tenant farmers put up stiff resistance against the might of military and forced them to retreat. These tenants are still occupying these lands after ten years. They are not paying any money to the military farms and continue to cultivate the lands. Their living standards have witnessed a significant rise in the last ten years. The rangers have similarly come into conflict with fishing communities residing along the coastal areas in Sindh. These conflicts have centred on the question of control of local lakes. The fishing communities are still fighting for their rights and refuse to give them up. Today the rural communities are not withdrawing from the struggle as they have in the past. Instead they are organizing fighting back.

Moreover, the governments’ continued inability to administer justice and provide other basic services like clean drinking water, sanitation, quality schooling and health facilities mean the standard of life in most rural areas is simply worsening. Improved irrigation, fertilizers, seed varieties and major subsidies for agricultural products have mostly benefited the rich instead of the poor and landless farmers. Bank lending has been made available mostly to big landlords and while micro-credit schemes are reaching out to the poor, they too charge high interest rates to the poorest of the poor who can not qualify to receive or pay back the loans.

Such realities should demonstrate why the poor and landless rural people may feel disaffected. Even the imperialist institutions like the World Bank admit that the continued concentration of land and power among a very small class of landowners is the cause of major social friction. But their proposed solutions are concerned with the use of market mechanisms and neo-liberal economic policies to induce growth through liberalizing agriculture sector, so as not to disrupt the global trade regime. A proposition that is not promising for the poor and landless.

The feared growth of conflict in southern Punjab, which has highly unequal land owner ship patterns, should be a major wake-up call for the policy makers. There is also evidence of the Taliban attempting to gain support by claiming to respond to the grievances of the rural poor by administering their style of justice in Swat valley. It does make strategic sense for reactionary religious extremists in Pakistan to exploit deep resentment among landless tenants toward wealthy landlords, to engineer a disguised and deformed class revolt on ‘religious basis’.

The social costs of failing to introduce reforms have often led to peasant uprisings and civil war on a local scale. Pakistan is now moving in that direction at an increasing pace. The floods have washed away the dreams of better life and prosperity.

Millions of peasants, agricultural workers and small farmers are suffering because the capitalist class in Pakistan failed to eradicate feudalism and big land holdings. No serious effort was made to abolish landlordism and carry through the progressive land reforms. Instead, respective military and civilian governments tried to strengthen the decaying feudal and tribal system. Eradication of feudalism and capitalism will free millions of people from the poverty trap, and the hunger and slavery which are the reality of life today.

Joint struggle of workers and peasants and the rural and urban poor is needed to overthrow the decaying capitalist and feudal system and to replace it with the only just system which is socialism. Socialism is a system which is based on the needs of the people and not on the profits of the big companies. Socialism works for the millions and not for the millionaires and super rich.

It is a system free of exploitation, repression and wars.

We call for:
– End feudalism and big landlordism; introduce land reforms and equal distribution of land.
– Compensation to all the affected without any discrimination on the basis of legal formalities – property rights etc.
– No surveys and verifications through the corrupt state officials; all this work must be through locally-elected committees.
– Provide free seeds, electricity, fertilizers and other utilities to poor farmers and peasants
– Relief and rehabilitation through workers’ and peasants’ committees
– Reduce the prices of vegetables, fruits and other food items.
– For a workers’ and peasants’ government and a democratic socialist planned economy

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