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How Land Reform Can Help Reduce Terrorism in Pakistan

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The Pulse

How Land Reform Can Help Reduce Terrorism in Pakistan

A recent World Bank project in Punjab addressed numerous grievances indirectly contributing to extremism throughout the province.

How Land Reform Can Help Reduce Terrorism in Pakistan
Credit: Muhammad Owais Khan via Wikimedia Commons

The May 31 merger of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is Islamabad’s latest effort to bring stability to a region long suffering from conflict and terrorism. The measure follows years of major military operations and half-hearted implementation of the 2014 National Action Plan. The provision of equal rights to millions of Pashtuns and proposed development projects may in fact address the various injustices and hardships throughout the rugged borderlands.

While events in the northwest often draw international attention, recent reform projects elsewhere in Pakistan can also potentially diminish terrorism. In centrally located Punjab province — a well-established operational base for militant groups — a recent World Bank project addressed many of the political and socioeconomic grievances indirectly contributing to extremism. The 2007-2016 Land Records Management and Information Systems (LRMIS) project converted land administration services from a disjointed, corrupt system to a convenient and transparent computerized structure. This transition was crucial for the rural southern districts of Punjab.

More people live below the poverty line in Punjab than in Sindh, Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces combined. Southern Punjab, especially, is subject to weak governance, economic neglect, and exploitation. Job opportunities are severely limited and any raw resources are quickly shipped away from local communities. Poor farmers resentfully refer to the industrialized central and north of the province as the Takht Lahore, or the “Throne of Lahore.” Traditional power structures persisted over decades as wealth and political clout were concentrated in large landholding families.

Socioeconomic inequality and political alienation have traditionally been exacerbated by an inaccessible and corrupt land administration system. Unresponsive and autonomous village bureaucrats — known as Patwaris — often elicited bribes, tampered with handwritten records, and marginalized groups such as poor farmers and women. Wealthy landowners received preferential treatment from rent-seeking Patwaris, while poor tenure security contributed to difficulties in the transfer of land ownership and unequal access to capital.

There is admittedly no direct relationship between public grievances and extremism. Yet poverty, inequality, corruption, and political alienation are often exploited as terrorist recruitment tools and reduce the opportunity costs associated with joining an armed group. Extremist organizations, such as the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, present themselves as challengers to established elites in order to win Punjabi hearts and minds.

Shehbaz Sharif, then-chief minister of Punjab, strongly supported the World Bank project and its potential to dismantle a land administration system best characterized as exploitative and corrupt. Elimination of the Patwar system could improve livelihoods, strengthen governance, and help counter extremism. According to a Punjabi land official, Sharif aimed to implement an open and reliable system with maximum automation.

Through the embrace of lessons learned from previous failures, the World Bank Task Team and the government of Punjab together created an adaptable and scalable project design. The lengthy, but necessary double-blind entry process of legacy land records assured the quality of digitized data. Flexible software managed complex and idiosyncratic land administration practices of the past. LRMIS project leaders actively engaged with the general public and key stakeholders — such as bureaucrats, landholders, and village elders — about the systemic reforms.

LRMIS achieved significant tangible results by its conclusion in December 2016. The project rigorously combined technological modernization and bureaucratic restructuring to create an impartial and service-based computerized system. Fifty-six million land records were digitized; 5 million records were corrected during digitization; and over 140 service-based centers — operational in all 36 provincial districts — now serve 20 million landowners with reduced transaction times and costs.

In part due to the continued political support of the Punjabi government, provincial legislation removed the Patwaris from a position of power within land administration. Poor farmers are now financially unburdened from bureaucratic rent-seeking. Averse to fraud and corruption, the new system helps to improve land tenure security. Property value can indirectly increase through easier loan procurement and agricultural investment.

In a 2018 letter to Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank, Sharif states that “the project marks a revolution in rural life.” LRMIS deconstructs socioeconomic power structures throughout the Punjabi countryside. Patwari exclusion from land administration disrupted a system heavily biased towards wealthy landowners. Greater access to capital, services, and the formal economy for marginalized groups promotes balanced development and encourages political engagement.

The poorest of society are often most vulnerable to exploitation by extremist groups. Jihad offers a sense of purpose, improved social status, and/or economic incentives. Recruitment can occur non-ideologically, as many foot soldiers view militancy as a job offering financial stability for themselves and their families. Indoctrination follows recruitment in many cases. The capacity to provide crucial government services and economic opportunities to poor farmers can raise opportunity costs and ultimately reduce the appeal of extremism.

LRMIS design was democratic, inclusive, and facilitates responsive governance. Project engagement with disaffected rural citizens through an extensive public awareness campaign likely countered perceptions of political alienation. A World Bank report reveals high customer satisfaction with LRMIS due to efficient service delivery and expected strengthening of land tenure security.

The widespread network of land service centers provides the provincial government with larger and improved quantities of data. The resulting insights can better inform policy planning related to tax collection, resource allocation, disaster management, and other development initiatives. Through sufficient responsiveness, the provincial government in Lahore can increasingly replace the charity wings of radical Islamic organizations utilized to gain support in the countryside.

Land administration reform is not a panacea for militancy in Punjab — and in Pakistan more broadly. But such projects can be part of a holistic and sustainable approach for countering extremist organizations. Aside from precise counterterrorism operations, authorities should work to reduce the influence of radicalizing madrassas and hardline preachers, eliminate the climate of impunity afforded to “good terrorists,” and continue to pursue other development schemes.

Successful reform in rural Punjab can nevertheless produce dramatic results, as approximately 65 million people live throughout the provincial countryside. LRMIS bolsters socioeconomic opportunities, and creates more efficient and responsive governance. By doing so, the project confronted various grievances contributing to extremism — poverty, inequality, exploitation, and alienation.

Any counterterrorism measures stemming from Lahore contain broader implications for security in Pakistan. To the west, Punjab borders the former FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan –home to a long-lingering separatist insurgency. Radicalism is on the rise in neighboring districts of Sindh, and the regional jihad continues against India. The improvement of livelihoods in Punjab can disrupt both terrorist recruitment and various groups’ operational capabilities, ultimately creating positive outcomes for Islamabad’s fight against extremism.

Tim Robustelli works for the Future of Property Rights Program at New America, a think tank based in Washington, DC.