The British imperial ruler of India unleashes far-reaching changes in Indian agrarian structure. Ne land tenure, new land ownership concepts, tenancy changes and heavier state demand for land revenue triggered of far-reaching changes in rural economy; and social relationship.
Early British administrators of the East India Company considered India as a vast estate and acted on the principle that the company was entitled to the entire economic rent, leaving to the cultivators merely the expenses of cultivation and wages of their labour village communities were disregarded.
In most part of the North India, the early administrators resorted to the ‘farming’ of land revenues. Excessive land revenue demands proved counter-productive. Agriculture began to languish, large areas went out of cultivation and famines stared the people in the face.
Broadly speaking, the English adopted three types of land tenure in North India, viz, the Zamindari tenure, the Ryotwari tenure and the Mahalwari tenure. Permanent zamindari settlements were made in Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and Banaras Division of the U.P. The Mahalwari tenure was introduced in major portions of the U.P., the Punjab. The Ryotwari settlements were made in major portions of Bombay and Madras presidencies, in Assam and some other parts of British India.
Under the zamindari settlements, old tax farmers, revenue collectors, and zamindars were turned into private landlords possessing some, but not all, of the right of private property in land. For one, the bulk of the rent they derived from the tenants was to be turned over to the government. At the same time, they were made complete master of the village communities. The zamindar was recognized as the owner who could mortgage, bequeath and sell the land.
The state held the zamindar responsible for the payment of land revenue and in default thereof, the land could be confiscated and sold out. A snag in the permanent settlement of Bengal was that while the state’s land revenue demand was fixed, the rent to be realized by the landlords from the cultivators was left unsettled and unspecified. This resulted in rack-creating and frequent ejections of tenants from their traditional holdings.
Under the Mahalwari system, the unit for revenue settlement is the village or the Mahal (i.e., the estate). The village land belongs jointly to the village community, technically called, ‘The body of co- shares’. The bodies of co-shares are jointly responsible for payment of land revenue, though individual responsibility is also there. If any co-shares abandons his land it is taken over by the village community as a whole. The village community is the owner of village ‘common land’ including the forest land, pastures etc.
Whatever the name of the system, it was the peasant cultivators who suffered most. They were forced to pay very high rent and for all practical purposes functioned as tenant-at-will. They were compelled to pay many illegal dues and cresses and were often required to perform forced labour or begar. What is more important, whatever the name or nature of revenue system in effect the government came to occupy the position of the landlord?
Moneylenders emerged as an influential economic and political force in the country. Because of the high revenue rates demanded and the rigid manner of collection, the peasant cultivators had often to borrow money to pay taxes. In addition to paying exorbitant interest, when his crops were ready he was invariably forced to sell his produce cheap.
The chronic poverty of the peasant compelled him to take recourse to the moneylender especially in times of droughts, floods and famines. The moneylenders, on the other hand, could manipulate the new judicial system and the administrative machinery to his advantage. In this regard the government, in fact, actually helped him, because without him the land revenue could not be collected in time, nor could the agricultural produce be brought to the ports for export.
Even to get the commercial crops for export produced in the first instance, the government depended on the moneylenders to persuade the cultivators by offering to finance him through loans. It is not surprising, therefore, that in course of time the moneylender began to occupy a dominant position in the rural economy.
In both the Zamindari and Mahalwari areas there occurred a large-scale transfer of land from the hands of the actual cultivators to the ‘hands of the moneylenders, merchant, officials and rich peasants. This led to landlordism becoming the dominant feature of land relationship in North India.
Intermediate rent-receivers also grew. This process is referred to as sub-infatuation. The new landlords and zamindar had even less of a link with land than the old zamindars. Instead of taking the trouble to organize machinery for rent collection, they merely subject their rights to intermediate receivers.
The impact of British rule thus led to the evolution of a new structure of agrarian relations that was extremely regressive. The new system did not at all permit the development of agriculture. New social classes appeared at the top as well as at the bottom of the social scale.
There arose landlords, intermediaries, and moneylenders at the top and tenants-at-will, share-croppers and agricultural labourers at the bottom. The new pattern was neither capitalism nor feudalism, nor was it a continuation of the old Mughal arrangement. It was a new structure that colonialism evolved. It was a semi-feudal and semi colonial in character.