Tenants have no way out

Many of us were shocked when a man in Badin recently attempted to sell his eight-year-old daughter to an elderly landlord after failing to pay him back a Rs100,000 loan. It was shocking because we hardly ever ponder over the trade-offs that these landless and subsistence farmers have to make in their daily lives.

“We frequently acquire financial help from our landlords, hoping we’ll be able to pay them back following the harvest season,” says a landless farmer from the union council of Massoo Bozdar in Tando Allahyar.

Borrowing from landlords is a general practice among those farmers who don’t have access to financial services. According to one estimate, up to 85 per cent of farmers are still formally excluded from financial services. Agricultural loans account for only 7.6pc of total bank loans and are limited to Punjab for the most part.

As we went to different villages of Sindh and talked to landlords and landless tenants, we found that the poor live on subsistence, have little or no savings but face all exigencies of life. Keeping in view the absence of basic public services, landlords are a blessing in disguise in many ways. They help these landless tenants survive. Surely, many of them do so not out of affection for farmers but to exploit their cheap labour in the long run.

If the crop fails, the tenant remains in debt. As a result, he keeps borrowing from the landlord until the next crop

If we put ourselves in the shoes of these poor farmers, a less incriminating role of the landlord would emerge. The landlord helps farmers meet expenditures on all occasions, such as weddings, festivals, house building and harvesting. Moreover, the landlord also sometimes helps farmers meet their daily consumption needs.

In the absence of alternative livelihoods, social protection and skills, farmers cannot easily walk away from starvation. A cash economy where people can work and get paid in cash every day or every month is nearly missing in rural Sindh.

Choices are not many for farmers. We could not track some of the families we met six months ago to see any socioeconomic changes in their lives. Some poor farmers, who were unable to repay their loans, had no choice but to flee. They did it at night to minimise the risk of being chased and chained by the landlord.

“We are daily-wage labourers. But before migrating to Alamani farm, we were living a contented life as farm tenants. The 2010 flood submerged our land and damaged the crop. We went in debt of Rs100,000. We knew we could not pay it off our whole lives. The debt would only increase with the passage of time. So we decided to flee without informing anyone,” said one Ms Jasgi, a 50-year old from Tando Allahyar district.

The landlord is not altruistic. So his help comes at a cost. If the crop fails, the tenant remains in debt. As a result, the tenant keeps borrowing from the landlord until the next crop. This means he is bound to work for the same landlord as long as he is in debt.

Sometimes farmers cannot maintain a record of their borrowing due to illiteracy. “I worked as a farmer with a landlord and maintained all records of inputs like seeds, fertilisers and pesticides. We also borrowed money for household expenditures. But at the time of the settlement, there was a difference of Rs50,000 between my record and that of the landlord. When I asked him to give me my due share based on the fair calculation, the landlord used inappropriate words and expelled me from the area. Now I am helpless,” says Vishnu Kolhi, former tenant-farmer who now works as a teacher in a private school in Tando Allahyar.

While macroeconomic growth strategies are necessary to increase the size of the economy, a lot needs to be done to address this micro-dynamic of rural poverty. It will ensure that benefits of this growth reach the poor and the marginalised. It’s only through a multi-pronged poverty reduction strategy that effective linkages can be created to meet the needs of the poor and track the allocation of funds for meaningful change.

Dr Abdur Rehman Cheema | Sultana Ali
Writers work for Rural support program