British Agrarian Policy
It is a well-known fact that India is primarily an agricultural country. The overwhelming majority of its people depend on agriculture for sustenance. If the crop is good, prosperity prevails otherwise it leads to famine and starvation. Till the 18th century, there was a strong relation between agriculture and cottage industries in India. India was not only ahead in the field of agriculture than most other countries but it also held a prominent place in the world in the field of handicraft production.
The British destroyed handicraft industry in the country while unleashing far-reaching changes in the country’s agrarian structure by introducing new systems of land tenures and policies of revenue administration.
India’s national income, foreign trade, industrial expansion and almost every other dominion of economic activity, depended on the country’s agriculture. The British policies revolved around getting maximum income from land without caring much about Indian interests of the cultivators.
They abandoned the age -old system of revenue administration and adopted in their place a ruthless policy of revenue collection.
After their advent, the British principally adopted three types of land tenures. Roughly 19 per cent of the total area under the British rule, i.e., Bengal, Bihar, Banaras, division of the Northern Western Provinces and northern Karnatak, were brought under the Zamindari System or the Permanent Settlement.
The second revenue system, called the Mahalwari Settlement, was introduced in about 30 per cent of the total area under British rule i.e., in major parts of the North Western Provinces, Central Provinces and the Punjab with some variations. The Ryotwari System covered about 51 per cent of the area under British rule comprising part of the Bombay and Madras Presidencies, Assam and certain other parts of British India.
The Permanent Settlement
Lord Cornwallis’ most conspicuous administrative measure was the Permanent Land Revenue Settlement of Bengal, which was extended to the provinces of Bihar and Orissa. It is appropriate to recall that Warren Hastings introduced the annual lease system of auctioning the land to the highest bidder. It created chaos in the revenue administration.
Cornwallis at the time of his appointment was instructed by the Directors to find a satisfactory and permanent solution to the problems of the land revenue system in order to protect the interests of both the Company and the cultivators. It obliged the Governor- General to make a thorough enquiry into the usages, tenures and rents prevalent in Bengal.
The whole problem occupied Lord Cornwallis for over three years and after a prolonged discussion with his colleagues like Sir John Shore and James Grant he decided to abolish the annual lease system and introduce a decennial (Ten years)settlement which was subsequently declared to be continuous.
The main features of the Permanent Settlement were as follows:
(i) The zamindars of Bengal were recognised as the owners of land as long as they paid the revenue to the East India Company regularly.
(ii) The amount of revenue that the zamindars had to pay to the Company was firmly fixed and would not be raised under any circumstances. In other words the Government of the East India Company got 89% leaving the rest to the zamindars.
(iii) The ryots became tenants since they were considered the tillers of the soil.
(iv) This settlement took away the administrative and judicial functions of the zamindars.
The Permanent Settlement of Cornwallis was bitterly criticised on the point that it was adopted with ‘undue haste’. The flagrant defect of this arrangement was that no attempt was made ever either to survey the lands or to assess their value. The assessment was made roughly on the basis of accounts of previous collections and it was done in an irregular manner.
The effects of this system both on the zamindars and ryots were disastrous. As the revenue fixed by the system was too high, many zamindars defaulted on payments. Their property was seized and distress sales were conducted leading to their ruin. The rich zamindars who led luxurious lives left their villages and migrated into towns. They entrusted their rent collection to agents who exacted all kinds of illegal taxes besides the legal ones from the ryots.
This had resulted in a great deal of misery amongst the peasants and farmers. Therefore Lord Cornwallis’ idea of building a system of benevolent land-lordism failed. Baden Powell remarks, “The zamindars as a class did nothing for the tenants”. Though initially the Company gained financially, in the long run the Company suffered financial loss because land productivity was high, income from it was meagre since it was a fixed sum. It should be noted that in pre- British period a share on the crop was fixed as land tax.
Nevertheless, this system proved to be a great boon to the zamindars and to the government of Bengal. It formed a regular income and stabilised the government of the Company. The zamindars prospered at the cost of the welfare of the tenants.
The Ryotwari settlement was introduced mainly in Madras, Berar, Bombay and Assam. Sir Thomas Munro introduced this system in the Madras Presidency. Under this settlement, the peasant was recognised as the proprietor of land. There was no intermediary like a Zamindar between the peasant and the government. So long as he paid the revenue in time, the peasant was not evicted from the land. Besides, the land revenue was fixed for a period from 20 to 40 years at a time.
Every peasant was held personally responsible for direct payment of land revenue to the government. However, in the end, this system also failed. Under this settlement it was certainly not possible to collect revenue in a systematic manner. The revenue officials indulged in harsh mesuares for non payment or delayed payment.
In 1833, the Mahalwari settlement was introduced in the Punjab, the Central Provinces and parts of North Western Provinces. Under this system the basic unit of revenue settlement was the village or the Mahal. As the village lands belonged jointly to the village community, the responsibility of paying the revenue rested with the entire Mahal or the village community. So the entire land of the village was measured at the time of fixing the revenue. Though the Mahalwari system eliminated middlemen between the government and the village community and brought about improvement in irrigation facility, yet its benefit was largely enjoyed by the government.
British Policy towards Indian Handicrafts
The European companies began arriving on the Indian soil from 16th century. During this period, they were constantly engaged in fierce competition to establish their supremacy and monopoly over Indian trade. Not surprisingly, therefore, initial objective of the English East India Company was to have flourishing trade with India. Later, this objective was enlarged to acquire a monopoly over this trade and obtain its entire profit. Although the trade monopoly thus acquired by the Company in India was ended by the Charter Act of 1833, yet the British Policy of exploiting the resources of India continued unabated. In this respect, the nature of the British rule was different from the earlier rulers.
As far as the traditional handicraft industry and the production of objects of art were concerned, India was already far ahead of other countries in the world. The textiles were the most important among the Indian industries. Its cotton, silk and woolen products were sought after all over the world. Particularly, the muslin of Dacca, carpets of Lahore, shawls of Kashmir, and the embroidery works of Banaras were very famous. Ivory goods, wood works and jewellery were other widely sou
ght after Indian commodities.
Apart from Dacca, which was highly famous for its muslins, the other important centres of textile production were Krishnanagar, Chanderi,
Arni and Banaras. Dhotis and dupattas of Ahmedabad, Chikan of Lucknow, and silk borders of Nagpur had earned a worldwide fame. For their silk products some small towns of Bengal besides, Malda and Murshidabad were very famous. Similarly, Kashmir, Punjab and western Rajasthan were famous for their woolen garments.
Besides textiles, India was also known widely for its shipping, leather and metal industries. Indian fame as an industrial economy rested on cutting and polishing of marble and other precious stones and carving of ivory and sandalwood. Moradabad and Banaras were famous for brass, copper, bronze utensils. Nasik, Poona, Hyderabad and Tanjore were famous for other metal works. Kutch, Sind and Punjab were known for manufacturing arms. Kolhapur, Satara, Gorakhpur, Agra, Chittor and Palaghat had likewise earned a reputation for their glass industries. Making of gold, silver and diamond jewellery was another important industrial activity in which many places in India specialized. These entire handicrafts industry indicated a vibrant economy in India.
Despite enjoying such fame in the world, the Indian handicraft industry had begun to decline by the beginning of the 18th century. There were many reasons for it. First, the policies followed by the English East India Company proved to be highly detrimental to the Indian handicrafts industry. The Indian market was flooded with the cheap finished goods from Britain. It resulted in a steep decline in the sale of Indian products both within and outside of the country. In 1769, the Company encouraged the cultivation of raw silk in Bengal while imposing service restrictions on the sale of its finished products.
In 1813 strategies were devised by the Company to enhance the consumption of finished goods from Britain. In this respect the tariff and octroi policies were suitably modified to suit the British commercial interests. To cite an example, in 1835 only a minimal import of British duty of 2.5 per cent was imposed on the import of British manufactured cotton cloth whereas a very high 15 per cent export duty was charged on Indian cotton textiles as per the new maritime regulations.
Moreover, goods from England could only be brought by the English cargo ships. As a result of all these policies, the Indian textiles could not enter the British market, whereas the Indian market was flooded with British goods.
Thus, with the rise of British paramountcy in India, the process of decline in the power and status of Indian rulers had set in. Thus, the demands for the domestic luxury goods like royal attires, armory and objects of art by the Indian royalty also reduced drastically.
So, with the disappearance of the traditional dynasties, their nobility also passed into oblivion. This led to a sharp decline in the demand for traditional luxury goods. Besides, the Industrial revolution led to the invention of new machinery in Europe. Power looms replaced handlooms. In India also the advent of machines led to the decline of handicraft as now the machine-made products were available at cheaper rate and more goods could be produced in much lesser time. Finally, the new communication and transport facilities brought about a revolution in public life. Earlier, goods used to be transported either by bullock carts or by ships. Thus, during the rainy season, it was not always convenient to carry on with the normal transportation. But now conditions were changed with the introduction of railways and steamer services. Concrete roads were laid to connect the country’s agricultural hinterland. The import of goods from England also increased with the simultaneous increase in exports of raw materials from India, leading to massive loss of jobs among Indian artisans and craftsman who lost their only means to livelihood.