With the devastating floods that began in July, Mother Nature has left an indelible imprint on Pakistan—its geography, its people, its national psyche. But it has also created an opportunity to change the destiny of millions of flood victims who traumatically lost their loved ones, homes, and livelihoods in mere days. This natural disaster may have given the country an opportunity to tackle a recurring point of contention in Pakistan—feudalism.
Academics, journalists, and analysts have frequently pointed to feudalism as a reason for the huge inequalities in Pakistan, claiming that many landlords treat their tenants and peasants like slaves. According to a 2009 estimate by campaigner Anti-Slavery International, debt has forced more than 1.8 million people to work for their landlords with no pay. If there is truth to this today, in even a few cases, perhaps the floods have delivered Pakistan an opportunity to empower those trapped in decades of feudalism and poverty.
The question is how to capitalize on this potential opportunity. Land reforms in 1959, 1972, and 1977 failed to redistribute land more equitably and are not expected ever to be legitimately carried out by any government, due to political constraints. What is possible today, in a post-flood scenario, is a collaborative effort among the private sector, entrepreneurs, NGOs, and foreign donors to be creative about job creation, even if only on a small scale. If successful, at least some of these landless flood victims could be given an opportunity to rebuild their lives outside the feudal context.
Laboring for the Owners
As many flood victims return to their homes to figure out how to rehabilitate their lives, others have already declared they will never go back. They appear to feel the floods have given them an opportunity to break away from the hold of their landlords. They did not own the land they were tilling and had to give large portions of their produce to their landlords while never coming close to paying off their debts.
Recent media coverage has captured the anger of many flood victims, particularly in rural Sindh. Some residents of Dari, near Kandhkhot, for instance, reportedly said they were literally left on the side of the road and abandoned by their landlords when the floods began. Unable to find shelter, they took refuge under some trees for a few weeks before making their way to overpopulated relief camps. Others with health problems made their way to camps but were turned away for medical treatment because they were not registered and have yet to be contacted by their landlords. Those who had small plots of land fear they will never retrieve what they owned because all the paperwork has been washed away.
There have also been reports of some influential landlords having had floodwaters diverted to save their own lands and instead engulf the villages of the poor. Others have said food rations and other forms of aid given to these landlords have only been passed on to their relatives and voters, while some apparently have kept the aid in storage for their own use in the coming months. While this has been difficult to prove, the perception of such acts has likely added to the resentment of some tenants and peasants toward their landlords that could derail feudal relations in the long term. As flood relief efforts increasingly focus on rehabilitation, we have to consider what these flood victims will do now. If they are not in a position to return to work on the land of their feudal lords, how will they make a living?
Earning Money in Aid Projects
Beyond finding housing for these landless flood victims, there is a real need to focus on job-creation strategies. Some aid agencies, such as Oxfam and the UNDP, have already teamed up with local NGOs to offer cash-for-work programs. In the Charsada and Nowshera districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, for instance, 1,500 flood victims from relief camps are being paid to pick up and dispose of rubble from the streets and build drains and roads, working five days per week and receiving 400 to 600 Pakistani rupees ($4.7 to $7) for six hours of labor in a UNDP-sponsored project.
But these jobs are short-term and do not cater to those who feel they cannot return home to work for their landlords. It would thus be prudent to think about long-term employment strategies, such as bottom-up programs, specifically for this cadre of flood victims. Perhaps foreign aid and NGO workers could work together with a local microfinance bank to introduce a combination of vocational training and loans for these flood victims so they can create their own employment and gain self-sufficiency. Or maybe social entrepreneurs can ally with the private sector to consider training flood victims for rural outsourcing in a particular area. There should also be a psychological component to any rehabilitation efforts, not only to help the flood-afflicted cope with the ongoing trauma of the floods, but also to introduce them to the idea of economic independence through these job creation projects.
This is the time to be creative for those flood victims who are not in a position to go home and work for their landlords anymore. It would be worthwhile for a local university, such as Lahore University of Management Sciences or Karachi's Institute of Business Administration, to organize a job-creation conference, drawing on the perspectives of local businessmen, entrepreneurs, academics, NGO workers, and the flood victims themselves. These participants could start by "adopting" one flood-afflicted community of landless tenants and peasants, and brainstorming creative strategies specifically for their long-term employment and self-sufficiency.
We have already witnessed how quickly Pakistanis all over the world and in the country have rallied together to raise money aggressively for flood relief in the past few months. As the floods recede and recovery effects have turned to rehabilitation, perhaps these individuals would now be willing to offer "patient capital" to invest in their own job-creation project targeting those flood victims who will no longer go back to their feudal setup. It may not turn a profit for investors immediately, but if this works, it could provide at least one landless tenant or peasant with economic freedom—for the first time in his life.