Land Revenue and Land Policy 1858-1947 - II
Selection by Amir Ali Kadri


Naeem DeswalyTo these and other provisions in favour of the landlords, strong objections are taken on behalf of the tenants. The landlords, we need scarcely add, do not think that they go far enough. On the other hand the landlords point to very important provisions in the Bill in favour of the tenants. The old law recognised a right of occupancy in a tenant who held his land for twelve years. But if he was shifted from one field to another, even in the same village, the right did not accrue, and great uncertainty thus arose as to whether an individual tenant had or had not the occupancy right in his holding. The new law puts an end to this uncertainty by providing that if a tenant holds any land continuously for twelve years he becomes a ’settled rayat’, that is a tenant with occupancy rights within the village. It goes further, and declares that any person holding land as a rayat shall be presumed to have held it for twelve years until the contrary is shown. This is a new provision of immense importance to the cultivator; and it is therefore one to which the opposition of the landlords is keenly directed. Under the Bill no amount of shifting of the cultivators within the village by a landlord can destroy their right of occupancy, and every cultivator holding land as a rayat is presumed to have that right. Passing over the other provisions in favour of the occupancy tenants, such as judicial leases for fifteen years and certain restrictions upon enhancement of rent, we come to the provisions for the non-occupancy cultivators. This class of rayats is now brought within the pale of tenant right. It obtains first of all the valuable presumption in its favour that every person holding land as a rayat possesses the right of occupancy. The absolute acquisition of that right by twelve years’ continuous occupation of land within the village is maintained, and no contract can bar the acquisition of the right. Until the occupancy right is acquired, the non-occupancy rayat is protected by a system of five years judicial leases, at equitable rates and can only be ejected after due notice and by a suit in court. Again it need hardly be said that the landlords consider the status thus conferred to be unduly favourable, while, as we mentioned before, the friends of the rayat right consider it altogether inadequate. It is impossible in this rapid survey of the main provisions of this Bill laid yesterday on the table of the Legislative Council, to refer to the varied and somewhat complicated provisions in favour of the tenure-holders or even to the meagre sections which deal with under-tenants. The procedure chapters are also beyond our scope today. But any notice of the Bill, however brief, would be inadequate which omitted to mention what has been called the ’bludgeon clause’ in Chapter X. The Government of India, in introducing the Bill before the Legislature, mentioned that it would not be a Bill to reduce rents, unless in altogether exceptional circumstances. The clause in question deals with such exceptional cases. It provides that the Local Government may, with the previous sanction of the Governor General in Council, depute a revenue officer to settle and even to reduce rents, when such interference ’is necessary in the interests of public order or of the local welfare’. The precaution of requiring the previous sanction of the Governor General in Council is an important one; for the Local Government would doubtless have to make out a very clear case before that sanction was accorded.

While important provisions have been conceded in favour of the tenants, more drastic demands on their behalf have been refused. The Bill as published last year provided that the Courts should not enhance rent by more than one quarter or one half the previous rent, according to the specific ground on which the enhancement was claimed. These fractional limits on enhancement of rent by the Courts have disappeared from the Bill as finally revised. The still more important limit on enhancement, so strongly urged by the Bengal Government in its letter of September last, nowhere appears in the Bill. This limit was based on the proposal that no rent should exceed one-fifth of the gross produce of the land-a provision against which the landholders directed the whole strength of their opposition, In this as in other matters they have won the day. Perhaps no feature of the Bill was more highly vaunted by its early advocates than the ’free sale’ clauses which would have acknowledged the tenants power to transfer the occupancy right. These clauses have now, however, disappeared and the transferability of such rights is left as before to local custom. Not less important is the failure of Sir Rivers Thompson’s attack on the prevailing rate as a ground of enhancement. That ground is still maintained in the new Bill, and indeed, as we have seen, is rendered more capable of being practically worked. The protracted struggle represented by these and other changes has left a good deal of exacerbation behind, and the fortnight which is to elapse before the Bill comes finally before the Council will form a much needed lull during which excited feelings on both sides may calm down. To these feelings it is not the object of this article to add further bitterness, and we have therefore confined ourselves to a brief summary of the principal features of the Bill without attempting to adjudicate between the two parties, One thing is clear, and that is the extremely difficult task of the Government of India in trying to find a defensible position in the centre of the triangular fire kept up by the Bengal Government, the Landholders, and the tenants’ friends.



38. In the review of their land revenue policy which has now been brought to a close, the Government of India claim to have established the following propositions, which, for convenience’ sake, it may be desirable to summarize before concluding this Resolution:

1)  That a Permanent Settlement, whether in Bengal or elsewhere, is not protection against the incidence and consequences of famine.

2)  That in areas where the State receives its land revenue from landlords, progressive moderation is the key-note of the policy of Government, and that the standard of 50 per cent. of the assets is one which is almost uniformly observed in practice, and is more often departed from on the side of deficiency than of excess.

3)  That in the same areas the State has not objected, and does not hesitate, to interfere by legislation to protect the interests of the tenants against oppression at the hands of the landlords.

4)  That in areas where the State takes the land revenue from the cultivators, the proposal to fix the assessment at one-fifth of the gross produce would result in the imposition of a greatly increased burden upon the people.

5)  That the policy of long term settlements is gradually being extended, the exceptions being justified by conditions of local development.

6)  That a simplification and cheapening of the proceedings connected with new settlements, and an avoidance of the harassing invasion of an army of subordinate officials, are a part of the deliberate policy of Government.

7)  That the principle of exempting or allowing for improvements is one of general acceptance, but may be capable of further extension.

8)  That assessments have ceased to be made upon prospective assets.

9)  That local taxation as a whole though susceptible of some redistribution is neither immoderate nor burdensome.

10)  That over-assessment is not, as alleged, a general or widespread source of poverty and indebtedness in India, and that it cannot fairly be regarded as a contributory cause of famine.

The Government of India have further laid down liberal principles for future guidance and will be prepared, where the necessity is established, to make further advance in respect of:

11)  The progressive and graduated imposition of large enhancements;

12)  Greater elasticity in the revenue collection, facilitating its adjustment to the variations of the seasons, and the circumstances of the people;

13)  A more general resort to reduction of assessments in cases of local deterioration where such reduction cannot be claimed under the terms of settlement.

39. In thus defining their policy, the Government of India would not desire to claim for the land revenue system of British India an exactitude or a freedom from blemish to which it cannot pretend. Historically it owes its immediate origin to practices inherited from the most decadent period of native rule, and its form to changes made slowly, and not without mistakes, by men who were aliens to the country, and could only with difficulty, and by slow degrees, assimilate the requirements or enter into the feelings of the people. Where habit and precedent count for more than wisdom, there has been need for caution in reform; and logical completeness or simplicity could not be expected of a system, born amid such surroundings, applied to such manifold conditions and to so heterogeneous a population, and subject, in the various stages of its development, to considerations of practical expediency rather than of abstract symmetry or scientific perfection. Indeed the one claim which the Government of India would decline to make for the land revenue system of this country is that it can properly be regarded as a science at all. In no country can land valuation be so described; and India, in spite of records, estimates, and tables, is no exception to the rule. A part of the weakness of the criticisms which have been directed against it, arises from the erroneous assumption that it can be regulated by fixed laws, or shaped by arithmetical standards. Assessments cannot be dictated by the theorist in his study; they elude dogmatic treatment, and can only be safely worked out by the Settlement Officer in the village and, on. the fields. While they may admit of statistical analysis, they are liable to be hampered by premature statistical definition. The true function of Government is to lay down broad and generous principles for the guidance of its officers, with becoming regard to the traditions of the province and the circumstances of the locality, and to prescribe moderation in enhancement, and sympathy in collection. Above all it is its duty to exercise discrimination in the choice of the agents whom it employs for this most critical and responsible of tasks. The Governor General in Council acknowledges with gratitude the services that have been rendered to Government in this respect by a long line of devoted and capable officers, and he believes that the existing system, if pursued upon the lines that have been indicated, is both well suited to the present conditions of the country, and compatible with its future development, and that the revenue which it provides, and which is more lenient in its incidence than at any previous stage of Indian history, is capable of being levied from the people with surprisingly little hardship and without discontent.



80. Financial loss.-Having given an account of the Permanent Settlement, its results, and the course of the tenancy legislation, we are now in a position to summarise what are the defects of the present land revenue system.

It has stereotyped the land revenue at a figure which is far below the fair share which the Government ought to receive from the produce of the land, and is substantially less than the share taken in provinces where there is no Permanent Settlement and where the land is less productive than it is in Bengal. It has deprived the Government of any share in the increment in the value of land due to the increase in population and the extension of cultivation; and it has perpetuated an assessment which has no relation to the productive quality of the land, which varies widely in its incidence from district to district, and which becomes more and more uneven as time goes on.

The Permanent Settlement has involved for the Government the loss of revenue from minerals and from fisheries in certain navigable rivers, as these natural resources were not taken into account at the time of the Permanent Settlement, and in consequence they have been exploited for private gain without any co-ordinated plan. The limitation of the revenue payable by the zamindars, coupled with their exemption from any income-tax on agricultural incomes throws an undue burden on other classes of tax-payers. This discrimination in favour of land has had the effect of creating a bias in favour of investment in land rather than in industrial enterprises, and has contributed to the over-capitalisation of rent-receiving as opposed to productive purposes either in agriculture or industry

81. Absence of contact with the cultivators.  The low cost Government of collecting the revenue and the punctuality of payment have tended to obscure the defects of the system, and the interposition of a buffer in the shape of the zamindars between the Government and the cultivators of the soil has until more recent years deprived the Government of the close contact with and intimate knowledge of rural conditions which the raiyatwari system affords. Even though settlement operations have improved the position, there is, no provision in Bengal for the maintenance of an up-to-date record-of-rights such as obtains in other provinces.

82. Absence of agricultural improvement.-The Permanent Settlement has imposed on the Province an iron framework which has had the effect of stifling the enterprise and initiative of all the classes concerned. If it was the case that Lord Cornwallis hoped that it would result in the creation of a class of landlords who would supply capital for the improvement of the land and the extension of cultivation, and if he aimed at the establishment of a landlord and tenant system such as then exisited in England, his hopes have not been realised. It cannot be denied that the extension of cultivation since the Permanent Settlement has with few exceptions been the work of the actual cultivators rather than of the zamindars as a class. It was pointed out by Sir John Russell in his report on the work of the Imperial Council of Agricultural Research in applying science to crop production in India, that the most serious of all the difficulties confronting Indian agriculture is the lack of an agricultural aristocracy and of an educated agricultural middle class. The Linlithgow Commission on Agriculture also called attention to the absence of large scale farming in India. It is to the presence of these features that much of the successful operation of a landlord and tenant system in other countries is due, and their absence in Bengal is a measure of the failure o the Permanent Settlement to produce the results which were hoped for.

83. Criticism by Government of India.-The memorandun,. on the Land Revenue Policy of the Indian Government issued in 1902 referred to the ’evils of absenteeism, of management of estates by unsympathetic agents, of unhappy relations between landlord and tenant and of the multiplication of tenure-holders or middlemen between the zamindar and the cultivator’, and it described the Permanent Settlement as a system of agrarian tenure ’which is not supported by the experience of any civilised country, which is not justified by the single great experiment that has been made in India, and which was found in the latter case to place the tenant so unreservedly at. the mercy of the landlord that the State has been compelled to employ for his protection a more stringent measure of legislation than has been found necessary in temporarily settled areas’. At the same time it is not necessary to deny that there have been and are public spirited and charitable landlords who have contributed to the social and educational welfare of the Province.

84. Evils of subinfeudation. - One of the most serious defects of the present system is the excessive amount of subinfeudation which it has encouraged. The margin between the fixed land revenue and the economic rent of the land has permitted the creation of a number of intermediate interests between the zamindar and the actual cultivator which in some districts has reached fantastic proportions. The report of the Simon Commission pointed out that in some cases as many as 5o or more intermediate interests have been created between the zamindar at the top and the actual cultivator at the bottom. This has resulted in dissipating the responsibility for the best use of the land in the national interest among a host of - rent-receivers, all of whom have to be supported by the labour of the cultivator, and none of whom have either the incentive or the power to exercise any control over the use of the land. It is not too much to say that the extent of subinfeudation has become an incubus on the working agricultural population, which finds no justification in the performance of any material service as far as agricultural improvements are concerned, and fails to provide any effective means for the development of the resources of the land, which is the greatest asset of the Province. The Government has done far less to develop increased production from the land than the Governments of other provinces. There has been little inducement to spend public money on agricultural development, when the benefit of the improvements goes into private hands.

Moreover this army of rent-receivers is increasing in number each year. The Census figures show an increase of 6z per cent. between 1921 and 1931, and since 1931 there has been a further process of subinfeudation below the statutory raiyat, which will swell the figures still more. At the same time a steady reduction is taking place in the number of actual cultivators possessing occupancy rights, and there is a large increase in the number of landless labourers. Their number increased by 49 per cent. between 1921 and 1931. They now constitute 29 per cent. of the total agricultural population, and the next Census will show a considerably larger increase. Side by side with the growth of subinfeudation there has been the further process of the fragmentation of proprietary interests in land. This is mainly due to the operation of the laws of inheritance and is not directly related to the Permanent Settlement. But it adds greatly to the complexity of the land system and the difficulties of all classes concerned. Striking illustrations of the complications due to subinfeudation and aliquot tenures, with no provision for partition or common management, can be found in the Bakarganj Settlement Report, in which ’Major Jack justly described the position as ’the most amazing caricature of an ordered system of land tenure in the world’.

85. Administrative defects.-The complexities of the Bengal land system have led to an immense volume of litigation. The time and attention of the Civil Courts are Largely occupied in suits relating; to interests in land, and though the court-fees produce a considerable revenue to the Government, the cost to the litigants is far in excess of the revenue and is out of all proportion to the amounts at stake.

There is a notable absence in Bengal of that certainty as to the respective rights and obligations of the parties which a sound and satisfactory system of land tenure should provide. Many of the records in the zamindars’ offices are indifferently maintained and sometimes fraudulently manipulated, and the peasantry, 90 per cent. of whom are illiterate, are at the mercy of unscrupulous agents. In spite of the prohibition of abwabs and other exactions in addition to rent which were contained in the Permanent Settlement Regulations and in tenancy legislation, there is still evidence of their continuance in the reports of settlement operations. Indeed it is common knowledge that the naibs and other agents of the rentreceivers frequently live on a scale far above that which the salaries they receive from their employers would permit. Though the scale of abwabs is no doubt less than it was, they still represent an appreciable addition to the burdens of the cultivators.

86. Absence of remission of rent.-Another serious disadvantage of the present land revenue system from the administrative point of view is that it is virtually impossible to grant remissions of rent in permanently settled areas affected by drought, flood or other natural calamities. Although the Tauzi Manual makes provision for remissions, that provision, so far as is known, has never been used, because it would never pay a zamindar to take a remission of Rs. 100 in revenue if at the same time lie had to allow Rs. 1,000 in remissions of rent.

87. Increasing loss of occupancy rights.-Rents in Bengal have not been fixed on any scientific principle and have no recognised relation to the quality of the land or the value of the produce from it. It is true that the general level of the rents of the statutory raiyats is low, but owing to subletting and the free right of transfer the actual cultivators are to an increasing extent men who are either paying a cash rent which corresponds to a full economic rent, or are cultivating under the barga system and paying as rent one half of the produce. The rapid increase in the number of bargadarst is one of the most disquieting features of the present times; and it is an indication of the extent to which the hereditary raiyats are lising their status and being depressed to a lower standard of living. It is true that the successive provisions of the Tenancy Acts have endowed the raivats with the practical ownership of their land. But a large and increasing proportion of the actual cultivators have no part of the elements of ownership, no protection against excessive rents, and no security of tenure.

88. Accumulation of arrear rents.-At die same time the rent-receivers complain, not without reason, that they are seriously hampered by the absence of any satisfactory procedure for rent recovery, and that the process in the Civil Courts is cumbrous, expensive and dilatory. The result is that rents are allowed to get into arrear for several years before suits are instituted. This is a highly undesirable feature of the present system which it may not be possible to alter radically, so long as the Permanent Settlement and the zamindari system remain in operation. Indeed it is maintained by some observers that if the present system remains unaltered, with a strict observance of the Sale Law and a more sparing resort to the protection of the Court of Wards, there will be a complete breakdown of the whole system.

The situation has been complicated by the development in certain areas of a no rent mentality among the raiyats, which threatens the stability and security of the land system as a whole.

The truth is that the present situation, while containing some of the features of both the landlord and tenant and the peasant proprietorship systems, possesses most of the disadvantages and few of the advantages of either system. Under it the actual cultivator has too often the worst of both worlds.



94. Raiyatwari system the aim.-The objections to a scheme of State acquisition, which are set out in the preceding paragraphs have been carefully considered by the Commission as a whole. The majority of the members are definitely of opinion that no other solution than State acquisition will be adequate to remedy the defects of the present land system which we have enumerated in paragraphs 8o to 88. No solution that can be proposed is free from difficulties and dangers, but we are agreed that the present system ought not to remain unaltered, and that there should be some modification of the Permanent Settlement. The division of opinion on the Commission relates to the degree of the changes in the present system which should be recommended and there is a clear majority on the Commission who are convinced that in order to improve the economic condition of the cultivators, the Permanent Settlement and the zamindari system should be replaced by a raiyatwari system, under which the Government will be brought into direct relations with the actual cultivators by the acquisition of all the superior interests in agricultural land.

95. Advantages of State acquisition.-As sole landlord, Government would be in direct relation with the actual cultivators and would be in a very much stronger position than any private landlord to initiate schemes for the consolidation of holdings, the restoration of economic holdings, the provision of grazing land, and the prevention of transfers of land to non-agriculturists. Government management, although it might not be universally popular, will certainly be more efficient and more in the interests of the agricultural population than zamindari management. Even if rents were enhanced under Government management, the increment instead of going into the pockets of private individuals would be returned in the shape of improved social services.

So long as the zamindari system remains, it is difficult to evolve any satisfactory arrangement for revising rents all over the Province on an equitable basis, or for maintaining the record-of-rights. It is also doubtful whether so long as the present system remains, the legislature would agree to provide a really efficient machinery for the realisation of arrear rents.

96. Conclusion.- It is in the light of these considerations that the majority of the members of our Commission have been led to the conclusion that whatever may have been the justification for the Permanent Settlement in 1793, it is no longer suited to the conditions of the present time. A majority of the Commission have also come to the conclusion that the zamindari system has developed so many defects that it has ceased to serve any national interest. ho half measures will satisfactorily remedy its defects. Provided that- a_ practicable scheme can be devised to acquire the interests of all classes of rent-receivers on reasonable terms, the policy should be to aim at bringing the actual cultivators into the position of tenants holding directly under Government. We recognise that this proposal involves a fundamental change in the rural economy of Bengal, affecting virally the whole social and economic structure of the Province, that it can only be canned out gradually over a term of years, and that it would be a most formidable administrative undertaking, which will tax to the full al’ the resources of Government.

97. The constitutional position.-In the later sections of our report we shall deal in detail with the implications of the conclusion that the actual cultivators should be brought into the position of tenants holding directly under Government. But before doing so we desire to record our view that the Permanent Settlement can no longer be regarded as exempt from any modification that -gay be called for in the national interest. Whatever may ha, e been the obligation._ of the British Government as successors to the East India Company, the Bran: of provincial autonomy has created a new situation, under which the Governs_ rent of Bengal is free to consider the problem afresh and -o propose any modifications which they may consider desirable under present conditions. Indeed the appointment of the Commission itself and its terms of reference are evidence that there- is no legal or constitutional bar to the reconsideration of the Permanent Settlement, or to its replacement by any other system which is better adapted to the conditions of the present time.

The question was considered by the joint Committee on Indian Constitutional Reforms, who stated in their report that it should not ’be placed beyond the competence of an Indian Ministry responsible to an Indian Legislature, which is to be charged inter alia with the duty of regulating the land revenue system of the Province, to alter the enactments embodying the Permanent Settlement, which enactments, despite the promises of permanence which they contain, are legally subject (like any other Indian enactment) to repeal or alteration’. At the same time the joint Committee recommended that any Bill passed by the legislature which would alter the character of the Permanent Settlement should be reserved for he signification of His Majesty’s pleasure, and this is provided for in the Instruments of Instructions to the Governor and the Governor-General. 



This is a fifth part of the series of historical record pertaining since past political history. Prof. Amir Ali Kadri, an avid lover of collecting and collating archival record, will keep on contributing for these columns. We expect similar response from our esteemed readers and their contribution would also be accommodated in these columns.

- Editor