Rediscovering India by Dharampal

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Lowering Wages       

Friends the chapter tells you how the British deliberately lowered Indian wages. Changes in revenue system, lowering of wages, property rights led to a socio economic degradation of a large section of society. Even after deliberate attempts to lower Indian wages through direct and indirect means, it was found that around 1800 the wages of agricultural labor in India in real terms were still appreciably higher than the then current wages of such labor in England (Edinburgh Review c. 1803).

Simultaneously with the weakening and disruption of communities the other phenomenon which got into its stride after 1750 was the deliberate attempt by British authority to lower ordinary Indian incomes and wages to the lowest level possible. Again such an attempt logically followed similar practices in Britain of this period.

By one of the early Bengal regulations in 1766, not only the wages and salaries of Indians serving Europeans in Calcutta and other towns were reduced but it was further laid down, “that if any servant refuses service agreeable to such established wages his possessions in land be sequestered and himself and family secluded the settlement” and if he had no possession in land “then on conviction of such refusal (he) do suffer fine, imprisonment, or corporal punishment.” Incidentally, it was not only the Indian servants of Europeans who were to be so chastised. Another regulation of 1766 establishing gradation of dignities laid down “that every native who keeps a palanquin in Calcutta” must apply for permission and “those who attempt to evade the regulation shall for the first time” forfeit the palanquin, and “for the third offence shall be banished from the settlement”.

However, it was not only the deliberate individual measures which led to the lowering of wages, the weakening of the people’s bargaining power, and their accelerated impoverishment, but also the basic land and revenue policies which laid the foundation for such a happening. Still countless individual measures to reduce wages of craftsmen, of transporters of persons and commodities, of men engaged in governmental or European domestic service, and of those who had been reduced to a state of complete landlessness, were taken from time to time in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century. One of the more glaring examples is of the reduction of the rates of some fifty items, including labor, in the P.W.D. of the Midnapore Division in Bengal in 1847. The reduction made was of upto 60 per cent within one year, and such reductions were not only approved by the Government of Bengal but the Government directed that information and orders on such reductions and revision should further be conveyed to all other P.W.D establishments. An instance of this reduction was that whereas a certain cubit feet of mud wall construction cost 11 annas in 1844, in 1847 the same was to be constructed for 5 annas and 1 pie.

The general breakdown of earlier norms, the deliberate disruptions of the agrarian system, the lowering of Indian incomes and wages in the process of time, along with many other extensively introduced coercive practices, led to the social and economic degradation of large sections of Indian society. In districts of Bihar (especially areas like Hazaribagh) “a system of serfdom on a large scale” known as kamias had begun to develop in the later years of the nineteenth century, and similar developments were found to be occurring in various districts of the Madras Presidency. According to a Madras Presidency report the majority of Khonds in the Ganjam area “had been forced to alienate their holdings and to work on lands which once were theirs, as coolies,” and no longer as tenants. Similar developments were found to be on the increase in many other districts like Chingleput, South Arcot, Tanjore, Malabar, etc. according to one 1914 account, the panchanas in Chingleput district who seem to have become altogether landless in the previous decade, had been further pauperized as compared to what their condition was around 1880.  

Notes at end of chapter 1 of the book titled Rediscovering India. 1. According to Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations, 1965 edition pp. 127, 647, 789) the wages of agricultural labor in India were higher than those of urban artisans; and the revenue paid by the cultivator before India came under British rule was no more than 20 per cent of the gross produce while the British raised this revenue to over 50 per cent. Even after deliberate attempts to lower Indian wages through direct and indirect means, it was found that around 1800 the wages of agricultural labor in India in real terms were still appreciably higher than the then current wages of such labor in England (Edinburgh Review c. 1803). A description of rural life in the Benares-Bihar area in the 2780s is reproduced from a travel account of the British painter, William Hodges, at Annexure “A”

2. According to Universal History (c. 1750). Encyclopaedia Britannica (c.1800) and an MSS of 1753 in the Bodleian, Oxford, the giving of dowry was ordinarily not practiced in India in the eighteenth century.