Flooding has devastated Pakistan – and Britain’s imperial legacy has made it worse

Show caption ‘Many farmers and agricultural labourers in Rajanpur, now a centre of the flooding, have lost their homes.’ Photograph: Asim Tanveer/AP Opinion Flooding has devastated Pakistan – and Britain’s imperial legacy has made it worse Shozab Raza Colonialism and its aftereffects have left regions such as south Punjab resource-starved, poverty-stricken and deeply vulnerable to floodwaters Wed 31 Aug 2022 10.33 BST Share on Facebook

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Devastating flooding in Pakistan has killed more than 1,100 people this summer, injuring and displacing thousands more. Among Pakistan’s political elite, some have claimed that the floods are simply a natural disaster, while others blame climate breakdown. But both groups have failed to address another crucial factor: empire.

Pakistan gained its independence from the British empire in 1947, yet the reverberations of imperialism have endured. As a consequence, peripheral regions such as south Punjab, Balochistan and rural Sindh are resource-starved, exploited and poverty-stricken – factors that have grossly exacerbated the flood’s disastrous effects.

Take the story of Bashir Dasti, a tenant farmer I met a few years ago while doing fieldwork in south Punjab. Two weeks ago, his mud house was destroyed by flooding, as was the land he rented, the cotton he cultivated and the cattle he had spent years rearing. Many other farmers and agricultural labourers I got to know in Rajanpur, now a centre of the flooding, have also lost their homes and livelihoods. The Pakistan government has tasked local officials – patwaris – with adminstering relief for flood victims, yet when Bashir approached one, they tried to extort him: he was told that he would only be added to the list if he paid 10,000 Pakistani rupees (roughly £40). Bashir earns a meagre income from farming and pays exorbitant rent to his landlord, an aristocrat from a Baloch tribe called Leghari. He couldn’t pay that kind of money.

Back in the 19th century, the British Raj built alliances with local elites in order to secure its rule. In Rajanpur, Bashir’s district, this was particularly important – many tribal chiefs, including the Legharis, were armed and hostile. So in exchange for their loyalty, the Raj turned representative chiefs into unrepresentative aristocrats, granting them magisterial powers, a paramilitary apparatus and immense landed estates (jagirs) on newly irrigated land. The relationship set off a mutually beneficial pillaging of the region, whereby the British Raj and the now-landed aristocrats siphoned off rents, land revenues, and export cash cops like indigo, opium and cotton, all at the expense of previously pastoral tribesmen now forced to settle and toil as local farmers. Combined with expanding canal irrigation, tribesmen’s coerced settlement and exploitation – the British viewed seasonally migrating tribes as a security threat – left them further exposed to floods.

Because of this imperial patronage, as well as rising rents due to growing competition for tenancies with the decline of pastoral livelihoods, inequalities between landlords and peasants rose dramatically over the 19th and 20th centuries. While peasants lived in mud houses vulnerable to flooding – archives report several “great floods” affecting the south Punjab region – their chief landlords built lavish, well-fortified housing compounds on immense estates. By the 1920s, the highest-ranking Leghari aristocrat owned about 114,000 acres of land.

Empire-led extraction and exploitation continued throughout the 20th century, albeit in different forms and despite efforts to overturn it. From the 1950s, local political elites, in collaboration with western consultancy firms, started expanding the region’s irrigation and hydropower infrastructure, especially in constructing the Taunsa Barrage, which displaced thousands (and whose faulty World Bank-led repair in the early 2000s contributed to the 2010 floods). Dispossession and exploitation also escalated further as a consequence of insurrection.

In the 1970s, south Punjab was the site of major communist-led tenant movements that aimed to redistribute land, reduce inequalities and eradicate imperialist-landlord alliances; but the aristocracy crushed these movements, mobilising allies in the Pakistan People’s Party-led government as well as the paramilitary apparatus originally handed to their ancestors by the British. Chiefs also expelled rebelling tenants and set up more mechanised, capitalist farms, continuing the trend of seeking imperialist support by turning to lavishly paid American advisers and even the US state department. In doing so, chiefs and empire continued their collective pilfering of south Punjab, displacing and impoverishing its people in ways that left them more vulnerable to flood damage.

This empire-led extractivist relation endures today. At a national level, we see this in the form, not just of IMF loan conditionalities – which demand that Pakistan gut social spending and privatise industries in exchange for loans that ultimately profit western lenders – but also with new imperialistic actors like China and its resource-extractive, people-displacing China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). While CPEC is making inroads in places like south Punjab, the plunder also continues as, in a pattern seen elsewhere in the global south, earlier capitalist farming is being replaced by contract farming, by which landlords collect fixed cash rents. Explaining the reason for this, Mohsin Leghari, a major landed aristocrat from the Leghari tribe and Punjab’s finance minister, once told me: “When we lease our lands out on contract, we don’t lose anything when these floods come.”

Unlike contract farmers, the aristocracy have invested nothing in the land, and thus have nothing to lose. They can continue to collect rents, reinvesting them not in south Punjab to protect farmers from the consequences of flooding, but, as many did, in speculative real estate in global cities such as Lahore, Dubai and Vancouver.

While landlords can escape to their properties in these cities, as several told me they did during the 2010 floods, peasants like Bashir have nowhere else to go, experiencing what one scholar describes as an “emplaced displacement”. Their tragic predicament is ultimately a consequence of empire and an accomplice elite which, together, have viewed Pakistan’s peripheral regions as sites for plunder and profit.

Calls for climate reparations for Pakistan therefore make sense, but not just because of its recent experience with a global north-induced climate crisis. They are also necessary because of this much longer history. Beyond climate reparations, what Pakistan really needs are colonial reparations.

Shozab Raza is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University and an editor at Jamhoor magazine