Land reforms Pakistan

Written by Laiba Umer Malik 7:42 pm Articles, Pakistan, Published Content

Land Reforms of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

Land reforms in Pakistan have been a contested issue for years. Since the era of General Ayub Khan, efforts to introduce land reforms for a more just distribution of property have been witnessed in Pakistan. The Zulfikar Ali Bhutto regime introduced two land reform acts (in 1972 and 1977) targeting land ownership, redistribution, and landlord-tenant relationships. Laiba Umer Malik analyzes the effects of Bhutto’s land reforms and the issues in their implementation in an effort to address why unequal property rights still linger in Pakistan.
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Ms Laiba Umer Malik is currently pursuing her bachelor's in Economics from National Defense University Islamabad.

Feudalism’s Grip on Pakistan

Feudalism entails a system where ownership of land rests with higher-ranking groups. Feudalism has a stranglehold on Pakistan’s economy and politics. It is a curse that has been present in Pakistan for a long time and is regarded as a significant scar on Pakistan’s growth. Feudal lords represent themselves as benevolent protectors, but this isn’t a fact in the feudal areas; the literacy rate is very low, women’s rights are violated, and children aren’t protected. Feudal landlords create a state within the state. Therefore, feudalism is the primary force behind deforming Pakistan’s system. It is a crime against humanity and one way to deal with it is by carrying out effective land reforms.

Land reforms are essential for countries where people’s subsistence is mainly on agriculture and huge land holdings are in the hands of few people. In Pakistan, 75% of households own no land in the country. Data at the provincial level shows that about 78% of households have no land in Baluchistan, followed by 74% in Punjab, and 85% in Sindh. This inequality proves that a major share of farmland is being owned by a very minor group. Statistics say that merely 0.05% of households possess more than 2 hectares in Sindh and Punjab. This pattern of land distribution presents a highly skewed picture, forcing the officials to act responsibly in terms of land reforms.

For transforming the agrarian economies of the world, land reforms have been considered the most essential strategy by all economists. The process involves breaking up evil land concentration, decreasing income inequalities, boosting rural employment, refining land productivity, stimulating the adoption of modern technologies, and maintaining socioeconomic stability. Peter Dorner, in his book on land reforms, emphasizes the costs of land concentration and considers land reforms as a necessary condition for the growth in agricultural countries.

History of Land Reforms in Pakistan

Land reforms in Pakistan have a long history. The British Crown hadn’t shown any interest in this process as it was busy getting support from Indian landlords. It was only after the partition of the subcontinent that major reforms occurred, and that too in three phases. The first phase of land reforms involved the era of General Ayub Khan, while the second and third phases took effect during the era of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

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In 1959, Ayub Khan’s government introduced the first major land reforms. Under martial law regulation no. 64, land reforms were put forth that applied only to West Pakistan. These reforms hadn’t altered the land concentration ratio significantly.  Their significance lies merely in the fact that they laid the foundation for agrarian reforms. The reason behind its ineffectiveness is that the ceilings on the individuals’ holdings remained quite plentiful. Other reasons include the transfer of land within the family and the possibility of evading ceiling requirements by adopting various means.

Bhutto’s Land Reforms Act 1972

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto declared land reforms on 1st March 1972. To mark the significance of this event and to celebrate the benediction of this day, he announced a public holiday on 3rd March. In his speech, he condemned the reforms of the Ayub era and called them mere deceptions. In his speech, Bhutto highlighted that he intends to bring reforms on an extensive scale, but the main objective is to disrupt the monopolizing attitude of landlords and to upgrade the status of landless tenants. 

President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1971
President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1971

The main reforms were:

  1. Individual holdings would not exceed 300 acres of unirrigated land and 150 acres of irrigated land, or land equal to 15,000 PIU. The excess land had to be submitted to the government and used in favor of tenants. Some institutions were exempted from regulations in prior reforms. However, the reforms of 1972 abolished those exemptions and stated that orchards, livestock farms, charities, and religious organizations would also follow the same regulations.
  2. Excess land was to be resumed and redistributed. For the division of resumed land, three priorities were formed.
  3. Area not exceeding subsistence holding was to be given without charge to landless tenants who were cultivating resumed land for a minimum of one season in 1971-72.
  4. The land which was not being cultivated by any tenant was to be redistributed to small owners with less land than subsistence holding. So, that they could gain subsistence holding.
  5. The lands of charitable organizations etc. were to be utilized by the government at its will.
  6. Tenancy rights were to be safeguarded.
  7. The rent payment system was to remain the same.
  8. Tenants were not responsible for land revenue, seed costs, and water processes. The cost of pesticides and fertilizers was to be shared.
  9. Landlords were banned from imposing charges.
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The Land Reforms Act 1977

The second land reforms bill was publicized in January 1977. It had three main features. First of all, it decreased the individual holding’s ceiling to 8,000 PIUs, or 200 acres in case of unirrigated lands, or 100 acres in case of irrigated lands. This new limit was 2/3rd of what was allowed in the land reforms of 1972. The second feature was the compensation that had to be paid to landowners for giving up their land.

Thirdly, the reclaimed land was divided among people following the same rules given in 1972. The new regulations reflected the Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) resolution of benefitting peasants. For the rigorous implementation of 1977 regulation, Bhutto also reformed the land revenue system. Despite the planning and firm resolution, the regulations hadn’t proved fruitful.

The Complex Tale of Reforms

Because of the 1972 reforms, 1.3 million acres of land were taken back and 0.9 million acres were relocated among 76,000 recipients. Due to the 1977 reforms, 1.8 million acres of land were reclaimed and 0.9 million acres were circulated amongst 13,143 receivers. Before the completion of the Ayub Khan Era and Bhutto, merely 4.5 million acres of cultivated land which was less than 10% of the total land was relocated.

Land reforms brought the PPP into competition with the National Awami Party in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. 33% of the total number of landless tenants in the NWFP, were provided land. 12% of the land was reallocated in the province. Due to this, the PPP got strong support from the NWFP. General Zia ul Haq formed the Federal Shariat Court to review whether a law is objectionable to the Islamic commands. 67 Shariat petitions were submitted in several courts which challenged the land reform legislation.

The majority judgment declared that putting land ceilings is not contrary to Islamic law. But the Peshawar High Court stated that the ceiling was un-Islamic. In 1989, a plea was submitted and the final result was conveyed to the judge of the Sharia appellate bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The judgment was divided 3-2 in favor of stating the land reforms as unIslamic. Mufti Taqi Usmani claimed that the land reforms in Pakistan were objectionable to the commands of Islam. His main three statements were:

  1. The rights of individual property in Islam are alike the rights of other goods.
  2. Islam has enforced no quantitative limit ceiling on the property or any other good that a person can own.
  3. The purpose behind the welfare system of Islam is the mere sustenance of the poor.
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The role of welfare by the state is limited in Islam. This judgment halted the process of further reforms. Bhutto adopted the concept of Islamic socialism to alter political discourse in the country. His policies revolved around the masses compared to the former government. The US rejected the economic policies as Bhutto ignored the views of foreign consultants. Thus, on foreign policy aspects, this decreased the influence of the US on Pakistani politics.

Bhutto’s land reforms were a decision that was politically motivated and hadn’t brought significant results. One of the main reasons for its ineffectiveness was that the landowners converted their economic power into political authority and forced their tenants to choose them. Statistics reveal that Pakistan’s national and provincial assemblies are being ruled by feudal landowners. At least 75% of the government’s ‎legislative branch is composed of landowners. The annexation of landlords in the political process of Pakistan suggests that achieving the effectiveness of reforms in the future will be difficult as well.

Impediments in Implementation

The reforms in the Bhutto era have gone through the same mishaps in their implementation as the land reforms of 1959. The landless were given lands just in name. In many cases, the transfers were recorded fictitiously. The reforms stimulated many Punjabi landlords to become part of the PPP to shield their assets. Thus the main objective of supporting tenants wasn’t fulfilled. The reforms in the land had also affected other sectors of the economy.

As reforms weren’t successful and nationalization by Bhutto also posed some serious complications for the people, people protested against Bhutto’s policies. As the Bhutto era came to an end, the process of reforms also ended. Land reforms in Pakistan have always remained controversial. It was considered that reforms diminish the right to own, use, and enjoy property that has been provided by the Constitution.


It is pretty evident that the chapter on reforms will never be opened again as Gramsci stated that the ruling elites not only rule by coercion but also build their supremacy by modeling beliefs, culture, norms, and laws that strengthen their hegemony. If land reforms occur, the bulk of elites would lose ownership rights. This fact has acted as the prime friction behind implementing land reforms.

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