Rediscovering India By Dharampal

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Land Revenue      

Friends this chapter tells you how the British changed a decentralized system where most of the revenue was spent locally to a centralized one, increased revenue rates drastically, created a system of landlordism and ryotwari, empowered the landlord to seize the peasant’s land & property for non-payment of enhanced rates of revenue.

The enhancement of the rates of assessment and the centralization of revenue is in itself a vast subject, and requires a work on its own. But briefly, following English ideas and practices, and the needs of conquest as well as of keeping the areas conquered under proper subjugation the first step which had to be taken in India was to dismantle its own fiscal and revenue systems. These in the main had followed a decentralized pattern whereby most of the revenue was assigned at the level of the revenue-paying sources themselves for a variety of purpose including administrative and economic services, the maintenance of police and local militias, and a more complex and extensive infrastructures which in broad terms can be classified as religious and cultural. Under the British while most of such assignment were cancelled, and the remaining greatly reduced, the rates of assessment over the revenue paying sources according to certain theoretical formulations were raised to double or triple the previous rates.

According to the British record, the Indian practice just before they took over was of an assessment which varied from about one-twelfth of the gross produce in certain areas and on certain types of land to a maximum of one-third in certain others. Practically all these rates were abolished and the general norm which the British established was that 50 per cent of the gross produce should be fixed after its being converted into money and made into a regular annual payment, as the proportion due to the state. The European practice of the period whereby the cultivator paid from about one-half to three-quarters of the gross produce to the landlord provided the rationale of this new assessment and indological research dug out certain centuries old Indian texts (of the time of Alah-Ud-Din Khilji, etc.) which were meant to give the enhanced rates legitimacy. That the conquest of India and its subjugation were wholly paid out of Indian revenues, and India till the 1850s implied areas stretching from St. Helena of the China seas, was confirmed in a very comprehensive memorandum by as high an authority as John Stuart Mill, in 1858.

In this process of revenue enhancement and centralization the two main devices used were that of the creation of a system of landlordism and the other of what was termed as ryotwari. Both assumed the state as the chief landlord of the country, and where people had been wholly subjugated and appeared to have accepted total subservience, the system of landlordism was established first in Bengal and Bihar and later in many other areas. Theoretically, the Indian landlord was modeled on his British counterpart, and many of the ancient rajas after being stripped of their political authority were made into zamindars or landlords. But the essential difference was that while the British landlord paid only one-tenth of what he received as rent (from cultivator) as revenue to the state, his Indian counterpart had to pay nine-tenth of what he was expected to collect according to the enhanced rates of assessment to the British authorities.

No wonder, the collection of such enhanced revenue became well nigh impossible given a wholly different centuries old tradition, according to old norms. The result was that most of the Bengal, Bihar zamindars went wholly bankrupt within 10-15 years of the establishment of the system. In the mean while, to facilitate the collection of such enhanced assessment the old norms were replaced by new regulations whereby the landlord was empowered not only to remove the cultivator from the land he had cultivated for generations but to distrain all his property including his pots and pans for payment of the revenue.

The precedent for such draconian powers, and in India unheard of till then, was that such a provision existed in England itself where as mentioned above the landlord had only to pay one-tenth of the rent to the state, and therefore, its enactment in India was all the more justified where the landlord paid nine-tenth of what he was to collect to the state (for the discussion see Annexure B, at end). Regarding the rights of the Indian cultivator, or the peasant, the select committee of the British Parliament in 1812 observed, “it was accordingly decided ‘that the occupants of land in India could establish no more right, in respect to the soil than tenantry upon an estate in England can establish a right to the land by hereditary residence’ and the mirassee of a village was therefore defined to be ‘a preference of cultivation derived from hereditary residence but subject to the right of Government as the superior lord of the soil, in what way it chooses, for the cultivation of its own lands”.