Chapter 5 Agriculture during the British Era – Indian Economy


Agriculture during the British Era


The study of Indian agriculture reveals the nature of the Indian economy as a whole, for, on the prosperity or adversity of Indian agriculture hangs the pendulum of India’s economic growth. In spite of the country’s progress towards industrialization, it owes a great deal for its sustenance to agriculture. In this country, agriculture is not merely a primary and stable occupation of seventeenth of our teeming millions, but it is a way of life. Agriculture personifies in itself a variety of functions; it is the purveyor of food, employer of the lion’s share of the population, feeder of raw materials to innumerable industries and a stabilizer of the economy. This coveted position would have prompted anyone to draw the conclusion that agriculture would be in an advanced stage in India had it not been known to one that it is beset with so many deficiencies and entangled in such a variety of complexities.

Agriculture is the chief occupation of Indians and the mainstay of the Indian economy. So far no industry has come to occupy such a prominence as agriculture. Instead of the population depending on agriculture take a turn for declining due to the growth of industries, it was actually found to be on the increase; in 1872, 65 per cent of the population depended on agriculture while it registered a rise by 10 per cent more after a decade. Besides, agriculture till recently accounted for 48.8 per cent of the national income and the size of the Indian budget depends largely on its prosperity or otherwise. ‘The Indian budget is a gamble on the monsoon.’ It is the very foundation of the financial stability of the government. Agricultural products also constitute the main staples of both internal and external trade. The bulk of our export trade are drawn from agriculture the chief among them being tea, oilseeds, tobacco and species. Thus, a bad year for agriculture will definitely prove a bad year throughout. Agriculture plays a significant role in the social and political structure of the country. The sturdy and self-reliant cultivator, who proves an asset to the Armed Forces, and who constitutes the backbone of the State, is a contribution of agriculture to the nation. Thus, it is the pivot of our economic system and remains India’s premier national key industry. But the fact that it is by far the largest single industry and overwhelmingly preponderates over other occupations insofar as 70 per cent of the entire population depends either directly or indirectly on it for their hand-to-mouth existence, has not altered the position of agriculture as a better and prosperous one than others. This is shown by the excessively low output per acre, which at best is one-third or one-fourth of what is obtained in other lands and which dwindles to nothing during times of drought and famine, the regular visitors of this irregular industry. Dr Clouston remarked ‘In India, we have our depressed classes, we have too our depressed industries, and agriculture unfortunately, is one of them.’ Such a deplorable position of agriculture is in a sense due to the predominant position which is reflected in the poverty of Indians and the instability of the economy. The primitive lines of cultivation, the pressure of ever-growing population on the scarce cultivated land resources, recurring droughts, infrequent and irregular monsoons and insect plagues have kept agricultural production abnormally low and the country dependent on food imports from abroad. Whereas Spain produces 5191 lbs, per acre India reaps only 1224 1bs of rice in an acre. The yield of wheat is only 701 lbs per acre in India while it is just the double as much as in the United States. The relative position of yield of cotton from an acre of land in the USSR and India are 633 lbs, respectively. Such inefficient production accounts for the fact that India employing 706 persons out of every thousand cannot feed the remaining non-agricultural populace while the United States which absorbs only 128 persons in that industry produces enough and to spare.

The problems of Indian agriculture were, as they are even today in a lessened degree, manifold as they were diversified. Indian agriculture has been continuously experiencing difficulties arising out of different conditions of soil, topographical, climatic and situational factors which in turn were intensified by differences of practices in vogue in different parts of the country. The absence of double cropping and a peculiar system of crop rotation have ushered in a fall in the productivity. This might have been averted by resorting to more scientific cultivation. But the farmer’s inability to purchase chemical fertilizers along with over-exploitation of the soil by a system of continuous cultivation, has brought about a decline in the fertility of the land. Poor livestock which are half-fed and half-dead, lack of good seed and the use of primitive and antiquated implements which just scratch the hardened soil, have all stood as stubborn mules on the road of agricultural prosperity. From times immemorial, agriculture in this country has been multicultural where improvements and specialization with an eye on increased productivity were not feasible. Countries like Malaya and Sri Lanka which remain mono-cultural can resort to research to improve the variety and quality of particular crops. Moreover the havoc played by the vagaries of the monsoon cannot be overestimated. It is uncertain and unpredictable playing hide and seek with the ryot. This coupled with the absence of a well-planned irrigation system seriously affects the output.

These situations would have been tactfully handled by the peasant had he been given certain basic amenities to jump over these stumbling blocks. He himself is in the tight grip of poverty, illiteracy, superstition, prejudice and debilitating diseases. His lack of education has made him firmly believe that his forefathers would not have adopted a futile system of cultivation and eventually he has stuck to such a primitive mode of cultivation. He has not been ready to undertake a risk which might have robbed him away in all probability his bare subsistence and landed him in ruin if he has launched a new experiment. His unwillingness alone is not a limiting factor. The ludicrously small unit of his holdings would not take him any far if he introduced a new system. It has been calculated that about 30 crore people have been cultivating uneconomic holdings and this has also brought about a decline in the grazing facilities for their cattle. Even the small produce the ryot is likely get out of cultivation, has not been left to him. The Shylock of the Indian scene, the inevitable money-lender, takes away the lion’s share of the produce, the chain of middlemen claim another portion and the rest too goes on diminishing. Owing to the inadequacy of roads, bridges and feeder railways, many cultivators have found it very difficult to have their products marketed or to deal with consumers as well as wholesale dealers directly. Their other difficulties were, shortage of capital, crushing indebtedness, lack of properly regulated markets, absence of organization among themselves, shortage of storage facilities, lack of standardization, grading and uniform packing, absence of well-organized intelligence, chaos concerning weights, confusion regarding measures and the necessity of paying heavy land revenue to the government. Under such adverse conditions, hardly one-fifth of the produce went to the cultivator. All these hardships when experienced by the agriculture completely upset him and took away all the incentives to produce more. It was beyond the reach of the ryot to find out the ways and means to remedy these defects. Naturally the farmer not only vertically looked high in the sky for the trace of rainy clouds, but also looked straight for the State assistance to improve the conditions of his occupation. Thus, the Indian farmer most willingly dwarfed himself under the mighty Colassus of the State for whatever blessing the bureaucracy could bestow up on him. ‘The duties which in England are performed by a good landlord have in India mainly to be discharged by the government which alone can command the requisite capital and knowledge.’ Only the State with all the resources at its command can organize and plan the future utilization of agricultural resources.

The Indian government under the Britishers did formulate some measures to improve the lot of the peasantry by improving agricultural industry, but the measures which evolved were so slow and uncoordinated that they did not touch even the fringe of the problem. An unimaginative step to improve the defect of agriculture would plant two more into it. But if we carefully assess them all, we can see definite improvements have been made in the commercialization of agriculture, changes in the methods of marketing crops, the constructions of irrigation works, a radical change in the character of the famines, etc. But the negative aspects of such steps were the subdivision and fragmentation of holdings, rigid and oppressive system of land tenures like the Zamindars, growing rural indebtedness, the general ownership of land passed on from the tillers to the money-lenders and the elimination of the village artisans which gave vent to underemployment and unemployment.

The above presented gloomy picture might lead one to the conclusion that Indian agriculture has reached a stage beyond reparation. But that would rather be a hasty generalization made without understanding the problems most of which are prone to remedy. The majority of these problems, if not all, were accelerated under the impact of an alien rule without its knowing them. The Britishers did not evince a keen interest in making radical changes in the nature of agriculture and they did not have the mind to do so; also as they were afraid that in such a case India would not lend itself as a market for the surplus produce of Britain’s other colonial countries. Moreover, such a bold and imaginative revolution would have unleashed a social transformation which the foreigners thought a great risk and luxury to be entertained by them. The Rolls-Royce administration we had in this country was so exotic in temperament, lethargic and bureaucratic in its attitude that it did not in most cases could not, understand the primitive, indigenous economy with its deeper implications and sharper complications. After all, but for this, a country which had all the total crop of the world area under jute and one-half of the entire world area under rice and one-third under cotton could have spared better, if only a concerted and co-ordinated ‘improvement in the arts of agriculture’ was effected.

The prospect of agriculture in India could have always been brightened with the introduction of institutional changes such as peasant proprietorship coupled with mechanization, reorganization of rural credit system, extension of storage accommodation, the elimination of money lender, etc., along with the technical changes through a centralized planning authority so as to offset the speculative character of Indian agriculture. But the alien rule bequeathed all these unfinished tasks to an independent and infant administration. How far the new political framework has shouldered this onerous responsibility and to what extent of success, is a case for history to judge. But there is no reason to make a scapegoat of agriculture for all the ills of our economy. Indian agriculture presents innumerable and mostly unexplored potentialities owing to the fertile soil, abundance of labour supply, considerable agricultural skill and availability of about 17 per cent of the total land which lie as culturable wastes. These all spell great agricultural and with it economic prosperity if only the State has the means and the will to explore them and channelize them to proper quarters.

Discussion Questions

5.1. Discuss the nature, features and prospects of Indian agriculture during the British era.

5.2. What was the impact of British rule on Indian agriculture? Why were the Britishers indifferent to make Indian agriculture more productive?

5.3. Comment on the statement: ‘Indian agriculture is a gamble on the monsoon’.