It’s hard to catch a break in Pakistan.
Extremist violence is widespread, earthquakes and flooding are routine, and polio remains endemic. No nation has a higher infant mortality rate, and only a few have more cases of tuberculosis. Nearly half the country’s 180 million people lack access to safe water, and many Pakistanis have experienced power outages of up to 20 hours per day. Given such stresses, it’s not surprising that up to 16 percent of the country suffers from mental illness.
And now comes the latest scourge: Famine.
In recent days, media reports have revealed that dozens of people—many of them children—have died from malnutrition over the last three months in the bone-dry desert region of Thar, in the southern province of Sindh. And yet things could soon get much worse. A recent UNICEF report, noting that drought has “devastated” crops and livestock and that “hundreds of thousands” of people have fled, warns of a possible “massive humanitarian crisis” in Thar. Ominously, almost 3 million people “risk starvation” across Pakistan.
Many Pakistani press accounts—and numerous Pakistani politicians—depict the Thar tragedy as a catastrophic case of negligence by Sindh’s provincial government. They fault local officials for taking too long to get food assistance to those in need late last year when drought conditions first began to set in. And they single out authorities for failing to transfer sick children in remote areas to better hospitals.
Yet the Thar famine also reflects another type of failure: that of democracy.
In recent years, Pakistan—a country ruled by the military for about half its existence— has made remarkable democratic progress. With successive free elections, civilian rule is firmly in place. Pakistan’s mighty military has mellowed. Constitutional amendments have decentralized power. The Supreme Court is increasingly targeting powerful people and institutions. And private media outlets have rapidly proliferated.
However, there are limits to this progress.
The most commonly cited obstacles to deeper democratization are the military, which continues to exert heavy influence over politics; a lack of pluralism and tolerance, which contributes to the deplorable plight of religious minorities; and the country’s abysmal law enforcement, which enables militants to operate with impunity.
Yet the tragedy in Thar underscores a more insidious and underreported threat to democracy: Astounding manifestations of land inequality.
In Sindh, a paltry 0.05 percent of households hold more than five acres of land (the figure is similar in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province). In the nation as a whole, 2 percent of households own nearly 50 percent of land, while 5 percent of agricultural households own nearly two thirds of Pakistan’s farmland.
This means that the majority of the population holds little to no land. Without land, it’s difficult to access food and water (and it’s also difficult to earn a livelihood; landless Pakistanis make up 70 percent of the country’s rural poor). Most Pakistanis must depend on a tiny, wealthy landowning minority for access to these natural resources.
These resources, and the land that holds them, are becoming increasingly precious. According to one alarming estimate, Pakistan loses three acres of good agricultural land every 20 minutes. In Thar, land and natural resources are further imperiled by Islamabad’s plan to tap into the region’s vast coalfields to ease the country’s severe energy crisis. Officials insist there will be no deleterious impacts on local communities, but there’s good reason to fear that such exploitation could cause environmental distress and displacement, and deprive an impoverished region of a critical natural resource. These are very real problems in equally dry and poor Baluchistan, a province long subjected to intensive natural resource extractions by Islamabad and large corporations. Such conditions have helped fuel a long-running separatist insurgency.
In effect, millions of Pakistanis have neither the land to grow food nor the money to buy it. And yet little is done to help them. Landed rural elites—the essence of vested interests in Pakistan—seemingly spend more time blocking critical agricultural reforms (including those that would increase the tax base) than addressing the plight of the landless. They have also been accused of siphoning off irrigation water flows from poor farmers, and of diverting floodwaters away from their crops and into more vulnerable communities. What’s particularly troubling about all this is that these wealthy landowners are often politically connected, or politicians themselves (Sindh’s landed rural elite is a strong base of support for the Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP, which runs the Sindh government).
Consider the strikingly blasé reactions of local officials to current conditions in Thar. Apparently unmoved by (or oblivious to) UNICEF’s warnings of a massive crisis, PPP leaders have described events of recent days as “normal” and “nothing new.” Sindh’s advocate general, speaking Monday at a hearing convened by Pakistan’s Supreme Court, expressed regret, but also appeared to lay the blame on parents for not taking their kids to the hospital.
Perhaps most egregious of all, after federal officials toured affected areas this week, Sindh’s government hosted a lavish buffet lunch featuring fried fish and biryani —“an act of such monumental stupidity and insensitivity,” according to one Pakistani editorial, “that it beggars belief.”
Call this heartlessness, or call it apathy. Many Pakistanis call it feudalism—the embodiment of a system in which imperious landed elites lord over their hapless subjects. One thing you can’t call it, however, is democracy. Yes, it’s an imperfect institution—but surely it doesn’t sanction such vast disparities in land ownership, or the type of leadership that seems unmoved by the humanitarian crises spawned by those disparities.
The takeaway here is that in Thar, people are dying because of deeply entrenched inequalities that make them profoundly food insecure and hyper-vulnerable to calamities—like drought and disease—that more fortunate people elsewhere can withstand and survive.
Ultimately, the dead and dying of Thar—just like slaughtered Shia Muslims, the military’s large political footprint, and state sponsorship of militancy—underscore the fact that despite considerable achievements in recent years, democracy in Pakistan remains a work in progress.
Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at michael.kugelman[@]wilsoncenter.org or on Twitter @michaelkugelman.