What was the Socio-Economic Life of South India during the time of Britishers?


While such is the actual state of things, and while the people entertain such a lively horror, of the police, it is not possible to expect a single victim of torture to come forward and arraign his tormentors; or to bring the charge home to anyone of them after the deed has been perpetrated in some ruined fort or deep ravine situated miles away from the town or village.”

As a result of unfavourable circumstances, the ryots in Madras Presidency, at least a large majority of them, live a very miserable life. In the fourteen ryotwari districts, namely, Chingleput, Salem, Madura, Nellore, North Arcot, South Arcot, Tanjore, Trichinopoly, Tinnelvelly, Bellary, Cuddaph, Coimbatore, Canara and Kurnool, the official list of Puttahs for the Revenue year 1848-49 shows that out of 10, 71,588 Puttahs 888,888 or more than three-fourths were for amounts under 30 rupees well-off class of agriculturists.

The most of those who possessed any considerable extent of property was very small. About their real means in 1853. “I should say that if a man of this class is able to spend 15 or 20 rupees a month, or rather if he can command a value equal to that, for he will rarely see so much money, such a man, I say, may be accounted to be very well off; and that a net income from all sources to the value of from 30 to 50 rupees a month is very rare among the agricultural classes….


The dwellings of this class certainly do not indicate much wealth; tiled houses are rarely seen, and masonry walls are still much rarer. The almost universal habitation has mud walls and a thatched roof; the latter of a very flimsy order, and both often much dilapidated and both walls and roof are the same within as without; the rooms have no ceiling, and their walls no sort of ornament or decoration; rarely even whitewash and the floor is of simple earth beaten hard.

The value of the residence of a ryot of the more wealthy class, of whom I am now speaking, probably rarely exceeds 200 rupees or 2 pounds. This portrait of the wealthy class of ryots, Bourdillon completes by describing the contents of their houses. He says, “And if we look within their houses, we still find new evidences of wealth, or even of what we should consider comfort. I have already described the interior of the house itself; and as to its contents, there is nothing of what is commonly called furniture.

There are no chairs, or tables, or couches, or beds; sometimes there is seen a single rude cot which be dear at 2 rupees. The inmates for the most part sleep on the earthen floor, with nothing else below them but a mat or a small cotton carpet. They sit on the floor and from it take food, which is served in a few brass dishes or perhaps by preference and not from poverty on a simple plantain leaf. Their usual clothes are simply of cotton, and cost little….”

This description of the wealthy class of agriculturists of Madras Presidency at the end of the 19th century is sufficiently indicative of the abject and worm-like existence of the poorer class. The ryots of this class, the most numerous, were born in debt and died in debt. Their crops were generally hypothecated before they were reaped and the money lender was the real beneficiary of their labours.


They had no accounts but what the money-lender had kept. The rate of interest was never less than 12 per cent per annum and often it went up to 24 per cent. The poorest and most needy ryots had to pay the highest. In the course of his wretched hand-to-mouth existence this poor ryot rarely saw money except that obtained from the Chetty to pay his kist.

Below the rank of these agriculturists were those who possessed a small patch of land, cultivated, says Bourdillon, “sometimes by the aid of borrowed cattle but whose chief subsistence is derived from cooly labour, either cutting firewood and carrying it for sale to the neighbouring town or in field labour.” The labouring class who had no land to depend upon comes next to these and their plight was worse indeed, whose annual income did not exceed 20 rupees. This was paid in commodities and not in money.

On the condition of these agricultural labourers in Dharapuram Dr. Buchanan writes: “The servants employed here in agriculture are hired in the beginning of the year for twelve months. They may change their service when their term expires if they be not in their master’s debt; but as he generally advanced money for their marriages and other ceremonies, they are seldom at liberty to go away. They get twenty bullas of rough rice (paddy) a month with four fanams and one siliga of rough rice yearly, and their master pays their house-rents. The whole is about 31 bushels of rough rice, of which one-half is husk, with two shillings in money besides the house-rent which will not exceed one or two shilling a year.

These servants generally have one wife, who at seed time and harvest works for the master for daily wages. A woman’s daily wages are four puddies of grain worth about nine-tenths of a penny. A man gets six puddies of grain. A servant with these wages can once or twice a month procure a little animal food. Milk is too expensive. His common diet consists of some boiled grain, with a little salt and capsicum, and perhaps some pickles. His drink is the water in which the grain was boiled. He had very little clothing and that little is extremely dirty; his house is a hovel, and he is commonly overrun with vermin and cutaneous disorders. “


What Buchanan wrote about these people in 1800 was generally true and relevant even in the last decade of the 19th century. The Proceedings of the Board of Revenue dated 11th November 1872 say that the general opinion was that the condition of the labouring classes was rapidly improving. When Brandt and Stuart expressed the opposite view, the Board explained it away saying that “they evidently referred to farm labourers, the old praedial slaves.”

But they admitted, “Wages paid in grain, like those of farm labourers, continued almost stationary and the rapid increase in money wages was to a great extent neutralised by as rapid a rise in prices.” The Board, however, believed that the labouring classes had “fully shared in the general improvement which was visible everywhere, and in many places large public works, increasing trades and improved facilities for emigration had made their advance more rapid than that of other classes.”

The conclusions that there was marked improvement in the condition of the poorer sections of the working classes may be true with reference to some places were large anicuts and other public works had been undertaken. Reports from various districts show wide variations in the wage structure. In some districts increase in the price of labour was shown to have taken place after a famine, when the cost of the necessaries of life of every kind rose up to great height that the Government had to increase the wages paid by them to labourers.

After the end of the famine though the prices of grains had fallen considerably (in the case of ragi from Rs. 26 to Rs. 2-2/12 per kandagam in Salem) it was impossible to reduce the rates of wages. Mr. Price, Sub-Collector of Salem once tried to reduce the pay of the coolies, and they nearly all struck and brought his road work to a standstill at the most important part of the season.


Generally in most of the places in South India, the farm labourers were the worst sufferers, both in normal and famine conditions. Macgregor Collector of Malabar categori­cally stated that there was no marked improvement in the position of this class during the thirteen years he had experience of the district. He says that they were slaves in everything but name and up to no very distant period had invariably been sold with the land.

One relieving factor in the life of the labouring classes was that the farm hands were seldom permitted to die for want of work. The permanent farm labourers of a landholder, when work ceased to exist within his farm, would be free to work elsewhere, being bound, however, to come back whenever required.

This freedom was a safeguard against want and starvation. ‘Panial’ or Padial’ or ‘Padiachy’ as they were known in the South, and their masters were usually bound by a bond of union-a strange sentimental attachment that never existed in the labour-lord relations in the West instead of raising the rate of wages whenever labour was in greater demand than usual, the landholder here was sufficiently alive to the requirements of the times by a judicious enhancement of loans and presents, the bond was further strengthened by the employer giving small presents at festivals and, on the occasions of marriage or other ceremonies, loans to the labourers attached to his estates.

This system, of course, had tended to prevent the labourers from emerging from the rut in which they had fallen; but it had an added advantage too that the loans and advances thus received bore no interest. The repayment of the capital sum was not demanded unless the labourer elected to quit the service.


As H.E. Sullivan, Collector of S. Arcot pointed out, “There is, moreover in this country a feeling of sympathy between the employer and his men, which is not to be found in European countries, where the latter are regarded as so many machines out of which a certain amount of work is to be got and that done, the bargain is at end…my experience leads me to believe that the ‘padial’ in India, with his comparatively scanty wage, is better off than the farm labourer at home with his 9s or 10s a week.” This is of course, an idealist picture of Indian landlord-labourer relation. In material terms the European farm hands were better off than the so called rich ryots described by Bourdillon.

The British power was fully established in South India by the beginning of the 19th century. During the early years of that rule there was little to choose between English administration and that of the Native Princes so far as the agricultural classes were concerned.

The ill-paid English writers and factors who carried on extensive trade on their own, found themselves suddenly transformed into governors of provinces and they behaved as worst oppressor of people than most of the local rulers. But after Cornwallis’ reforms, the condition had improved much. Administrators like Reade, Munro, Graham and Thackeray helped the pacification of the country by the suppression of the Poligars who, with large bands of armed followers, plundered the country.

In the settlement of land revenue in the early years, the British committed grievous errors. The resources of the country had been brought to the last stage of exhaustion by wars and famines and before helping to replenish them, permanent settlement of the revenue was introduced. This was to be done with Zamindars where they existed; where they did not exist with new Zamindars to be created.

The districts of Chingleput, Salem, and Dindigul were divided into a number of mettahs and sold to the highest bidders. Most of the purchasers, after pillaging the ryots, failed in the course of a year or two and the whole settlement collapsed. The system of village leases was next tried but with the same result.

It was expected that the villagers as a body would agree to the leases but as the assessment was high, the leases were taken up by more speculators the renters were ruined, the ryots impoverished and the villages returned to Government.

The defects arose from the fact that the British adopted the old assessments which were in themselves excessive. Under the old system the ryots had great opportunities of cheating the Govern­ment; but under the British system opportunities for evasion and peculation were less.

That way, the introduction of the British system meant complete ruin of the agricultural classes. Even though Munro wanted the Government to reduce their demand to one-third of the gross produce, the Government could not introduce the reform on account of orders received from England for the remittance of an additional sum of a million sterling annually. On account of fleecing the ryots, during the British period, there occurred within 24 years four major famines viz., those of 1799 of 1804-07, of 1811-12 and of 1824.

The ryotwari system, besides uprooting the traditional socio-economic institutions in a large portion of the Madras (now Chennai) Presidency, put greater strains on the peasant population there. Periodical scarcity caused by floods and draughts, was augmented by the rigid and exacting settlements and revenue collection. As a result innumerable famines mild and severe occurred during late 18th century and throughout 19th century.

Apart from small remissions in the kist, the government seems to have done nothing to remove the causes of the calamity. During Read’s administration Baramahal was a scene of scarcity and famine condition. The draught that appeared there in 1797 caused much hardship to the people of the area and the peasants in despair of getting any produce drove their cattle into their own cornfields.

In 1799 Dindigul passed through a similar situation.Tanjore and South Arcot districts witnessed a famine in 1804 and 1805 and the districts of Cudappah, Kurnool, Bellary and Anathpur in 1803. Munro recommended no emission in the ceded Districts because he feared that such a measure would be consid­ered as a proof of British weakness rather than of indulgence. The result was the Jamma of Fasli 1213 exceeded that of the previous year of Star Pagodas 26,558-29-65. In 1805 and 1J07 general crop failures occurred in the whole Presidency and the distress of the people knew no bounds.

But the Board of Revenue insisted that the local administrators should not interfere with the grain market by fixing the price at which the grain should be sold orby importing grain and selling it on Government account. Temporary remissions granted did not mitigate the misery of the ryots.

One positive step taken by the government was the employment of some of the able bodied poor in public works. The number of deaths by starvation reported officially for the year 1805 was 3225, for 1806 was 4902 and for 1807 were 17207. This statistics must be a highly tailored one; the actual rate of mortality must be higher, as the eye witness account gives a higher range to the suffering of the people.

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