Pakistan army trades tanks for tractors in food-security push
by MIFRAH HAQ
KARACHI -- Pakistan's army is taking over vast swaths of government-owned land to grow food but the moves are fanning concerns about the powerful military's pervasive presence in a country facing economic collapse.
The plan -- two decades after pay disputes at an army-run farm sparked a deadly revolt -- comes as the South Asian nation grapples with dwindling foreign currency reserves that hamper its ability to pay for imported food and key commodities.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets over soaring electricity bills linked to the terms of an International Monetary Fund bailout.
Launched earlier this year by a joint civil-military investment body, the new food security plan aims to boost production through army-run farms on leased state land.
Backers promise it will generate better crop yields and save water. But the blueprint is facing a court challenge and criticism that it will hive off profits to a military ill-equipped for a task that could go to some of Pakistan's 25 million rural landless poor.
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Land is routinely given to serving and retired military personnel for private use, but the latest transfer could cement Pakistan's military as the country's single-biggest landowner, critics say.
"The job of the army is to protect against external threats and come to the aid of the civilian government when requested to do so," said Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer involved in challenging the land transfer on behalf of the Public Interest Law Association of Pakistan. "Nothing more, nothing less."
Many details of the blueprint remain unclear, including when the farms will be fully operational. On paper, the army will acquire up to 1 million acres (405,000 hectares) of land in Punjab province -- covering an area about 5,500 times the size of Beijing's Forbidden City or nearly three times the size of Delhi.
Most of the land is in the Cholistan Desert, an arid region prone to water shortages. As much as 110,000 acres of additional land for transfer is in adjacent districts, according to documents seen by Nikkei Asia.
The Lahore High Court ordered a halt to the army land transfer, but that ruling was overturned by another bench in July.
The armed forces are being granted leases for up to 30 years to grow cash crops such as wheat, cotton and sugar cane, as well as vegetables and fruit, with 20% of any profit earmarked for farming research and development. The rest would be divided equally between the army and state government, according to leaked government documents.
Over the past year, Fongrow -- part of an army conglomerate set up to provide employment for retired military personnel -- has developed a 2,250-acre corporate farm that grows cotton and corn in Punjab as a "test bed," according to its website, which claimed a 135% boost to average crop yields.
It was unclear if any of the land to be transferred was already being farmed or controlled by small landowners, but Fongrow manager Muhammad Zahid Aziz disputed it was an issue.
"It is all barren land, so there is no question of farmers being displaced," he said.
How the army will turn a desert into fertile agricultural land is another question yet to be answered.
"Usually, army officers have very limited knowledge of farming," said agricultural consultant Asif Riaz Taj. "[And they] adopt a conventional system of farming or lease out their lands to any local farmer. ...There are hundreds of agricultural [school] graduates who are jobless and they have the skills to do this job."
Past experience with army farms has also raised eyebrows.
For decades, the military has run farms inherited from the British colonial empire. In 2000, an uprising broke out when the army tried to replace a crop-sharing arrangement with a cash-payment system at a sprawling site in the Punjab. It was also revealed that the military's land lease had expired nearly 70 years earlier. Paramilitary troops launched a crackdown against the resistance that led to scores of arrests and the deaths of at least four farmers.
In that case, "the benefits ... accrued to the military, even though the farms themselves were tilled by tenant farmers who were basically treated like serfs," said Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, associate political economy professor at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University.
Pakistan's military, which already has an outsized influence in the country of about 230 million, was boosted by the recent passing of controversial legislation that legalized all past, current and future army-government ventures aimed at enhancing national development or strategic interests.
The changes come ahead of elections expected this year as anger grows over the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Imran Khan on corruption and other charges, which the ex-cricket star blamed on the army chief of staff.
Even more land for corporate farming is now reportedly being offered up to Gulf states and China under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Local media cited the army's chief as saying he was courting some $100 billion in investment from these countries, including for farm projects, which could pave the way for major deals between foreign companies and Pakistan's military.
But the Pakistani government's own policy documents point away from corporate farming as a solution to food shortages, said lawyer Alam.
"In fact, it's the other way around. Food security can be improved in Pakistan, according to these documents, by investing in small farmers and giving them the skills they need to be able to produce food for themselves," he added.