SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 142 - October 2010

Pakistan floods raise spectre of social unrest

SHAHBAZ SHARIF, the chief minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in the largest province, Punjab, continues to warn the ruling classes and rich of Pakistan of a backlash from the rural poor affected by the devastating floods. Other politicians, and 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 one fifth 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.

Survivors camping out in miserable conditions – up to ten million still without shelter – have staged angry protests against the government, shutting main highways. The devastation of farmland and transport links mean that food prices have rocketed, fanning frustration among the masses. 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 embraced by the working class and the poor. The reactionary pro-capitalist opposition could capitalise on this situation in the long-term. Reactionary religious extremists could move to fill the political vacuum that already exists in society, if the working-class movement fails to build an alternative platform of struggle.

The government hangs by a thread. If the opposition parties decide to join the protests, the unrest could 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 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 decisive.

So far, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his 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, it 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, Qaisar 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 the 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 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".

The majority of the Pakistani population still lives in rural areas, where enormous widespread social inequalities persist. 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 explains why so many poor farmers accept crop sharing agreements whereby they give away half of their produce to a landowner, just for getting access to a piece of land.

But 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, tried to undertake half-hearted land reforms and redistribution measures. Yet both these attempts had hardly any impact on redistribution of land holdings. And after the judiciary decided against the need for land reforms back in the early 1980s, the motivation and justification for introducing further reforms dissipated.

Moreover, the government’s 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 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.

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 liberalising the agriculture sector, so as not to disrupt the global trade regime.

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 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, socialism. Socialism 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.

Khalid Bhatti, Socialist Movement Pakistan

This is an edited version of a fuller article published on the CWI website

The Socialist Movement Pakistan calls for:

End feudalism and big landlordism; introduce land reforms and the 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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