Tamil Nadu: Agrarian Relations during the Colonial Period

S Raghavan describes the changes and devastation brought about by the British in the agrarian relations in Tamil Nadu.

S Raghavan describes the changes and devastation brought about by the British in the agrarian relations in Tamil Nadu.

Part II (continued from…Part I – Agrarian Relations during the Chola Period)

In the first part of this article we saw that during the Pallava and Chola periods in Tamil Nadu, trade and agriculture thrived, the King was expected to ensure the wellbeing of peasants through expansion of irrigation and public works, the rate of tax was fixed according to the productivity of land and the capacity of peasants, village communities had rights over common land and there was considerable harmony in the relationship between man and nature. All this was turned upside down by the British conquest of the Tamil region.

The new system that the British instituted in agrarian relations is the foundation from which the present day industrialists and private business houses draw inspiration in depriving the peasantry of their land to set up SEZs and industrial estates. There was a long interregnum between the decline of the Chola empire
and the British conquest. However, the systems established by the Chola kings continued to thrive. The Vijayanagara rulers who conquered large parts of Tamil Nadu after the Chola empire declined, sometime around the 14th century, continued the system of land revenue established by the latter. With the decline of the Vijayanagara empire, a number of smaller principalities emerged, but the agrarian economy was characterized by fairly high yields. Some historians point out that during this period, the differentiation among the peasantry increased somewhat, and a substantial body of untouchable cultivators existed in the delta regions of the Cauvery serving the landed gentry. The 17th and 18th centuries were particularly turbulent. Several powers fought for control. Ultimately the British won after defeating Tipu Sultan in the north and Kattabomman and the rulers of
Ramnad in the south. The British colonialists conquered Tamil Nadu gradually, as they did elsewhere through deception and subterfuge, and taking full advantage of divisions between petty kings.

The first effort of the British was to weaken local authority and step up the land revenue collections. These coupled with falling grain prices increased the oppression of the peasantry and considerably weakened their position in the political and social spheres. It is reported that area under cultivation declined during the period up to the 1870s ending with the devastating famine of 1876-78.

The Public Works department was established in 1852 in the Madras Presidency and thousands of tanks in the ryotwari areas (about which we will read more later) were brought under its authority ending centuries of control that village communities had over their immediate environs. In the zamindari areas, the tank system deteriorated since the zamindars had no interest in maintaining the tanks and the village community which benefited from and preserved the tanks earlier were now disempowered.

The cropping pattern changed drastically from the 1880s. Between the 1880s and 1920s, the proportion of area under commercial crops rose from a little over 10 percent to about a quarter of gross sown area. The decrease in the production of coarse cereals deprived vast sections of the people of their staple food. The agrarian relations that existed in Tamilnadu at the time of colonization were complex and varied. The British super imposed new systems of private property and land relations over this complex system. By 1800 the East India Company had gained control over large sections of present day Tamilnadu. The Company set about maximizing the land revenue and tried various experiments. Eventually the ryotwari system was imposed on three-quarters of Tamilnadu. The ‘ryot’ was recognized as the indisputable owner of the land as long as he paid a certain amount of land revenue directly to the state. This ryot was usually a member of the village elite who could claim the title to the land without being opposed by anyone, and who could afford amount to be paid as revenue.

During the period of the Pallavas and Cholas, land revenue was generally fixed as one-third of produce for wet land and one-sixth for dry land. This was hiked up substantially during British rule. The colonialists fixed the land revenue at 50% of gross value of output on wet lands and 35% on dry lands. The assessment was fixed in money terms based on average prices of grain during the 20 years prior to the settlement in 1820s. With falling grain prices this caused the peasantry enormous misery. By 1855, thirty five years after the ryotwari system was introduced more than half the area recorded as arable remained waste.

The ryotwari system was introduced in the fertile irrigated tracts of the Cauvery delta. As we had seen in the first part of this article, this was the core area of the Chola empire where brahmadeya villages served as seats of learning and centres of administration and where autonomous village-level organs of power existed.
The ryotwari system considerably eroded the well-established system of autonomous village councils in the form of sabhas and urs. The Brahman elite, who had established themselves as a dominant power in the intervening period after the Chola empire, was among the early beneficiaries of these new land policies. They were invested with proprietary rights over some of the richest and best irrigated lands of the Madras Presidency.

The second most important system of land revenue imposed in Tamilnadu was the zamindari system. Under this system, the zamindar had to pay a fixed sum known as peishkash to the British state. In turn, he imposed his own assessment on the ryots cultivating the lands in his estate. This system prevailed in the southern parts of Tamilnadu. These tracts were generally dry and less fertile than the Cauvery delta area where the ryotwari system was imposed. Once the zamindari status was conferred, the zamindar had the unbridled right to exploit the peasants. He was freed of the communal obligations, such as maintenance and upkeep of common resources like tanks and wells. The British state had no obligations either. This represented a complete overturning of the raj dharma that existed in the earlier Chola period, which obligated the king to maintain and improve irrigation facilities. This system imposed by the British also deprived village communities of their right to common land and to maintain and protect their immediate resources.

According to studies, at the beginning of the twentieth century, there were 634 zamin estates in the Tamil districts, covering nearly a fifth of the area. Of these, 112 estates were believed to be large ones, each having more than 500 acres and an average of 8000 labourers. However, the introduction of the zamindari system in the south of Tamil Nadu did not go unchallenged. The palayakkarar chieftains, represented by the martyr Kattabomman, refused to become that landed class through which the East India Company could achieve stability, peace and tribute. Unlike the Oudh talukdars and the zamindars of Bengal (who were already well positioned in the social structure to perform the intermediary functions that the British required) – these southern chieftains went on the offensive and challenged the new system being imposed by the British. It is believed that in the early twentieth century, Madras Presidency had over 36,000 sq. kms of its territory under permanent Settlement, and 155,000 sq. kms under Ryotwari. The rest of the area consisted of yet another form of land tenure called the imams – revenue free land given to civil officers as reward, or land given to holy men and religious maths. Though a minor form, imams covered 7.75 million acres at the beginning of the twentieth century.

One of the important developments in agrarian relations towards the end of the nineteenth century was the impetus given to cash crops by the colonial state. Cotton cultivation grew rapidly in Coimbatore and Tirunelveli and groundnut cultivation in South Arcot. The growing exports of primary farm produce linked the economy of Tamilnadu with the international capitalist economy in a way never seen before. Cash cropping required larger resources and intensive cultivation. In the non-Delta areas, where cash cropping developed primarily, the differentiation of the peasantry was not as acute as in the delta areas to start with. Growing for the export market changed this situation in favour of the zamins. In the wet tracts, the rights over common and fallow land were taken away from village communities. At the turn of the twentieth century, the peasant had right only to the patta land, and that too as long as he paid revenue. In the wet tracts too, commercialisation of agriculture increased with paddy being grown for the urban and export market.

During the reign of the Cholas and later during the Vijayanagara empire, collection of land revenue was not directly by the central state. In the segmentary state that prevailed during the time of the Cholas, tax collection was direct only in the central Cauvery belt. Beyond this core area, the Chola kings had to depend on the support of petty kings for collecting revenue. Tax revenue was fixed according to the capacity of the producer, the quality of land and vagaries of nature. But, driven by greed for maximum revenue, the colonial aggressors introduced a land revenue system that remained fixed irrespective of the vagaries of nature and of market prices. Added to this, the breakup of pre-colonial relations in the village, with the introduction of new forms of land tenure, removed the considerable economic and social security that peasants enjoyed before the colonial period.

To conclude, the impact of colonial rule on the agrarian economy of Tamil Nadu varied across time and space. But on the whole, the impact was disastrous for the agrarian population. The new system of private property rights that the colonialists introduced uprooted a considerable section of the peasantry and led to an increase in the population of cultivators with no security. Indebtedness increased to colossal proportions. There was a limited increase in irrigation facilities and area under cultivation. But the technique of production remained more or less the same. The shift to commercial crops increased the requirement for capital and drove out small producers. Production of millets, the staple food of the peasantry declined, leading to food insecurity, malnutrition and famines. The impact of colonial rule on land relations has extended beyond the colonial period.

The exploitative systems that the British introduced became the bulwark of the agricultural policy and system of the new Indian government after independence. Landlessness and indebtedness of the peasantry has continued to increase.

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