The Colonial Legacy in Land Ownership and Relations

What were the patterns in land ownership and land relations before the British rule and what far-reaching changes did they introduce, thereby destablising the entire Indian society and economy, examines S Raghavan.

What were the patterns in land ownership and land relations before the British rule and what far-reaching changes did they introduce, thereby destablising the entire Indian society and economy, examines S Raghavan.

The land question has become even more acute today with the Indian state officially sanctioning the land grab by monopolies and corporate houses to set up their SEZs. The struggle of the peasants in Singur, Raigarh, Navi Mumbai and other places against this robbery is reminiscent of the struggle of peasants against taxation and alienation from land before 1857, in the era of the East India Company, and after 1857, when India came under the direct rule of the British Crown.

The pre-colonial period
For centuries before the British colonial conquest, the traditional Indian village society was characterised by common ownership of land, the blending of agriculture and handicrafts and a certain division of labour.    Within this broad characterisation, there seems to have existed different arrangements such as the periodic redistribution of the land by lot to groups of cultivators. It is somewhat simplistic to state that this cooperative life and the general absence of private property in village communities were mere survivals of the tribal system. The fact that huge empires were built on the taxes collected from the produce of these villages and commodity production and internal and external trade in agriculture flourished, meant that the self-sufficient village society was efficient in production and organisation.

This fact has been substantiated by several studies. For example, according to the Centre for Policy Studies in Chennai, based on a study of palmleaf records at the Thanjavur Tamil University, “between 1762 and 1766 there were villages which produced up to 12 tons of paddy a hectare. This level of productivity can be obtained only in the best of the Green Revolution areas of the country, with the most advanced, expensive and often environmentally ruinous technologies. The annual availability of all food averaged five tons per household; the national average in India today is three-quarters ton. Whatever the ways of pre-British Indian society, they were definitely neither ineffective nor inefficient.”

 Agricultural taxation, before the British entered the scene, was based on the capacity of the producer to pay. According to various dharmashastras, such as the Manu Smriti, tax amounted to about one-sixth of the agricultural produce in return for security against invaders and self-sufficiency. Differential taxation was adopted, such as in the Vijayanagar empire, to encourage production of certain agricultural commodities.
Rules governing use and ownership of forest land, grazing land and watersheds existed. Villages had bye-laws, which varied from region to region, to regulate the common use of pasture land and watersheds. These bye-laws ensured peaceful co-existence between communities.

Thus village communities maintained harmony with nature, constantly striving to humanise it for their benefit. Both the raja and the praja were bound by the dyad of rights and duties. The raja had the right to collect revenue from land as well as the duty to invest a part of the revenue in augmenting irrigation and water works. Peasants had the duty to pay taxes as well as the right to their livelihood.

Colonial period (pre-1857 Ghadar)
During the colonial period, this dyad of rights and duties was violated brutally. Engineering a massive break with the past, the British put an end to the common ownership of agricultural land through the Permanent Settlement of Bengal, concluded by the East India Company under Cornwallis in 1793. Earlier to this, the zamindars merely had the right to collect taxes on behalf of the Mughal Empire. The Permanent Settlement conferred ownership rights to these zamindars. The land revenue was set at a high unchangeable rate, so the zamindar had to be merciless in collecting taxes. Any defaults could lead to confiscation of their estates. The zamindari system was imposed on the area spanning Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and coastal Andhra. In the bulk of UP and upper Narmada Basin in M P and part of Haryana, a different system called the “Mahalwari” system was imposed, where revenue was levied collectively on smaller circles called mahals. The settlements were not permanent. The Ryotwari system was introduced in the Madras Presidency. In this system, land revenue was fixed permanently on each field, based on an estimate of the produce from the land. This prompted Marx to write, “If it is any nation’s history, then it is the history of the English management of India which is a string of unsuccessful and really absurd (and in practice, infamous) experiments in economics. In Bengal, they created a caricature of English-landed property on a large scale; in the south-east India a caricature of small allotment of property; in the north-west, they transformed to the utmost of their ability the Indian commune with common ownership of the soil into a caricature of itself”. These “experiments” caused immense havoc to the land system and the lives of the peasantry.

The British destroyed the traditional basis of Indian agriculture by introducing private property in land, in the place of common property. Sir John Strachey in his book, India: Its Administration and Progress, explains the necessity for the privatisation of land for the colonisers: “… Our policy has been to encourage the growth of private property in land… Former governments hardly recognised the existence of such property.” He goes on to add, “It can be hardly doubted that their (peasants) indebtedness is greater now than it was before the establishment of our government because the right of private property in land has been virtually almost created by ourselves. When there was practically no such right, there was comparatively no credit; there was no adequate security that a landlord desirous of borrowing could offer, and there was therefore, less indebtedness.” And finally, “If he (landlord) does not pay at the district treasury on the appointed date, no questions are asked… The estate is put to public auction.” How matter of factly does Stratchey explain the necessity for the colonisers to introduce private property in land in order to expand the land and credit market and justify the take-over of all land into the hands of the colonial state! Thus, all land was nationalised first and then partly privatised using the Permanent Settlement so that land revenue could be maximised as well as the plunder of natural resources could be intensified.

The use of land became unrestricted and the landlords forced their tenants to shift their cultivation from food crops to cash crops with disastrous results. The zamindars became absentee landlords negating the right of the tiller to land. Around this period, the zamindari system accounted for about 57 percent of agricultural land, and the Ryotwari system accounted for about 38 percent. The Mahalwari system accounted for the rest. Taxes were as high as 83 percent of gross revenue. In Punjab, where the mahalwari system prevailed, the taxes were about 50 percent.

Transfers of land were first institutionalized with the British land settlements. Legislation introduced in Ryotwari and Mahalwari areas during the 1850s enabled money-lenders to recover debts on loans secured on land holdings. Since revenue assessments were so high (particularly in Ryotwari areas), indebtedness grew, and dispossession of land led to rapidly rising tenancy. As a result, rural society in Ryotwari and Mahalwari areas was polarised into landlords and rich peasants versus tenants and agricultural labourers, and the distribution of land became highly unequal. It is estimated that by the time of formal independence, some 40 per cent of the total rural population of India were landless agricultural labourers.

Thus, the changes that the British brought on land ownership and land relations in India resulted in a traumatic change in the Indian way of life. Nothing of this sort had ever been attempted before. The relations of private property that the British introduced radically ruptured the very soul of rural India – it turned peasants into paupers, created unprecedented famines and indebtedness, changed land use drastically in favour of commercial crops and exporters, and upset the fine harmony between man and nature that earlier generations preserved and cherished.

Colonial period (post-1857 Ghadar)
It can be seen that there were diverse agrarian structures in the period immediately after 1857. The thrust of colonial rule was to consolidate middlemen’s claims into landlordship. The increase in commercialisation accelerated this process. So, a massive alienation of land from the cultivators followed. For example, it is estimated that “small proprietors” tilled 54 percent of cultivated land in 1891, but this reduced to 45 percent in 1900 – a decline of 16.7 percent in 10 years! The increase in landlordism was accompanied by an increase in rent in anticipation of land revenue by growing commercial crops.

It appears that a certain amount of restraint was exercised by the colonial rulers in the collection and raising of taxes on agriculture immediately after the Ghadar. Nevertheless, even in 1860-61, by far the biggest source of taxation was land revenue or land tax, which accounted for 43.1 percent of gross revenue.

Fuelled by exports and internal market demand, there was a shift from food to non-food crops. Area under non-food crops increased from 13.42 percent of cropped area (excluding coffee and tea plantations) in 1875 to 15 percent in 1895. Within non-food crops, cotton and jute expanded most. It is estimated that over the years between 1891-1916, area under food grains grew by 0.31 percent annually, while area under non-food crops grew at a higher rate, viz., 0.42%.

While the construction of railways brought about rapid capitalist development in other areas of manufacturing, capitalist development in agriculture grew at a slow pace. The Indian peasant was not averse to using new machines and techniques, but just could not afford them. The only technological change visible was the sugarcane crushers, as documented by observers. A number of factors such as export of oil seeds, which served to enrich the soil earlier, expansion of cultivation in inferior lands, increasing use of cattle-dung as fuel affected the productivity of land.

The British planned the extension of canal irrigation through private capital with guaranteed rate of returns of five percent, but this proved a disaster in Madras and Orissa. It was a policy of the colonial government that canals should be “productive works” yielding a return of at least four percent – somewhat on the lines of “user charges” that the World Bank is advocating today. Canal-irrigated area did not exceed 6.5 percent of total area under cultivation in British India in the 1890s. Still canals irrigated a larger area than did wells. Canal irrigation was extensive in Punjab (including Haryana), Sind, western UP, and parts of Madras Presidency. Construction of canals affected the water table, created malarial swamps, and other eco disasters.

There are conflicting opinions whether the increase in gross cropped area kept pace with population increase. Indications are that between 1875-1895, the increase was just about the increase in population. Between 1891-1911, the increase in cropped area was higher than the increase in population. However, during the period of “deindustrisation” between 1911-21 when the number of dependents of agriculture and pasturing increased by more than four million according to census data, cultivated land per person declined, leading to intensification of labour in agriculture, probably leading to more productivity.

After the Ghadar of 1857, the indebtedness of peasants increased to intolerable limits. A large number of peasants were deprived of their land by moneylenders and usurers due to rising interest rates. Indebtedness had assumed such astronomical proportions that in order to avoid a revolt by the masses of peasantry, the colonialists introduced the Punjab Land Alienation Act in 1900. This was supposedly to protect the peasants from alienation of land, but like all other legislation under colonial rule, the stated intent of the legislation was completely different from its actual purpose. Alienation of land from the peasantry increased even further.

To exploit India’s huge forests, the Imperial Forest Department was created in 1864 under colonial rule. The first Forest Act was enacted in 1865 mainly to facilitate the acquisition of forest areas that could supply timber to the railways being built by the colonialists. The Act severely curtailed the rights of the forest dwellers and converted their right over forest produce to a privilege.

The Land Acquisition Act of 1894, which still exists today, was passed by the colonial government to take over public and private land for “public” purposes such as the construction of highways and railways and paved the way for rapid growth of capitalism.

Prior to the colonial period, wastelands formed a part of the village commons, managed and utilised by the village communities along with other common property resources (CPRs). Wasteland as a category in the land revenue records in India has its roots in the colonial system of land classification, where any land not contributing to government revenue through crop cultivation was designated as wasteland. Till date, the callous approach of the state to this category of land is rooted in the very nomenclature, which not only disregards both economic and ecological contributions of these lands but also ignores the diversity of their potential and limitations, which local communities know better than the state apparatus. By alienating the administration of this land from the village communities, the colonial authority brought about massive destruction and devastation in the agricultural economy and environment.

Thus, in 1947, a colonial legacy was left behind by the British colonisers, which haunts us even today – a parasitic agrarian structure, rent-seeking intermediaries, different land revenue and ownership systems across regions, a small number of land holders holding a large share of the land, a high density of tenant cultivators, many of whom had insecure tenancy, regressive legislation and exploitative production relations.

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