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Irrigation Development and Agrarian Change: A Study of Sindh, Pakistan

Author(s):Perera, Jayantha
Reviewer(s):Naseem, Anwar

Published by EH.NET (May 2006)

Jayantha Perera, Irrigation Development and Agrarian Change: A Study of Sindh, Pakistan. Jaipur and New Delhi: Rawat Publications, 2003. 312 pp. Rupees 595 (hardcover), ISBN: 81-7033-814-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Anwar Naseem, Department of Agricultural Economics, McGill University.

The objective of Jayantha Perera’s book is to “examine irrigation development and agricultural change in the last 150 years in the lower Indus basin” (p. 27). To this end Perera presents a detailed historical account of irrigation development in Pakistan’s Sindh province, covering both the physical and institutional aspects. The underlying theme of the book is that the development of irrigation in Sindh has not only been influenced by the attributes of the physical landscape, but just as importantly by the contemporary institutional, socio-economic and political setup of the province. Perera argues — and convincingly so — that throughout much of Sindh’s modern history, the physical changes brought about by irrigation have been a consequence of the larger institutional context, in particular the relationships of the different stakeholders to each other.

By presenting a more holistic and historical account of irrigation development, Perera makes the case that infrastructure development projects must not be evaluated on economic criteria alone (as they often are) but need to take into account their impact on social relationships, especially those between the state and the different economic and political groups. A key insight of the book is that in Sindh the dominant forces in such relationships have — more often than not — influenced the development of irrigation in ways that preserve the inequitable status quo favoring primarily the state and large land-holding classes.

This principal theme is meticulously built in the nine chapters of the book, written from a anthropologist’s point of view by chronologically detailing (from the nineteenth century to the present) the development of irrigation and analyzing how each major irrigation initiative influenced the socio-economic conditions of Sindhi society.

The introductory chapter presents some facts about the lower Indus river basin and outlines the scope of the study. Sindh province is the southernmost delta of the Indus River, which runs from northeast to southwest through present-day Pakistan and has played an important role in the irrigation system and agricultural development of the region, which is still evolving. In understanding agrarian change brought about by irrigation development, Perera seeks to examine the inter-play of the increased involvement of the state in irrigation, geo-physical improvements to the irrigation infrastructure, and the social dynamics of the competing and cooperative interests of different groups in agricultural development. Perera discusses the changing mosaic of these characteristics over the course of the different periods, broadly differentiating between the colonial and post-independence periods.

Chapter 2 focuses on irrigation policies and development under the British. Prior to the arrival of the British, Sindh had only a rudimentary irrigation system, relying mainly on the annual flooding of the Indus. This did not cause the British much concern as agricultural development was not considered the principal aim of their conquest of Sindh in 1843. Their real economic aim was to transform the province into a commercial hub based on a progressive and free-market economy. Realizing that Sindh was an inferior candidate to the neighboring port of Bombay for such a purpose, the imperial focus shifted to developing agriculture — specifically irrigated agriculture — as a way of generating revenues.

The imperatives of the new strategy involved the maintenance of law and order, development of irrigation infrastructure and assigning property rights to collect revenues. Law and order was effectively maintained through the appeasement of the local elite by bestowing upon them special titles and honors. With the populace largely under their control, the British embarked on irrigation development in the province that often progressed more through trial and error than based on well-laid-out blueprints. Yet, by the end of the colonial period, Sindh could boast of a state-run irrigation infrastructure built almost from the scratch.

The author uses his anthropologist’s insight to good effect in exploring the impact of the different irrigation policies and projects implemented by the British on agrarian society in some detail in chapter 3. He focuses on two sets of relationship clusters — the one between the British rulers and the local elite/landholders and the other between landholders and those who cultivated the land. Perera finds that the British were conflicted in their twin objectives of promoting a free market economy and maximizing revenue collection, on the one hand, and of maintaining law and order on the other. The conflict compelled them to woo the local landlords, who were their main political support base. This, however, had the perverse effect of perpetuating the feudal system even though the British initially had set out “to curb the powers of Jagirdars [landowners] by promoting the emergence of an independent peasantry as a counter group in Sindh” (p. 74)

Three chapters of the book (Chapters 4 to 6) are devoted to a detailed history of irrigation, drainage and land policies (and their development) in the post independence period. After a discussion of the various irrigation projects undertaken by Pakistan under the Indus Basin Water Treaty with India and the financial support of the World Bank, Chapter 4 reviews the evolution of irrigation policies in Pakistan in three major phases. While the first phase (1947-1970’s), concentrated on building the irrigation infrastructure, the second (1970’s to 1990) focused on farm management of water resources and finally the last fifteen years have been devoted to improving the efficiency of the irrigation and drainage system.

A major adverse consequence of the expansion of irrigation in Pakistan, especially in Sindh, was waterlogging and salinity which rendered large areas of land uncultivable. The author was closely involved as a resident social scientist in the World Bank-funded Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) Project launched in the 1980s to deal with this serious threat to agricultural productivity. Perera reports that due to the LBOD project irrigation water supplies increased dramatically from 1983 to 1992 and that by the end of 1997 there was a considerable decline in the water table in the project areas. While the project’s technical efficiency was undeniable, the author finds that it was not unassailable on grounds of equity. It failed to consider the impacts of highly skewed land distribution, the concentration of political power of large landholders and, despite the rhetoric of more farmer participation, an overly hierarchical operational structure. For example, while water supplies had increased by 1992, they began to precipitously decline from that point on as “some influential politicians in Punjab had diverted more than their authorized water allocations to their large tracts of lands causing this reversal of water supplies in the lower Sindh” (p. 151). The equitable distribution of water among provinces continues to be a hot political issue in Pakistan today. Perera’s book provides a useful insight into the political and regional dimensions of this issue.

Perhaps, the weakest chapter of the book, Chapter 6, is the one which examines how the improved irrigation and drainage programs impacted productivity and growth in the post-independence period. The chapter presents many statistical details about changes in cropping intensities, cropping patterns, cultivated area, yields and other production indicators. Unfortunately, theses figures are presented in a disjointed manner that will cause the reader difficulty in appreciating the correlation between irrigation and agricultural production. A more rigorous analysis of the trends over the entire post-independence period would be needed to demonstrate the social profitability of the LBOD and other projects.

The most perceptive and interesting chapters of the book, in this reviewer’s view, are chapters 7 and 8, which provide a narrative of his observations about how the Sindhi farmers involve themselves in the operation and maintenance of irrigation canals. Chapter 7 provides a glimpse into the role water and its allocation between the different farmer groups plays in the daily lives of the people. Perera highlights property rights issues and the responsibilities of the groups for maintenance of facilities. He also deals with the nature of conflicts and the mechanisms of their resolution. Here, too, the author cites examples of how the inequitable distribution of land and political power subverts the writ of the state and consequently the efficient allocation of water resources. Chapter 8 discusses the relationships among three main economic classes in rural Sindh, namely the Zamindars (landholders), haris (sharecroppers) and the wage laborers. While the relationships among these groups are very hierarchical, there are hopeful signs that the situation could improve. At one level the increased off-farm opportunities for haris and small Zamindars may shift the balance of power away from the large Zamindars who would have to offer more favorable terms to haris. Secondly the expansion of cultivated land through irrigation has led to upward mobility for some landless wage laborers as they become haris, which would not have been possible without irrigation. However, there is very little empirical evidence cited to show that these theoretical possibilities are being realized.

In the concluding chapter, Perera offers competing perspectives on the impact of irrigation development in rural Sindh. There is little doubt that the expansion of irrigation has brought more land under cultivation and increased productivity which, in turn, has had a positive impact on poverty reduction and higher incomes for farmers. But this positive effect has led to more land becoming uncultivable due to waterlogging and salinity-a direct consequence of expanded irrigation-and raises legitimate concerns of the sustainability of irrigated agriculture. Similarly given the skewed land distribution, the increases in income have helped primarily the large landholders become even richer. However this too needs to be evaluated in the context of better income and employment opportunities that have become available for the landless class. The author suggests some policy reforms that would result in more efficient and equitable use of water resources. These include market mechanisms such as demand-driven distribution of water and increased investment by the private sector. While these and other measures are surely needed they are unlikely to come about any time soon. The political power of the two groups who stand to lose the most (the bureaucracy and large landholders) is too strong to allow for any meaningful reform.

Notwithstanding the deficiencies in economic analysis pointed out in this review, Perera’s book provides a useful and holistic perspective on the socioeconomic impact of infrastructure development for the case of irrigation development in Sindh.

Anwar Naseem is an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics, McGill University, Montreal. His recent works include “Does Plant Variety Intellectual Property Protection Improve Farm Productivity? Evidence from Cotton Varieties” (with J.F. Oehmke and D.E. Schimmelpfennig) AgBioForum (2005) and “Biotechnology R&D: Policy Options to Ensure Access and Benefits for the Poor” (with C.E. Pray) FAO Working Paper 2004.

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII