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Free State land not free from jaws of feudal lords

By: Ramzan Chandio

KARACHI: As the provincial government of ruling PPP in planning to start second phase of distribution of state land among landless farmers, most of the women beneficiaries of this programme are already facing legal cases since they got the ownership documents of the land in 2009, The Nation learnt on Sunday. Some of the women beneficiaries are facing multiple cases as local landlords filed appeals against the allotment, which are causing hardship for them to get possession of the land in some areas of province. In some cases, one woman is facing four to five appeals filed by the influential landlords against the grant of land to her.

When contacted, Project Director of Sindh Government’s Land Distribution Programme Faisal Ahmed Okeli confirmed to TheNation that the litigation problems being faced by the women beneficiaries of government’s programme as ‘serious’ issue.Acknowledging the problem, the provincial government has initiated programme to provide legal support to women allottees of government land through women development department, he said In some cases, he added that the local landlords also filed appeals in Revenue Department, challenging the allotments to the applicants and claimed that the land belong to their forefathers.

It may be noted that PPP-led Sindh government so far distributed about 65,000 acres government land among the landless farmers (16 acres land allotted to each allotee free of cost), of which over 70percent beneficiaries were women farmers. But most of the women beneficiaries are still facing legal cases in revenue and district authorities filed by the local landlords against the allotment.Faisal Okeli opined that the present litigation system was problematic, especially for poor women farmers, who did not know about the system. He said that the second phase which supposed to be stated from 2011 but it has been delayed to devastative floodwaters and rains in the province.

However, Faisal Okeli said that the he has sought the data of the state land from the district governments and some districts are yet to provide such figures of government land for distribution among the women farmers free of cost. He said that after receiving all data of land available, the Sindh government will invite the applications from deserving women farmers through advertisement in local and national newspapers, so that land could be distributed through transparent manner. He said that after receiving applications and their investigation, the government will start distribution of land through ‘Open Katchahries’.

Meanwhile, Sikandar Birohi, Director of Participatory Development Initiatives (PDI) while talking to TheNation said that taking advantage of flaws and loopholes in the legal provisions; landlords are constantly engaging the poor women beneficiaries in litigations by filing frequent appeals. These litigations prolong the occupation of landlord on occupied land. Sikandar Birohi, whose organisation is closely working on study of litigation and problems being faced by the beneficiaries, said that the litigation cases have also taken new turn and are creating more and more difficulties for the women land grantees. For example, in majority cases one land grantee women faces more than one appeal. There are many examples which show that one woman is facing four to five litigation cases / appeals against on the grant of same land, he added.

Similarly, in many cases once the women land grantees have won their cases, the opponent parties have challenged such verdict of district level Revenue Department official at provincial level in the Revenue Court of Senior Member Board of Revenue. The court of Senior Member Board of Revenue is situated in Hyderabad city, the central district of Sindh province. This is creating more hurdles for the land grantees as this office is at the distance of 100km to 700 km from different districts. The travel from their respective district to the Court of Senior Member BOR is one of the greatest challenges for the poor women, therefore, in such cases, the percentage of the women land grantees appearing in the court is minimal, which gives advantage to the opponent party to win the case.

Sharing the flaws in law, he said that according to the Colonization of State Land Act under which the distribution of government land takes place, even if land is distributed among the landless peasants after a process of proper scrutiny by the Revenue Department, still any one has right to challenge grant of any piece of land to any grantee making ownership claim on the granted land. This basic flaw in the legal framework has opened the floodgates of “appeals’ against the distribution of land among landless women in Sindh, he argued. He added the appeals started pouring in with the beginning of the distribution of land among the landless in September 2008.

There was no mechanism with the government to provide legal support to women land grantees against those appeals. As per the provisions of Colonization of State Land Act, District Officer of Revenue Department has magisterial powers to hold hearings of these cases and issue his verdict in favour of either party. Stricken by extreme poverty, the women land grantees are usually unable to face such cases by visiting the Revenue Court in multiple hearings till the case is disposed of.

He pointed out that there is no record of the land with any government department including the Revenue Department and Land Distribution Program Unit about grantee women facing appeals against them. However, the field visits to different districts and interviews with the land grantees show that litigation against women in the form of appeals against them is the main issue being faced by women.

He advised the government that such exploitation of legal provision can only be avoided by establishing a ‘Legal Support Cell’ specifical1y for women beneficiaries mandated with providing required legal support for timely responding the appeals made by landlords, he said, adding that administratively, the proposed Legal Support Cell should be established in Board of Revenue Karachi for collecting the data of such cases against women and providing them legal support. The legal cell can function from Karachi by establishing its legal committees of the lawyers available in all the districts of Sindh, he concluded.

The Nation