Changes in Land Tenure under British Rule
India's invasion by the British brought about, in the course
of time, a complete transformation in the country's land tenure
system. The East India Company experienced difficulty in its
trading because the sale of British goods in India was insignificant.
On the other hand, the exportation of gold and silver from
England to pay for Indian goods was soon prohibited. The company
found a solution by securing money from India to pay for Indian
goods. It collected taxes for the Indian rulers which, in
the beginning, brought revenues of only 10 % of the levied
taxes, but, since the control over the amount of levied taxes
became lax at the end of the Mogul period, its revenues increased.
In addition, they were assigned areas as "jagir:°'
The decisive breakthrough came when, in 1765, the office of
'dewan' for Bengal, Orissa, and Bihar, namely the financial
sovereignty for these areas, was assigned to the Company with
the concession for levying taxes in exchange for a global
sum of Rs. 2.6 million per annum.
After some time of experimentation, in 1793, Corwallis'
Settlement brought a final regulation of the procedure for
which led to decisive changes in land tenure. The British
did as if all the
land belonged to the state and was thus at their disposal.
the local tax collectors, who were called zamindars, as owners
of the land
in their district. These zamindars had to collect and deliver
the taxes; the
amount was fixed at the beginning and remained the same permanently.
To give them an incentive, they were free to decide how much
to demand from the cultivators. On the other hand, the fixed
lump tax sum was an incentive to put more land under cultivation
and, thus, have more taxpayers in one region. In order to
do so, one could rot bleed the individual farmers too much.
The right to the land conferred on the zamindars was alienable,
rentable, and heritable. This meant the introduction of a
complete novelty, in India. The privilege of utilizing land
had become a saleable good. Those who had been cultivators
until then obtained the status of 'occupancy tenants.' These
occupancy rights were heritable and transferrable and were
not tampered with as long as the holders paid their taxes.
In contrast to these, the tenants who cultivated land owned
by the tax collectors were'' tenants at will', i.e., they
could be evicted.
In the beginning, there were hardly any problems. The scarcity
of cultivators prevented the zamindars from demanding too
high taxes. They were interested in attracting people to cultivate
the land and, thus, to increase the number of tax payers in
order to increase the difference between the revenues and
the fixed amount that bad to be remitted.
The detrimental consequences of recognizing the tax collectors
as landlords and of introducing the legal institution of saleable
private landed property first became evident as, later, considerable
changes occurred in India in the demographic and economic
situation. The industrial revolution in England, namely, brought
about a change in the British policy in India. The objective
was no longer to import from India, but to sell English products
in India. Since the textile industry played an important role
at the beginning of industrialization in England, very large
amounts of cheap products manufactured by mechanical looms
were exported to India and this soon led to a collapse in
the textile home industry in India. A large number of weavers
became unemployed. In order to secure a basis of existence,
they migrated to the rural areas and tried to lease land they
could farm. The scope of this migration-Dacca's inhabitants
alone decreased from 150,000 to 20,000 between 1824 and 1837-
caused pressure on the rural areas and brought about a complete
change in the relationships between zamindars and tenants.
The monopoly of controlling the means to secure livelihood
shifted power unilaterally into the hands of the zamindars
who were able to extort more and more taxes as the demand
for land increased. This led to indebtedness and often to
the loss of occupancy rights and relegation to tenants at
The great discrepancy between the fixed amount of taxes to
be remitted and the increasing revenues made the zamindars
wealthy. Soon they no longer went to the trouble of collecting
the taxes themselves but rather sub leased this office to
others while they themselves lived on the remainder between
the amount claimed as taxes and that paid to the "sub
assignees." The difference between the revenues and the
amounts to be remitted was so great that even the "sub
assignees" tried to sub lease. After some time, it became
quite common to have 10 to 20 intermediaries, more or less
without a specific function, between the government and the
farmers, and they all had a share in the cultivation yield.
In addition, abwabs, supplements and fees for the most curious
reasons were introduced; for example, for using an umbrella,
for permission to sit down in the zamindar's office, for being
allowed to stand up again, etc. Moreover, the "began"
unpaid work which the tenants were forced to perform on the
zamindar's land, took on larger and larger proportions. On
the average, it amounted to 20 25 % of the lease. Under the
effect of these developments which should be regarded as late
consequences of the changes in the land tenure brought about
by the "Permanent Settlement," more and more cultivators
became indebted, lost their occupancy rights, and dropped
in status to tenants at will or agricultural labourers. On
the other hand, the wealth of the zamindars kept increasing
on account of the income they earned from the difference between
the amount of taxes and the rentals, the increase in cultivated
areas, ,money lending, and expropriation of debtors. In the
course of time, the zamindari region was characterized by
the marked difference between wealth, power, and prospects
in life. Even the government experienced drawbacks on account
of this system. Changes in the monetary value, prices, and
the amount of cultivated areas turned the fixed tax, after
150 years, into nothing but a token sum, and considerable
tax tosses ensued.
The zamindari system was not introduced in the whole of India.
Because of the experience made with the system, better knowledge
of the conditions in India, and liberal influences on the
colonial policy, the provinces which became British possessions
later were assigned other taxation systems. The ryotwari system
was introduced in Madras, Bombay, and Assam. Under that system,
the government claimed the property rights to all of the land.
but allotted it to the cultivators on the condition that they
pay the taxes. They could use, sell, mortgage, bequeath, and
lease the land as long as they paid their taxes. Otherwise,
they were evicted. This direct tax relation between the government
and the cultivators was meant to prevent sub tax collectors,
thus increasing purchasing power, and, in that way,improving
the marketing prospects for English products. Here, the taxes
were only fixed in a temporary settlement for a period of
thirty years and then revised. This way, the government increased
In North India and in the Punjab where villages with joint
land rights were common, an attempt was made to utilize this
structure in the Mahalwari system. Taxation was imposed with
the village community as theoretical landlord, since it had
the land rights. The village community had to distribute these
taxes among the cultivators who owed taxes individually and
jointly. Everyone was thus liable for the others' arrears.
A village inhabitant- the lambardar- collected the amounts
and remitted them in bulk. Here, too, tax assessment was revised
Despite this different system, the conditions for cultivators
constantly deteriorated in these regions as well. The high
taxes fixed by the governmen-t half to two thirds of the net
yield was the usual amount made investments impossible. Because
of fragmentation resulting from inheritance, the farms became
smaller and smaller. The fact that land could be used as collateral
made it possible to borrow money to pay taxes in the case
of crop failures. But, in that way, more and more farms passed
into the hbands of moneylenders, often better off cultivatorsin
the village. In the course of time,these ceased to cultivate
their land themselves and sub leased it instead. Finally,
the ryotwari region was no longer a self cultivator region.
More than one third of the land was leased and in many districts
more than two thirds. The great demand for land owing to the
population growth made it possible to let others work for
In the Mahalwari region as well, sub leasing and indebtedness
became ,more and more common. Indeed, it was not possible
to transfer the land to people who were not from the locality,
but the result was that landed property became concentrated
in the hands of a few wealthy people, whereas the others lost
their rights. A constantly increasing number of people were
or became landless. While in the middle of the last century
there were still no landless, in 1931 and 1945, respectively
33 and 70 million landless labourers were registered. Others
succeeded in renting some land, but on less favourable terms.
Share tenancy, in particular, increased greatly.
The British land policy which lasted 150 years as well as
the consequences of economic changes and the drastic population
growth led to a complete change in the land tenure system
in India. Whereas, formerly, the cultivators possessed the
right of use and the government the right to impose taxes,
now the rights in land were split into many pieces. In this
process, not only did a large number of cultivators lose their
valid land rights and fell in status to unprotected tenants
and labourers. At the same time, the tax collectors became
landlords and large landowners. A stratum of intermediaries
who did not have a specific function developed, and the land
passed into the hands of moneylenders. This caused an enormous
differentiation in financial conditions, whereby, the mass
of farmers lived in abject poverty.
To explain the further development following India and Pakistan's
independence, it is very important tonote that, admittedly,
the economic situation of the different groups of the rural
population had developed very differently, and a large part
of the population became poor, but, in its main traits, the
social system remained intact, There existed namely a complicated
relationship pattern between landlords, cultivators, and landless
people which was based on mutual rights and obligations and
which provided everyone with a place-even if a poorone am
within the rural society. The system aimed at satisfying the
needs of everyone in the economic and social sector, and was
based on the fact that all members depended upon one another.
Thus, the landlords owned land, it is true, but were dependent
the landless tenants, agricultural labourers, and village
cultivate it. Inversely, the landless could rot utilize their
labour in an
agrarian society if the landlords did rot give them the possibility
working on the fields. This made it necessary for the landlords
the landless' economic situation at least at a level which
was not detrimental
to their capacity to work, nor caused them to migrate. This
not only forced
the existence of a minimum wage, although very low, but also
financial aid in emergencies, crop failures, etc. In addition,
preferred to face want than not meet the obligations resulting
Such mutual relationships existed even in the social sector.
The landlord assured the protection and representation of
their workers externally, whereas the landless adopted a loyal
attitude towards their employers and were, so to say, automatically
on his side. This secured him power and influence and put
him in a position to represent their interests well externally.
In the wars. of time these behavioural patterns became so
ingrained that the obligations of the strong towards the weak
became social norms, and paternalistic behaviour was a prerequisite
for being recognized as a leading personality. This norm,
which is typical for rural societies, sets obvious limits
to exploitation. It is true that the level of these limits
am very low, but they guaranteed a subsistence. It is also
important to observe that the rights had been unilaterally
shifted to the benefit of the landlords, but the landless
did not consider themselves to be exploited. Here, religion
may have played an important role, but the existence of mutual
relationships even if they were unequal which granted security
against threat to existence were also of extreme importance.