It Takes a Village in Pakistan.

            The countryside of Pakistan’s southeastern province of Sindh is dotted with little villages.  Walking into one of them, a historically-conscious American traveler could think that s/he is traveling back in time.  Several score families live in each village.  The houses are walled with mud brick and roofed with thatch.  There are few cattle.  Water comes from village hand-pumps, often very old.  There are no paved roads. 

The villagers live from farming of a very traditional kind.  There are two crops a year: wheat planted in the late Fall and harvested in the Spring; and cotton planted in the late spring and harvested in the Fall.  The wheat crop feeds the family for a year; the cotton pays for everything else.  From early in life, the children help with the work. 

The country’s farm system has existed for centuries, long before Pakistan either lost or regained its independence.  It looks a lot like post-Civil War sharecropping in the American South.  Landlords own vast tracts of farmland.  In 2013, an NGO reported that almost two-thirds (64 percent) of Pakistan’s farmland belonged to just 5 percent of the population.  In contrast, just over half of the rural population owns no land whatsoever.[1]  Well, not many American autoworkers own a car plant.  The answer to such a smart-alec remark comes in the nature of the land tenure system and the farming methods employed. 

The actual farm work is done by tenants on small plots of land.  The landlord loans the tenant the money to buy seed and fertilizer.  The tenant plants, raises, harvests, and sells the crop.  The landlord gets most of the harvest.  Much of that is sold for export.  Out of the meager share that the tenant receives, he pays part of it to the landlord for the loan.[2] 

            When the harvest is good, villagers can afford the debt payment and more.  They buy motorbikes, televisions, and refrigerators in addition to the basic requirements of vegetables and medicines.  When the harvest is bad, the tenant can’t repay the debt.  It gets carried over by the landlord.  Over the past few years, harvests have varied to an unusual degree. 

The tenants are stuck in the debt system, but their children are not.  Growing numbers have departed for cities.  They hope to find other kinds of work.  The departures alarm the landlords, who are accustomed to having a ready supply.   

Cultural representations of this world don’t often make it to Western audiences.  The movie “The Home and the World” (dir. Satyajit Ray, 1984) is set in Bengal and is about something else, but it offers glimpses of a ruthless land-manager and his thugs.  Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (2008) again is about India, but it leads off with a vivid description of the many abuses heaped on tenant farmers and landless laborers by the landlords.[3]  One of the story arcs in the British television series “Traffik” (1989) follows a Pakistani farmer who can only survive by planting opium poppies. 

“Reading by analogy” (HA, eez pun, yes?), one could read William Faulkner, The Hamlet (1940) or James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). 

[1] See: Give Me Land, Lots Of Land: Only 5% Of Pakistanis Own Two-Thirds of Farmlands; One-Half Of Farmers Are Landless (

[2] Christina Goldbaum and Zia ur-Rehman, “Floods Aggravate the Plight of Pakistan’s Farmworkers,” NYT, 2 October 2022. 

[3] The movie version (dir. Rahmin Barani, 2021) blows by this part of the book. 


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