The above description of flourishing trade and craft industries and growing importance of guilds may give the impression that agriculture had taken a back seat in Indian economy. This was not the case in fact.
The result of two hundred years of Mauryan rule and efforts could be seen only in the post- Mauryan period. Ashoka claims that hunters and fishermen had given up killing and practised dharma.
This means that food gatherers were persuaded to take to a sedentary agricultural life thus increasing the agrarian population. However, important changes took place during the post- Mauryan period. In this period state control over the agricultural sector ended and individual farmers owning and practising agriculture became the norm. The extension of the area of cultivation was the result of individual efforts.
The Milindapanho states that the person who brings the land under use is called the owner of the land. According to Manu, land belongs to him who clears it first. The Divyavadana refers to individual farmers in large numbers working hard and engaged in agriculture. Thus, it seems that the private ownership of land was well accepted by this time.
Power of gift, sale and mortgage is the ultimate test of ownership. The legal literatures attribute the right of alienation of land to individuals and a number of inscriptions record gifts of land by private individuals. All such inscriptions are found in western India under the Satavahana sway.
However, there is no record of transfer of land for non- religious purposes. The state or the king was theoretically the owner of everything situated on the earth which shows general territorial sovereignty. The kings could grant land to any person or institution.
In India the earliest inscriptional evidence of land grant belongs to the first century BC, when a village was granted by the Satavahanas to the priests as a gift. Such grants were free from taxes. The administrative rights were first abandoned by the Satavahana ruler Gautamiputra Satakarni. We have some evidence to show that a few grants were meant to bring the uncultivated land under cultivation. A Satavahana inscription states that if the land is not cultivated the village is not settled.
Sometimes the state took measures to increase the productivity of the land. Thus Kharavela in Kalinga extended an old canal and Rudradaman got a large lake repaired in Saurashtra. Tanks seem to have been constructed by Sakas and Kushana chiefs in north-western India and also by many individuals in UP, particularly in Mathura region.
Manu enjoin the king to punish people for theft of agricultural implements and provides mutilation for selling false seeds, for taking out seed already sown and for destroying boundary marks. One of the important features of the Satavahana and Kushana land system was the custom of akshayanivi.
It has been variously explained as signifying perpetual enjoyment without the right of alienation or a perpetual endowment of rent-free land. One of the Nasik inscriptions (No. 3) records that the king is giving away land according to the custom of akshayanivi. This system was also present under the Kushanas.
Almost all the grants are religious in nature. They do not refer to grants of land to administrative officers. But Manu supports the assignments of land to revenue officials in charge of one, ten, twenty, a hundred, or a thousand villages. Till now not a single reference to intermediaries has been found in the agrarian system. It seems the agricultural revenue was collected by the officials with the help of village headmen (gamasamika).
The exact amount of revenue to be collected varied. In Manu we find that the king could take as annual revenue 1/6, 1/8 or 1/12 part of the produce, but he was advised to draw little by little as the leech, the bee and the calf do. It is believed that one of the grounds of differentiation of revenue was the type of land to be taxed. However, it seems that in ancient India 1/6 of the crops was the rate of taxation for a long time and that is why the king came to be addressed as sadbhagin i.e., one who took 1/6 part of the produce.
The state collected regular revenues from forests, mines and herds, apart from agriculture. Manu refers to Kara and pratibhaga among other kinds of levies. Kara was probably a periodical tax, primarily imposed on agricultural land, over and above the king’s normal grain share.
Pratibhaga was a daily present consisting of fruits, flowers, roots and the like. In the Junagarh rock inscription we find such terms as Kara, visti and pranaya. From the context, it seems that these were various irregular oppressive taxes that the people had to bear occasionally. Visti was unpaid labour and pranaya, according to the Arthashastra, is an emergency tax when the state suddenly runs into financial stringency.