Articles- Science and Society: An Indian Perspective
Science and Technology under the British Rule

Indian Agriculture before Modernisation

The task of the historian who will search for elements of scientific knowledge in the

Today, most educated Indians would cite our traditional agriculture as an obvious illustration for the centuries of stagnation and decay that are supposed to characterise our traditional society. Almost everyday and everywhere, one hears emphatic assertions that it is the age-old, unscientific, backward and primitive character of our agriculture which has been and remains the cause of widespread hunger, malnutrition and poverty in our country. Most people accept on faith the view that our salvation lies in calling upon modern science and technology to perform their widely publicised miracles such as the so-called Green Revolution.

The above view, however, is of rather recent origin; it began to take form in the 19th century. Below, we shall first trace the evolution of this view on Indian agriculture, and then go on to describe the state of Indian agriculture at the end of the 19th century, as it was observed by the contemporary European agronomists and scientists.

I. The Historical Context

Agriculture has always been accorded an important position in the Indian society. There is endless evidence, including several British and European accounts, to show the flourishing state of our agriculture in the pre-British period.[1] As regards the technical aspects of Indian agriculture, the British or European observers of 17th and 18th centuries were in no position to appreciate or evaluate them. Several of the indigenous practices which were perfected centuries ago, such as the rotation of crops, the practice of drill husbandry etc. were relatively unknown in the 17th century Europe, and are often cited as the major advances achieved during the 18th century ‘agricultural revolution’ in Europe.[2]

Thus, the sophistication of Indian agriculture was considerably beyond the comprehension of the British administrators of the 18th and early 19th centuries. For example, Captain Thos Halcott, who was one of the earliest to take note of the practice of drill husbandry in India, in 1795, frankly acknowledged that:

Although, it [drill husbandry] has been practised under the eyes of everybody in the Guntoor Circar, no one that I mentioned [it] to [had] ever observed it before, nor did I observe it myself till lately.[3]

The all round excellence of Indian agriculture was perhaps first documented in detail by Alexander Walker in a report written around 1820.[4]

In 1832, while testifying before a Committee of the British House of Commons, Dr. Wallick, the Superintendent of the Royal Botanical Gardens in India, was asked, ‘Whether Indian agriculture was susceptible of any great improvement?’ His reply was:

Certainly, but not to so great an extent as is generally imagined; for instance, the rice cultivation, I should think, if we were to live for another thousand years, we should hardly see any improvement in that branch of cultivation.[5]

Similar views continued to be expressed by several authorities, even in the second half of the 19th century.[6] However, the state of affairs was fast getting transformed under the British rule. Below we mention some of the changes that were brought about in Indian agriculture in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Restructuring of the agrarian society

Beginning from mid-eighteenth century, when the systematic assault on Indian silk manufactures was launched, the policies of the East India Company were deliberately designed to wipe out the various indigenous manufactures of this country, so as to provide a market for British goods. However, the colonial Government could not contemplate a similar policy regarding Indian agriculture. For the Government to realise substantial land revenue, it was imperative that Indian agriculture should continue to be productive. Therefore, the indigenous agricultural technology largely escaped such direct assault in the 18th and 19th century; but during this period the indigenous agrarian social order was completely uprooted and transformed. With the introduction of the British notion of private property in land, the Indian cultivator lost his earlier rights in land. With the introduction of highly centralised administrative and judicial machinery, with the taking away of the entire revenue by the central authority and with the destruction of the unity between agriculture and manufacture that characterised traditional Indian society, the villages lost their autonomy and self-sufficiency. Various village and other local institutions were rendered defunct. With the extraction of extremely high land revenue, which often even exceeded 50% of the produce, and the appropriation by the state of all local resources, such as forests, grazing lands etc. the Indian peasants were reduced to a state of utmost deprivation. Perhaps, at no stage in history, Indian agriculture had been subjected to such overwhelming constraints.

Efforts to ‘improve’ Indian agriculture

There were also efforts made by the British to ‘improve’ Indian agriculture, during the 18th and 19th centuries. Under this heading come the setting up of the Royal Botanical Gardens and the Botanical Survey of India to acclimatise exotic crops of commercial importance to Indian conditions;[7] the attempts to extend the cultivation of existing commercial crops and the introduction of new crops such as tea; the various abortive efforts to grow the long-stapled American variety of cotton here; and the setting up of various kinds of plantations run by Europeans, etc. The above list indicates the kind of improvement that was envisaged by the British administration.

In the second half of 19th century, there started the talk of effecting ‘large-scale’ improvements in Indian agriculture. All this talk merely led to the establishment of a few experimental farms and some agricultural schools.[8] The Central Department of Revenue Agriculture and Commerce was set up in 1871, and was followed by various provincial Departments in the 1880’s. Some idea of what was achieved by all these efforts can be had from the following observation of the Finance Commission of 1887:

Quite apart from any indirect benefit that might have accrued to agriculture, their [i.e., the Agricultural Departments] establishment has been amply justified and has resulted in the addition of a considerable increase of revenue to the state.

In all this, what is important to note is not merely that, during this period, the modern European science had hardly any direct influence on Indian agriculture, but more significantly that little was done to systematically enquire into and understand, let alone ‘improve’ upon, the traditional practice of agriculture. One of the earliest such enquiries was the one conducted by Dr. John Augustus Voelcker, Consulting Chemist to the Royal Agricultural Society of England, during 1889-91. In his report[9] Voelcker categorically declares that:

The ‘agricultural analysis’... has, up to the present time, been confined to the collection of Land Revenue statistics, and of information regarding the liability of districts to famine, and there has been no enquiry into agricultural methods with a view to agricultural improvement. [RIA p. 298]

I may also say, without fear of contradiction, that, as regards India, comparatively little is known of its agricultural methods, and that they have only been, so far, the subject of casual and isolated enquiry by individuals. [RIA p.297]

Thus, while hardly anything was known about Indian agriculture, British administrators from around the middle of 19th century started declaring that Indian agriculture was unscientific, backward, primitive, etc.[10] One of the earliest expressions of the concern of the British administration that Indian agriculture had by and large continued along its traditional lines, and that large-scale improvements were called for, is found in the famous despatch of the Court of Directors in 1854 which declared that:

There is no single advantage that could be afforded to the rural population of India that would equal the introduction of an improved system of agriculture.[11]

The same theme later recurs in the various reports of the Famine Commissions that were set up after the outbreak of each famine.[12] For instance, the Famine Commission of 1866 sought that large-scale ‘improvements’ be carried out in Indian agriculture. Lord Mayo echoed the same plea in his despatch of April 9, 1870, which led to the establishment of the Department of Revenue, Agriculture and Commerce:

Of all the branches of Indian industry, agriculture, which constitutes the occupation of the great mass of people, is by far the most important. We believe it to be susceptible of almost indefinite improvement… It cannot be denied that Indian Agriculture is in a primitive and backward condition, and the Government has not done all it might have done…It is hardly too much to say that scientific knowledge of agriculture in India has at present no existence…We cannot doubt, that, when the light of science has been properly brought to bear upon Indian Agriculture, the results will be as great as they have been in Europe.[13]

Ever since, several eminent authorities echoed similar opinions and sentiments; we here cite two of them who wrote in the same decade as Lord Mayo. E. C. Schottky, in his The Principles of Rational Agriculture Applied to India [1876, p.8], declared:

In Eastern countries… we find that Agriculture, as an art, has been entirely neglected, it being carried on very much in the same way now as it was two to three thousand years ago; and the backward state of this most important of all arts is prominently apparent in India. No advancement, no improvement, has been effected during several ages; the implements of husbandry are the same as before, and so is the mode of cultivation; thus reducing a land of once boundless wealth to comparative poverty.

Our other quotation is by A. O. Hume, the father of Indian National Congress, who after retiring as the Secretary of the Department of Revenue, Agriculture and Commerce wrote Agricultural Reform in India (London 1879). While the book does display considerable sympathy for the Indian cultivator, its broad view on Indian agriculture is no different from those cited above. Hume says in his book:

Looking to the conditions under which they [the Indian cultivators] labour, their ignorance of scientific method… the crops that they do produce are, on the whole, surprising. So far as rule-of-thumb goes, the experience of 3000 years has not been wholly wasted…

On the other hand, we must not over-rate their knowledge; it is wholly empirical, and is in many parts of the country, if not everywhere, greatly limited in its application by tradition and superstition. Innumerable quaint couplets, to which a certain reverence is attached, deal with agricultural matters. These, in Upper India at any rate, are true ‘household words’ amongst all tillers of the soil. These govern their actions to a great extent...

So, then, it is not only external disadvantages against which the Indian cultivator has to contend, it is not only that his knowledge is still in the primary experience stage, but that even this knowledge is often rendered of no avail by the traditions of an immemorial religion of agriculture.[14]

It is to a description of this supposedly, ‘unscientific, backward and primitive agriculture’, that this article is devoted. There appear to be very few sources which present any details of the agricultural practices of this period. But such of those studies, which do go into details of the indigenous agricultural practices, present an entirely different picture of it than what one would have imagined of an unscientific, backward and primitive system of agriculture.

The main source on which this article is based is the Report on the Improvement of Indian Agriculture, hereafter abbreviated as RIA, by Dr. John Augustus Voelcker, Consulting Chemist to the Royal Agricultural Society of England, who was deputed by the British Government to make enquiries on Indian agriculture. Voelcker toured the country extensively during his stay here from December 1889 to January 1891, visited most of the provinces twice, once in winter and once during the rains. Also specially taking one district, Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, he visited it repeatedly so as to follow systematically, in one locality, the progress of the various field crops at different stages of growth. His report was published in 1893.

Another source on Indian agriculture in late 19th century is, India in 1887, hereafter abbreviated IEE, by Robert Wallace, Professor of Agriculture and Rural Economy in the University of Edinburgh, who also toured the country extensively, but in a non-official capacity, and recorded in detail his observations on Indian agriculture.[15] Apart from the above two sources, we shall also present extracts from, A Text-Book on Indian Agriculture, hereafter abbreviated TIA, which happens to be another detailed account of Indian agriculture published in 1901, by J. Mollison of the Bombay Agricultural Department, who later became the first Inspector General of Agriculture in India.[16]

Before going to the details of the indigenous practice of agriculture, we shall first present, in the next section, the main conclusions drawn by Voelcker on the basis of his detailed study of Indian agriculture.

II. Summary of Voelcker’s repor

Voelcker was deputed to enquire and advise upon: 1st: The improvement of Indian Agriculture by scientific means; 2nd: The improvement of Indian Agriculture generally. (RIA, p.5).

It is significant that Voelcker was not asked to report on the economic and political conditions affecting Indian agriculture. The reason, of course, was not that the British Government was unaware of the tremendous hardships faced by the Indian cultivator. Later in 1926, when the Royal Commission on Agriculture was formed ‘to make recommendations for the improvement of agriculture and to promote the welfare and prosperity of the rural population’, the following warning clause was incorporated into the terms of reference of the Commission:

It will not be within the scope of the Commission’s duties to make recommendations regarding the existing systems of land ownership and tenancy or of assessment of land revenue and irrigation charges.[17]

One cannot expect to find in Voelcker’s Report an analysis of either the historical circumstances or the various governmental policies that seriously affected Indian agriculture. Voelcker, even when he takes up such questions, often comes up with curious excuses for the policies pursued. Still his analysis does provide us with some insight into the nature of the British policies, and into the way these had forced the Indian peasantry into a state of extreme deprivation.

We shall, in this section, summarise the central points made by Voelcker in his report. In the abstract of his report, Voelcker summarises his basic conclusions:

I explain that I do not share the opinions which have been expressed as to Indian Agriculture being, as a whole, primitive and backward, but I believe that in many parts there is little or nothing that can be improved, whilst where agriculture is manifestly inferior, it is more generally the result of the absence of facilities which exist in the better districts than from inherent bad systems of cultivation. Nevertheless, that improvement is possible is shown, I think, by the differences of agricultural conditions and practice that exist in different parts of India. These differences I proceed to divide into three classes as follows:

(1) Differences inherent to the people themselves as cultivators, for instance, ‘caste’ and ‘race’ distinctions.
(2) Differences arising from purely external surroundings, for instance, climate and soil, varying facilities for water, manure, wood, grazing, etc.
(3) Differences arising directly from want of knowledge, such as, diversities in agricultural practice.

In treating of the above generally, I express my opinion that improvement of agriculture will consist mainly in the modification of the differences which exist, and that this will proceed in two directions; (1) by the transference of a better indigenous method from one part where it is practised, to another where it is not; (2) by the modification of the differences which result from physical causes affecting agriculture. (RIA,

The same issues are dealt with in greater detail in the second chapter of the report, where Voelcker starts with the question, “Whether the agriculture of India is capable of improvement?” His answer is:

I must answer both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. If, for instance, I am taken to see the cultivation of parts of Gujarat (Bombay), of Mahim in the Thana District of Bombay, the garden culture of Coimbatore in Madras, or that of Meerut in the North-West Provinces [Uttar Pradesh], and of Gujrat and Hoshiarpur in the Punjab, I may be inclined to say, ‘No; there is nothing or, at all events, very little, that can be bettered here;’ but if, instead, I visit parts of Behar, the Dacca district of Eastern Bengal, the Central Provinces generally, Khandesh in Bombay, the Tanjore district of Madras, the Cawnpore district of the North-West, or Hissar and Multan in the Punjab, it will not be long before I may be able to indicate a field for improvement... I make bold to say that it is a much easier task to propose improvements in English agriculture than to make really valuable suggestions for that of India…

On one point there can be no question, viz., that the ideas generally entertained in England, and often given expression to even in India, that Indian agriculture is, as a whole, primitive and backward, and that little has been done to try and remedy it, are altogether erroneous… the conviction has forced itself upon me that, taking everything together, and more especially considering the conditions under which Indian crops are grown, they are wonderfully good. At his best the Indian raiyat or cultivator is quite as good as, and, in some respects, the superior of, the average British farmer, while at his worst it can only be said that this state is brought about largely by an absence of facilities for improvement which is probably unequalled in any other country, and that raiyat will struggle on patiently and uncomplainingly in the face of difficulties in a way that no one else would.

Nor need our British farmers be surprised at what I say, for it must be remembered that the natives of India were cultivators of wheat centuries before we in England were. It is not likely, therefore, that their practice should be capable of much improvement. What does, however, prevent them from growing larger crops is the limited facilities to which they have access, such as the supply of water and manure. But, to take the ordinary acts of husbandry, nowhere would one find better instances of keeping land scrupulously clean from weeds, of ingenuity in device of water-raising appliances, of knowledge of soils and their capabilities, as well as of the exact time to sow and to reap, as one would in Indian agriculture, and this not at its best alone, but at its ordinary level. It is wonderful, too, how much is known of rotation, the system of ‘mixed crops’, and of fallowing. Certain it is that I, at least, have never seen a more perfect picture of careful cultivation, combined with hard labour, perseverance, and fertility of resource, than I have seen at many of the halting places in my tour. Such are the gardens of Mahim, the fields of Nadiad (the centre of the ‘garden’ of Gujarat in Bombay [Presidency]) and many others.

But, to return to the question of improvement; while some have erred by calling the agriculture primitive, and, forgetting that novelty is not necessarily improvement, have thought that all that was needed was a better plough, a reaper, a threshing machine, or else artificial manures, to make the land yield as English soil does, others have equally erred by going to the opposite extreme, and have condemned all attempts at improvement, asserting that the raiyat knows his own business best, and that there is nothing to teach him… (RIA, p.10-11).

That differences of conditions and practice do exist, constitutes, in my opinion, a ground of belief in the possibility of improvement, and it will be by the modification of these differences, and the transference of the indigenous methods from one part of the country to another, rather than by the introduction of Western practice, that progress will be made and agriculture by bettered. (RIA, p.18).

II. Indian Agriculture At The End Of The 19th Century
(Extracts from Various
British Accounts of the Period)


The cultivators’ knowledge of soils

Although the main geological types of soils are not so varied as in England, there are a large number of subdivisions, known by local names differing in each district, but the respective qualities of which are clearly understood by the cultivators. (RIA, p.35).

In this context the following quotation from A. O. Hume may be of interest:

Nothing, indeed, is more perplexing than the enormous number of names applied by native agriculturists to soils, the more so that probably almost every district rejoices in at least a dozen purely local names which are unknown elsewhere. There is no real confusion, however. Native cultivators as keenly appreciate the smallest differences in the relative qualities of different soils as do the best European farmers, but the fact is that independent of names indicative of the quality of the soil (and often to the entire exclusion of these) they make use, in describing their land, of names having reference to external conditions, the frequency or recency of cultivation therein, its situation as regards inhabited sites, etc., its position as upland or recently formed alluvium, its occupation for pasture, fields, or gardens, its external features, etc. Nothing is more common than to hear soils referred to as such, by names which really only indicate features or circumstances altogether external to the soil itself and independent of its intrinsic quality. This is no doubt inaccurate, but it is very natural since the value to the agriculturist of any land will often depend far more on these external circumstances than on the inherent quality of the soil, which latter, moreover, will, as time goes on, be often greatly modified by the former, as where bhoor or light sandy soil, becomes in course of time, by proximity to a village, constant cultivation and manuring, a kind of do mut between garden mould and rich loam.[18]

Fertility of the soil (from Voelcker’s summary):

The important question is next dealt with - whether or not the soil of India is becoming exhausted under the present systems of cultivation. It is admitted that there is want of positive evidence in support of exhaustion, but instances are given from Settlement Reports and from the Famine Commission’s Report, of a process of deterioration going on, and it is argued that under existing conditions of export of grain, oil-seeds, and manures, and the burning of cattle-dung for fuel, there must be a gradual deterioration of the soil… an increased productiveness of the soil is required, and that this can only be brought about by increasing the manure supply.(RIA, p.viii-ix).

Data on wheat yields

When we compare the wheat yields of different countries, we have, as nearly as one can judge, the following:



















(1) Average yield per acre in bushels. Taken from the Agricultural Returns of the Board of Agriculture, 1890.
(2) Average of the five years ending 1888-89, as given in the Government of India’s statistics. The average yield in 1889-90 was 9.4 bushels only.
(3) Average of the last 40 years. The average of the last eight years was 30 bushels.


The wheat-yield in India will vary, not only according to the season, but also with the conditions under which the crop is grown...[19]

On unmanured dry-crop land where rainfall is precarious and often insufficient

- 7 bushels per acre

On manured land in tracts of better rainfall

- 10 bushels per acre

On manured and irrigated land

- 15 to 25 bushels per acre

In comparison with above, it may be mentioned that in the Rothamsted Experiments the produce of land continuously unmanured for 40 years is 12½ bushels per acre, at 61 lbs. per bushel. (RIA, p. 40-41).

These yields may be compared with the high yields reported in the region around Allahabad (56 bushels of wheat per acre per crop) and in various regions of South India, by British observers in early nineteenth century.[20]

A.O.Hume compares the wheat yields at his time with those that prevailed during Akbar’s time, as given in Ain-i-Akbari:

As the result of scores of careful personal experiments carried out in the Allyghur, Mynpooree and Etawah districts, the writer would state 14 bushels an acre of wheat to be a high average for good fields, i.e., fields with which their cultivators are fairly satisfied; in other words, for the more successful fields, of the best land, which alone is used for wheat. The Ain Akbari gives 19 bushels as an average yield in those days.[21]

Thus the loss of fertility due to the neglect of irrigation and lack of manure during the British period was indeed considerable.

2. Irrigation

The varied irrigation systems of India

The following is the summary of the discussion in Voelcker’s report as given by R. C. Dutt:

Every province in India has its distinct irrigation requirements. In the alluvial basins of the Ganges and the Indus the most suitable irrigation works are canals from these rivers; while away from the rivers, wells are the most suitable. In Bengal with its copious rainfall, shallow ponds are the most suitable works, and these were numerous in olden times, sometimes of very large dimensions. In Madras and Southern India, where the soil is undulating, and the underlying rock retains the water, the most suitable irrigation works are reservoirs made by putting up large embankments, and thus impounding the water descending from the hill slopes. Such were most of the old reservoirs of Madras.[22]

Inundation Canal

In the case of the Inundation Canals… the silt-laden waters of rivers are carried at flood time to the higher lands, and thus afford greater benefit to districts where rainfall is deficient. As their name indicates, Inundation Canals are of use only in the rainy season, and they are taken off from rivers the banks of which are above the level of the surrounding country. Such canals are met with principally in the Punjab and in Sind. This system was in vogue before the time of the English occupation of India, and many of canals were constructed and worked by the Natives themselves. (RIA, p. 71).

A very similar system of inundation canals was in existence during pre-British times in the Gangetic delta of Bengal. How these were destroyed during the period of British administration is described in the following extract from Gertrude Emerson, Voiceless India (New Yok1931, p.240-41):

Sir William Wilcocks, the distinguished hydraulic engineer whose name is associated with gigantic irrigation enterprises in Egypt and Mesopotamia, has recently made an investigation of conditions in Bengal.[23] He has discovered that innumerable small destructive rivers of the delta region, constantly changing their courses, were originally canals which, under the English regime, were allowed to escape from their proper channels and run wild. Formerly these canals distributed the flood waters of the Ganges and provided for proper drainage of the land, undoubtedly accounting for that prosperity of Bengal which lured the rapacious East India merchants thither in the early days of the eighteenth century… Not only was nothing done to utilise and improve the original canal system, but railway embankments were subsequently thrown up, entirely destroying it. Some areas, cut off from their supply of loam-bearing Ganges flood water, have gradually become sterile and non-productive; others, improperly drained, show an advanced degree of water-logging, with the inevitable accompaniment of malaria. Nor has any attempt been made to construct proper embankments for the Ganges in its low course, to prevent the enormous erosion by which villages and groves and cultivated fields are swallowed up each year. Sir William Wilcocks severely criticises the modern administrators and officials, who, with every opportunity to call in expert technical assistance, have hitherto done nothing to remedy this disastrous situation, growing worse from decade to decade.

Wells and water lifting device

Irrigation by wells is at once the most widely-distributed system, and also the one productive of the finest examples of careful cultivation… Further, as regards wells, one cannot help being struck by the skill with which a supply of water is first found by the native cultivator; then by the construction of the wells, the kinds of wells, and their suitability to the surroundings and means of the people; also by the various devices for raising water, each of which has a distinct reason for its adoption. All these are most interesting points with which I am not called on to deal, for I see little to improve in them which the cultivator does not know perfectly well. (RIA, p.73-4).

Wallace expressed a very similar opinion:

In connection with well irrigation there are various native methods, which, for suitability to the conditions, for cheapness, simplicity, and efficiency, cannot be equalled, far less surpassed, by any mechanical contrivance from the European world. (IEE, p.192).

Mollison gives the following description:

Water for irrigation may be raised from wells by the lifts in common use. The lifts mostly used throughout the Bombay Presidency are varieties of the leather bag, known in the Deccan as a mot and in Gujarat as kos.

In the coast districts of Bombay where the depth of water in the wells is small the Persian wheel is largely employed, and its use is general in Sind. In the Karnatak a hand lever and bucket lift is used in wells. (TIA, Vol. I, p.61-2).

Tank irrigation

In the eighteenth century, the old Mysore state, with an area of around 29,500 square miles, had more than 38,000 tanks, known as Kere’s.[24] The main method employed was to construct a chain of tanks, by embanking hillside streams etc. such that the outflow from the one at the higher level supplied the next at the lower level, and so on all the way down the course of the stream. Referring to these, Major Sankey, one of the first British engineers of the erstwhile Mysore state:

To such an extent has the principle of storage been followed that it would now require some ingenuity to discover a site within this great area suitable for a new tank. While restorations are of course feasible, any absolutely new work of this description would, within this area, be almost certainly found to cut off the supply of another lower down the same basin, and to interfere with vested interests.[25]

The same view was expressed by Sir Charles Elliot, the first Census Commissioner for India remarked in 1870:

The ingenious method in which each valley was made to contain a chain of irrigation tanks, and each river to feed a series of irrigation channels, left the British officers who administered the Province little to do but to put the old works in thorough repair.[26]

The attitude of the Government

Throughout the nineteenth century, several observers repeatedly castigated the British Government for doing nothing even about the maintenance of older irrigation works. G. Thomson noted in, India and the Colonies (1838), that:

The roads and tanks and canals which Hindu or Mussulman Government constructed for the service of the nations and the good of the country have been suffered to fall into dilapidation; and now the want of the means of irrigation causes famines.[27]

Montgomery Martin expressed the same view in, The Indian Empire (1858):

[The East India Company] omitted not only to initiate improvements, but even to keep in repair the old works on which the revenue depended.

In fact, as John Bright remarked in the British House of Commons on June 24, 1858:

The single city of Manchester, in the supply of its inhabitants with the single article of water, has spent a larger sum of money than the East India Company has spent in the fourteen years from 1834 to 1848 in public works of every kind throughout the whole of its vast dominions.

It should be remembered that at the same time the British Government took away the whole of the revenue leaving nothing for the various local village institutions, which traditionally played an important role in the construction and maintenance of irrigation works. Up to 1900, while the total expenditure, from Government revenues, on railways amounted to £225 million, that on canals etc. was a meagre £25 million. Moreover, while railways were a source of loss, year after year, to the British Government, though not to the British trading interests, yet irrigation works were taken up only when a return of about 25% could be realised annually on the outlay as enhanced revenue and charges. On this issue Voelcker notes:

There is no doubt that a great deal can be done in improving the water supply in precarious districts, if Government are prepared to look on the measures taken as those of a ‘protective’ and not purely a ‘remunerative’ nature. This is well expressed in a note by Colonel Mead, Chief Engineer for Irrigation, Madras. He said in 1887: ‘Much can, no doubt, be done to improve the existing supply to tanks if Government are prepared to accept the benefit to the raiyat as a sufficient return for outlay incurred, and to consider the works as entirely protective in nature.’ (RIA, p.83).

Voelcker also gives the following instance of the way the British bureaucracy worked:

The cultivators [in the Madura District] instanced the delay that takes place when a tank wants repair; how that when the Tahasildar hears of it goes to the divisional officer (Assistant Collector); the latter to the Collector; the Collector to the Executive Engineer of the Public Works Department; the Executive Engineer writes to the Superintending Engineer (stationed, in this case, at Trichnopoly, there being only one such officer for three districts); he writes to the chief office at Madras, and says whether it is a matter of first or second importance, and so on. Altogether it is a long business, and in the end the year’s crop is generally lost. (RIA, p.84).

Such was the pitiable condition to which, a region historically well known for its local village committees which had endowments (Eri Variyam) for the repair of tanks and reservoirs was reduced in the period of British rule. While taking note of this fact, Voelcker states:

It is true that in former times the people themselves made inundation canals, and constructed large reservoirs which are still objects of admiration, but the people are not so likely now to construct fresh ones, but rather to rely on the Government. (RIA, p.81).

3. Manure

The importance attached to manuring

There are numerous proverbs current among the people as to the necessity and value of manure, but the practice is often not as good as the precept. Mr.Benson gives, along with others, these from Kurnool:

‘Turva (a kind of soil) hungers after manure as a Brahman after ghi’; ‘a field without manure is as useless as a cow without her calf.’ (Meaning that she will not give milk unless the calf is before her).

Mr.Nicholson quotes these:

‘Old muck and lots of water’; ‘Turn dry land into wet, pen your cattle (in the field), and feed straw to them’; ‘Muck is better even than the plough’; ‘If manure is useless (good) soil is useless’; or ‘Manure is better than good soil.’ (RIA, p.94).

The Indian cultivator shows by the money which he is willing to pay for manure when able to afford it, that he is by no means ignorant of its value. When he burns the cow-dung which he collects, he does it, as a rule, rather from necessity than from want of knowledge of its worth... Nor is it in the quantity of manure alone that the Native often displays great foresight. He also often knows when to put it on, and for which crop to use it. He knows that he must not use it on ‘dry’ land but on ‘wet’ land, where it will decompose. He knows, too, the harm of using fresh dung, and that it will attract the white-ants, and that they, in turn, will destroy the crop. (RIA, p.95-96).

The importance of cattle-manure and the loss incurred in burning it as fuel

The most general manure, alike in India and in England, is cattle-manure, or, as made in England, farmyard manure. But, whilst in the latter country it has to be, and can be, supplemented, and even in part replaced, by artificial manures, this is not the case in India, and cattle-manure is the universal fertiliser and often the only one available. When, therefore, we find it the general practice, even in villages, to burn a large proportion of the dung from cattle as fuel, and when, on nearing any town, we may see troops of women carrying in baskets on their heads, the cow-dung cakes or bratties, which they have made into cakes and dried in the sun, we cannot but pause to ask ourselves whether the burning of these cakes as fuel does not imply a great agricultural loss. Some have maintained that it does not, for they say that the ashes are saved and used on the fields, and assert that is practically the only thing of value in the dung; others hold that, even if the nitrogen be lost in burning, the cattle are so poor, and so poorly fed, that there is but little nitrogen to lose, for the dung is of very low quality, whilst even what is lost is recovered in the extra amount of nitrogen which exists in the rainfall in India…

I do not mean to say that I have been able to investigate the question at all thoroughly, but I have done so sufficiently, at least, to satisfy myself of the incorrectness of many of the theories propounded, and to show that cattle-manure in India is not the poor miserable stuff it has been represented to be, but that it must, and does, lose a very great deal if it is burnt for fuel, this loss not being recovered in the rainfall. (RIA, p.96‑7).

What is forcing the cultivators to burn cattle-manure?

I have spoken of the practice of burning dung as being a general one, and so it unfortunately, is; but it is very far from being a universal practice among cultivators… a great majority will not burn dung if they can help it. Perhaps in all my enquiries there was none into which I looked more closely than this, as I had heard and read such diverse opinions about it; consequently, wherever I went, I did my best to inform myself upon it. As the result, I have no hesitation whatever in saying that amongst cultivators the reason why they burn dung is that they have no wood; and that if wood could be made cheap and accessible to them, there would be an enormous increase in the amount of manure available for the soil. I can instance place after place which I have visited and where no cultivator burns a scrap of manure for fuel or where the least possible quantity is so used - generally only a little to boil milk. Coimbatore, Salem, Madura, Gujarat (Bombay [Presidency]), Nadiad, Hospet, Hoshiarpur, and Multan are cases in point. It is where, as in the North-West Provinces [Uttar Pradesh], wood is dreadfully scarce, that the practice of burning dung has grown into a habit. (RIA, p.100-101).

When are the ashes preferred to dung?

Ashes of dung have a distinct value on account of their mineral constituents, and they may occasionally be used to greater advantage than the dung itself. When, for example, a forcing effect is not desirable, the ashes are preferred…

That the cultivator, when he does prefer ashes to dung, or else the whole dung to the mere ashes, does so simply from fancy or from ignorance, I am by no means ready to allow, but assert that quite the contrary is the case. A cultivator from Tinnevelly, whom I interviewed, described to me his practice thus: ‘I would use ashes for my nursery beds, and raw dung to get “produce’”. He added that for heavy land he would use the raw dung, and the ashes for his lighter land. This use of dung for opening heavy land quite agrees with English experience. (RIA p.103-4).

Sheep and cattle-folding

Folding of sheep and cattle on land, for the purpose of manuring it, is another practice understood in some parts, but neglected in others. It has one great advantage in that the urine is not lost, as it generally is. Folding is practised largely in Coimbatore and other parts of Madras; in the North-West Provinces [Uttar Pradesh]; in Palamau and Rungpore in Bengal (chiefly for sugar-cane and tobacco crops); at Rawal Pindi (Punjab), and elsewhere. (RIA, p.104).

Oilseed refuse

Perhaps next to, but insignificant as compared with, cattle-manure, is the use, as a manurial agent, of the refuse obtained from various oil-seeds after the oil has been expressed from them. The principal oil-seeds thus used are the following: Castor-oil seed (Ricinus Communis), Gingelly, Til, or Sesame (Sesamum Indicum); Earth-nut or Ground-nut (Arachis Hypogea); Kardai or Safflower (Carthamus Tinctorious); Rape seed; Mustard seed; Niger seed (Guizotia Abyssinica); Linseed; Cotton seed. The seeds of the fruits of several trees, such as Pongamia Glabra, Bassia Latifolia (the Mahua tree) and Melia Azadirachta (the Neem tree) are also pressed, and the refuse is employed as manure, chiefly in the coffee districts. Most of these seeds, after expression of the oil, are also used primarily for feeding cattle, and secondarily for manure.(RIA, p. 104-5).

The damage caused by the export of oil-seeds

These [oil] seeds are for the greater part exported, [and] their export must imply the removal of a very considerable amount of the constituents of the soil. Were they (with the exception of the castor-oil seed) to be consumed by cattle, after expression of the oil, the manurial constituents would be returned to the soil from which they were drawn, and the balance of fertility might be maintained. The oil, having itself no manurial properties, and being derived from the atmosphere and not from the soil, is a fitting object for export; but to send away the entire seed, or the refuse after removal of the oil, is to send away the valuable manurial constituents contained in the seed, including those taken out of the soil itself; in brief, to export them is to export the soil’s fertility…

We in England are not slow to avail ourselves of the advantages this export system offers; and at the time of my leaving for India I was feeding bullocks at the Woburn Experimental Farm on linseed cake, and was also growing crops with rape cake manure. Both these materials, in all likelihood, were the produce of Indian soil, and represented its transported fertility. (RIA, p.106).

To get an idea of the amount of oilseeds exported from India, we may note that after the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869, the export of seeds increased from £2 million to £5 million in a period of 19 years.

The oil-cake from the village ‘ghani’ serves as better manure

Around the turn of the last century, hydraulic oil presses were getting established in Bombay. Apart from the export of oilseeds, the introduction of mechanised oil presses in cities played a significant role in forcing the village ghani into oblivion. Mollison has given the following description of the village ghani and has also noted the greater suitability of the oil-cake from the village ghani for manurial purposes:

The country ghani consists essentially of a pestle and mortar; the pestle grinds the seed in the mortar. The cake is consolidated by the pestle into a thick layer against the sides of the mortar and is generally removed by a short crowbar. The oil sinks to the bottom of the mortar and is soaked up in a mop and collected in a vessel, the mop being squeezed by hand. The method varies; sometimes the oil flows from the mortar as it is expressed.

When oil-cakes are used as manure they should be applied in the finest possible state of division. Generally in India the pounding is done with a stick. A cheaper and equally effective method is to crush the cake under the stone of any ordinary chunam mill. In this way a ton can be crushed at a cost of Rs.2 to Rs.3. The powder got from country ghani cake in this way is much finer in consistence than that from hydraulic-pressed cake, and on this account the former probably acts the quickest and is the most effective as manure. (TIA, Vol.I, p.122-3).


Next to be considered is green-manuring, a practice not unknown, but not nearly as widely distributed as it might with advantage be… At Hospet, which is served by a canal, led by a weir or anicut from the river Tungabhadra, and where the cultivation is exceptionally good, I saw this plan of green-manuring being carried out. Trees are grown round every field and along the banks of the water-channels, and are defoliated once in three years; the twigs and leaves are spread on the land where rice is to be sown; canal water is let on, and the twigs are trodden into the soil with the foot. (RIA, p.106-7).

Rab cultivation

Associated with the use of twigs, leaves, etc., for manure is the system of seed-bed cultivation termed rab. This system is employed mainly in the Bombay Presidency throughout the districts of heaviest rainfall, but it is not unknown in parts of Bengal. The crops for which it is chiefly used are rice and a millet called Nagli (Eleusine Coracana). The word rab literally means ‘cultivation’. The process consists in heaping on the spot selected for the seed-bed successive layers of cow-dung, tree-loppings, shrubs, leaves, and grass, with earth on the top to keep all down; the heap is made about three feet high, and then the whole is set fire to.

As regards the advantage, still more the necessity, of rab, there have been continuous contentions
between the cultivators and those who have supported them, on the one hand, and the Forest Department on the other, the latter maintaining that the practice is a wasteful one, and that the lopping of trees injures the forest greatly. In 1885, a Forest Commission was appointed in Bombay to enquire into the matter, and Mr. Ozanne, Director of Land Records and Agriculture, Bombay Presidency, conducted a number of experiments, which though not absolutely conclusive nor complete, went far to show that the raiyat in rab areas was adopting the only ready means by which he could cultivate his rice crop with profit. (RIA, p.108).

Use of silt

Vast areas in Bengal are annually renewed naturally by the silt of rivers, and there are in Punjab, for example, near Gujrat, stretches which are covered yearly by the silt brought down by mountain streams. In the Jhelum and Shahpur districts, at the foot of the Salt Range, there are similar tracts; here the fields are first embanked, and then the flood water of hill torrents is turned into them through an opening in the upper end of the embankment. The water is allowed to flow in until the field is converted into a pond. When this dries up, a crop is sown, and requires no further watering or rain. In this way the wheat-growing areas of these districts are farmed and no manure is used or needed, the coming of the silt supplying more fertilising matter than many manurings could...

It is found that wherever there is silt the raiyat does not value ordinary manure or take trouble in preserving it; he looks for the silt to come instead… Great distinctions are drawn by the cultivators between the rivers and canals which bring silt and those which do not. (RIA, p.110).

Mollison gives the following account of the techniques employed in Bombay Presidency for artificial warping:

Artificial warping differs from the natural formation of alluvium only, in that the water of a turbid stream may be diverted from its course, and held in a particular area sufficiently long to deposit a layer of sediment, and if the process is often repeated, a soil of considerable depth may be formed on rock or any other sterile area. Many of the small rice fields on the Ghats have been formed by throwing bandharas across the turbid hill streams and either diverting the water or allowing a small lake to form above the weir. In this way the current is so obstructed that suspended earthy matter is deposited, and in time the silt layer becomes so deep that a rice crop can be raised thereon. The lower terraced rice fields of the Ghats are annually warped and improved by the silt carried down by the drainage water of the uplands. (TIA, Vol. I, p.72-3).

Soil - mixing

The rich soil dug out from tanks is widely appreciated, throughout Madras, and in Coimbatore I have seen ‘soil-mixing’ going on, a lighter and red soil being mixed with a heavier and black one. At Rungpore in Bengal this is also practised, especially for jute land, the better soil being mixed with the inferior, just as pond mud might be mixed with a sandy soil.

At Nadiad (Bombay [Presidency]) I noticed another kind of ‘soil-mixing’. Here the fields are all surrounded by hedges growing on embankments. When it is required to turn a field into a rice field, the top soil thrown from the centre up against the hedge, thus making an embankment; the level of the field is lowered thereby, so that the rain water, when it falls, is held up and soaks the soil thoroughly. When, in turn, the field requires to be manured, the soil is thrown back from the hedge-side on to the field and is spread over it. (RIA, p.110-1).

Mollison gives the following account of soil-mixing:

Mixing is not unknown in India. Clay is often carted from rice fields in sufficient quantity to add a layer one to two inches thick on sand land. The addition changes the consistence of the sand, so that it becomes better suited for sugar-cane and other garden crops raised under irrigation. The cultivator appreciates the value of tank mud, and in those districts where these water reservoirs are common, they are cleaned out with the utmost care and regularity each year. The silt which has collected in these tanks being the washings of village sites and cultivated fields, has some manurial value, and applied as it is at the rate of 40 cart loads or more per acre, adds considerably to the body of the soil. It takes 134 cubic yards of earth to cover an acre one inch thick. (TIA, Vol. I, p.76).

The issue of export of bones and cattle protection

Bones, as is known, are very extensively exported from India, and are but little used in the country itself. The question whether the export of bones should be allowed to continue without a strong effort being made to retain this source of manure in the country, has been prominently brought forward of late years, and the Government of India recently caused enquiries to be made as to the trade in and use of bones. The general reply received was, that the export was an increasing one; that the trade was carried on entirely by European capital, and that the actual collection of bones was done by Muhammadans and low-caste Hindus; that it was principally confined to districts served by railways, and from villages within an easy distance of the line; and, lastly, that bones were not used by the native agriculturists.

It is estimated that that 60 million cattle die or are slaughtered annually in India. The export of hides and skins amounts to over 30 million yearly…Whether taken from the number of hides or from the estimate of the cattle that perish, it is evident that there must be a very large supply of bones available. Hindus, however being largely a non-meat eating people, and regarding the bones of the cattle as those of their ancestors, and hence sacred, are prevented by their caste prejudices from collecting or utilising the bones. Ninety percent of the Hindus may be said to be non-meat-eating, and, of the remaining 10 percent, 5 percent cannot afford to get meat…

Within the past fifteen years a large trade has sprung up in the collection and export of the bones; it has increased and is still increasing. Almost the whole amount collected is sent to the United Kingdom, where the use of bones, either raw or else manufactured into artificial manures, is valued highly.

The exports of bones from India have been, in round numbers, as follows:

















...It is necessary to add one caution more - as the demand for bones for export purposes increases, it will afford another inducement to the professional cattle-stealer and the cattle-poisoner. Already the hide is an attraction, the flesh is rapidly becoming one also; if to these are superadded the bones, more care will have to be taken in the future to protect the cattle of the country. (RIA, p.113, 114, 117).

Use of night-soil

It is undoubtedly the case that a very great improvement might be effected in Indian agriculture if the system of utilising night-soil, sweepings, etc., were universal…

Prejudice is the great bar to the proper utilisation of night-soil. It is not that its value is not known, as the appearance of the fields nearest to any village will testify, for the growing of a tall crop, such as arhar (Cajanus Indicus), is frequently a direct indication that particular field has come to its turn for receiving manure. On these fields the crops are manifestly better than the rest; what is wanted is, greater distribution of these fields. The hope for improvement lies in the gradual breaking down of prejudice. That there are signs of this going on is evidenced by the fact that in certain towns such as Farukhabad, Cawnpore, and Nagpur, the utilisation of night-soil has had an indigenous origin, and its spread has been due to other cultivators following the example set. (RIA, p.118-9).

Artificial manures

Voelcker states that the subject ‘of imported manures, which in an account of English agriculture would fill a most important place, may, so far as India is concerned, be very summarily dismissed. (RIA, p.117).

4. Forests

The ‘recent’ denudation of Indian forests

Several observers in late 19th century noted that the process of destruction of Indian forests had already reached alarming proportions, even though about half a century earlier the country abounded in forests. For example, A. O. Hume states:

Only 50 years ago, when jungles and grazing grounds abounded, when cattle were more numerous, when much wood was available as fuel, there was actually a much greater amount of manure available.[28]

Wallace expresses similar views. He also notes that this destruction of forests was due to the demand for timber for railways and building purposes:

It is an undoubted fact that large areas of India have been shamefully and wastefully denuded of valuable timber within comparatively recent years. The large and increasing demand for wood for rail roads and for building purposes encouraged it… It is quite sad to look up the bare hills and barren plains where extensive forests were recently in existence. I came across a number of such places. (IEE, p.296).

Voelcker also notes how the destruction of forests during the British rule had led to deterioration in the climate of the country:

From old records and descriptions of India there is reason to believe that the climate was not formerly what it now is, but that the spread of cultivation, accompanied, as it has been, by the wholesale and reckless denudation of forests and wooded tracts, without reservation of land to afford wood for grazing, has done much to render the climate what it now is. Sir William Denison states that, when Governor of Madras, he was shown districts in which the rain had retreated as the forests had been cleared back.[29] (RIA, p.30-31).

The tragic tale of the destruction of the Indian forests for British commercial interests began as early as 1803, when the Malabar teak forests were declared to be ‘reserved’ for providing timber needed by the ship building industry. Voelcker notes that, by the time of creation of the Forest Department in 1866, considerable damage had been done. However, the crucial fact was that, under the aegis of this Department, the same activities were continued with the only difference that the local agriculturists were now completely deprived of any use of the forest resources.

The anti-agriculture policy of the Forest Department

When it [i.e., the Forest Department] began its work its chief duties were the preservation and development of large timber forests, such as the teak forests of Lower Burma, the sal forests of Oudh, and the deodar forests of the Himalayas, or the forests of the Western Ghats. Its objects were in no sense agricultural, and its success was gauged mainly by fiscal considerations; the Department was to be a revenue-paying one. Indeed, we may go so far as to say that its interests were opposed to agriculture, and its intent was rather to exclude agriculture than to admit it to participation in the benefits…

The requirements of the agriculturist in respect of wood are, small timber for house-building, wood for making implements, and firewood; the last-named principally to take the place of the cow-dung which, though the most valuable manure at the raiyats’ disposal, is, nevertheless, generally burnt as fuel in default of wood…

I do not take to myself credit for more than emphasising what others have already pointed out on this subject. As much as 17 years ago, Mr.R. H. Elliot, writing in the ‘Times’, urged the necessity of ‘Fuel Reserves’ for India, and much that he then said has since proved to be true. The same views have been urged by others, but there is call now for more definite action than there has been in the past. What has been done so far, whilst not without benefit to agriculture, has, to my mind, taken mainly the form of supplying wood for the requirements of large towns and railways…

It is, in short, impossible to have timber forests and agriculture on the same area… (RIA, p.135-38, 141).

Wallace expressed similar sentiments:

Government have only recently awakened to the fact, that their duties as regards the protection of forests have not been undertaken in the past. The danger now confronting us is not that there is fear of forestry being neglected, but that in the excessive zeal to make up lee way the other extremely important interest of agriculture may be made to suffer… It has been established that large tracts of land belong to no one, and consequently are naturally Government property; but to certain products of the natural growth - for example, grass for thatching, food for cattle, timber to make their implements, and poles to build their houses - the native population of the adjoining cultivated tracts have from time immemorial had the undisturbed privilege of resorting to supply their wants. No one denies that Government has the undisputed right by law to discontinue these privileges; but I appeal to the common sense of every practical farmer in England who knows the value of the products enumerated, if to exert such a right would not be a policy worse than suicidal in a country which practically depends upon agriculture for its wealth and prosperity… (IEE, p.297).

The native population, who feel the pinch of Government resuming the rights which had been by common consent granted to them… may well say, ‘Why should Government want to grow great forests of large timber? It is of little value to the masses of the population, whose wants are supplied by sapling poles and branches, and by the fruit and shade of such trees as they or their cattle can get access to…’ (IEE, p.305).

In travelling, as I did, over wide area, I, in my non-official position, had very exceptional opportunities of seeing how the forest regulations pressed unnecessarily upon the people, and of hearing their bitter and oftentimes well-founded complaints. (IEE, p.297-8).

What should be done?

The supply of wood to serve as fuel forms one of the most important factors in maintaining the fertility of the soil, or, in other words, the prosperity of agriculture. I can hardly put this too strongly, for it is the one practical measure on which I place the most importance; it is that which calls for the most urgent attention, and from which the greatest benefits may be expected to follow. I make, in my Report, other recommendations and suggestions, it is true, but I consider them minor ones compared with this…

It is not in the interests of the people alone that I would urge this, for, having fully discussed all other ways of increasing the manure supply, it is clear that this is the one way in which it can be effected, and, if not effected, sooner or later the land must fall off in productive power, and the revenue derived therefrom by the State must decline too. Accordingly, I regard the provision of fuel as the most potent means of maintaining prosperity, not alone to the cultivators, but to the State itself, and as measure which the latter, in its own interests, should take up immediately...

Such an end is that which I have indicated, the provision, for the agricultural community primarily, of facilities for obtaining what they require, viz., small timber, wood for implements, firewood, leaves, grass, or, where possible, grazing. No action would, I am sure, do more to render the Forest Department popular and its work one of wide-spreading benefit, could it be instructed to carry out such objects as the above, and to bring these facilities to the cultivators’ doors. Such a policy would be one of giving, and not what the people have considered the past policy, one of taking away. The cultivators would then feel that the forests were a real benefit to them, and possibly much unculturable land would become clothed with trees and grass. (RIA, p.137, 147).

How can such a change in the forest utilisation be brought about?

After recounting in detail the havoc wrought by the Forest Department, and arguing that the very fundamental objectives of the forest policy need to be changed in favour of the local agriculturists, Voelcker ends up with the pious wish that:

I am sure that when it is fully recognised that there are other ends which the Forest Department should serve besides that of growing timber and making a large revenue out of the forests, the Department will readily carry these out to its best ability. (RIA, p.147).

The only way of ensuring that the local agriculturists get their basic necessities from the forest, viz., by leaving them under the management of the village or community, was unacceptable to Voelcker. The argument that he provides in this connection does give some insight into the nature of the system of administration introduced by the British in India:

The suggestion to form ‘village forests’, which should include the village grazing grounds and be protected and managed by the people themselves, was made by Sir D. Brandis, but the efforts to establish them have successively failed. In the Indian Forest Act (1878), a chapter (Chapter III) was inserted to provide for the assigning of the rights of Government to or over any land constituted a ‘reserve forest’ and for calling it a ‘village forest’. This chapter has, however, been quite inoperative, owing, I am informed, to the impossibility of determining adverse rights, and of separating the rights of the community from the private rights of native proprietors (zemindars) and others. Often, for instance, there may be several zemindars, and thus several people to settle with. Anyhow, no ‘village forests’ have been taken up or assigned under this chapter, which is accordingly a dead letter. (RIA, p.161).

Establishment of “village forests” not only went against the basic framework of the British legal system, giving any rights to the village communities was also inconsistent with the modern system of administration and control:

It is a mistake, I think, to assign any rights to a village community, and to have ‘village forests’ managed by the community uncontrolled. The tendency of our system of Government has, to a considerable extent, been to break up village communities, and now for the most part they are heterogeneous bodies rather than communities. What is wanted is, while retaining control over these forests, to work them for the people’s interests. (RIA, p.162).

5. Grazing

From Voelcker’s summary

It is maintained in this chapter that the provision of grazing in forests is a desirable and legitimate object, and one which will much benefit agriculture, whilst in times of drought it may be invaluable in keeping the cattle of the country alive… I recommend… the creation of more ‘Fuel and Fodder Reserves’ to supply grass and grazing. (RIA, p.xiii‑xiv).

Grazing areas in ‘distant’ forests

The subject of grass supply is closely connected with that of the foregoing chapter [on forests] in as much as the forests provide the principal grazing areas and… certain amount of grass for cutting. Included among the more distant forests are large pasturage areas, the value of which for this purpose has always been recognised, and which, on this account, have never been broken up. To these tracts professional graziers and hereditary castes of cattle-breeders resort, taking with them from the plains the most valuable of the raiyats’ cattle, for the purpose of seeking shelter and pasture for them during the hot season. The retaining of these areas for the purposes of cattle-breeding is very desirable; it is, however, not the actual cultivators who directly make use of them, but particular castes who make this their special business, and who often bring cattle from a long distance. It is in these grazing areas that the bulk of the native butter called ghi is produced. (RIA, p.169).

The new policy of “Reserved forests”

In addition to the pasturage provided in the open and more distant forests, there is another class, but still distinct from the village ‘waste’ or common land… This class comprise the grazing areas belonging, or which till recently did belong, to villages or individuals, but which are now included in the ‘reserved forests’. In the Bombay presidency… the land was known as gairan or ‘grazing’, i.e., land set apart for grazing cattle. It differs from the ‘waste’ immediately around the villages in being really useful for the purpose, whereas the latter, as a rule, is little more than bare ground. The Forest Department frequently found it necessary to take in these lands when forming their ‘reserved forests’, and in Bombay, according to the new grazing rules of 1890, the term gairan is to cease, and free grazing is to be provided in the open part of the forest for the ‘agricultural cattle’ of villages which have contributed gairan to the formation of a forest block… The Forest Department derives a considerable income from the foregoing grazing lands… (RIA p.169).

The consequences of the policies of the Forest Department

Wallace warns the Government of the disastrous consequences of the policies pursued by the Forest Department, even while agreeing that the Government was right in claiming revenue from grazing:

It would take a forest officer years of hard study to be even partially qualified to judge of the injury done to an agricultural population by the shutting up for forestry purposes of the land on which cattle graze. (IEE, p.302).

By cultivating pasture, the Forestry Department would reap a steadily increasing and perfectly legitimate revenue from letting grazing rights… Serious injury might be done under either of the two following circumstances: (1) If sufficient pasture were not left available for the cultivators, not only for their work bullocks, but also for their milk cattle, including buffaloes; and (2) if the charges were made too high for the poor in certain districts to pay. Injury from both causes has been brought to my notice, and it only required to be carried a little further to become a national calamity - quite unexpectedly, of course, because there is no one interested who can judge of the facts or their bearings… The people in certain districts were, on account of their imperative necessity first providing for their work bullocks, unable to keep the milch cattle required to supply milk or its product, ghi - that practically indispensable ingredient in a healthy native diet. (IEE, p.304).

Voelcker notes that even in those places where grazing was supposedly allowed the forest officials would not oblige:

Restriction in grazing sometimes arises from the unwillingness of forest officers to provide it… On the Shahdara (Lahore) plantation[30] the space for grazing is confined to the portion which is about to be cut over in the then year, or year following. Even to this the forest officers object, saying that grazing makes the soil hard, and prevents the shoots from coming up afterwards, whilst, if the cattle were allowed among the medium-sized trees, they would get at the boughs. I fear that where wood-growing is the object, there will always be considerable difficulty placed by the forest officials in the way of providing grazing facilities. (RIA, p.171).

What was the case before the British

At Salem, which used to be a great cattle-breeding district and noted market for stock, I heard great complaints that since the forests had been ‘reserved’ the people could not keep so many cattle, and only had their own fields to feed them on, whereas formerly they had free grazing rights in the ‘reserves’ two miles off. (RIA, p.171).

There was an old Muhammedan rule which provided that there should be one acre of grazing land to every 10 acres of cultivated, and in the State of Jeypore new settlers still receive 25 acres of grazing in every 100 acres of their occupation. (RIA, p.176).

6. Livestock & Dairying

Excellent cattle may be found in India

It must be allowed that there are excellent cattle to be found in the country, for, in going through it as I did, or in visiting Agricultural Shows, one may see as good cattle as can be desired. I was greatly struck with the appearance of many of the cattle exhibited at the Saharanpur and Meerut shows, and no one can fail to be impressed with the general excellence of the bullocks used for transit purposes, as also of those employed in military service. (RIA, p.198-9).

Mollison had the following to say on the way the Indian cattle were bred:

The numerous breeds of cattle found throughout India are commonly presumed to be the result of haphazard breeding. This is not so, for, every pure breed has a distinctive type and family likeness which could only have been produced by careful breeding and by maintaining the pristine purity of the breed through many generations. Distinctive characteristics such as those refereed to above may have been induced by accident or otherwise in the first instance, but have undoubtedly been perpetuated in some degree by careful breeding for a very long time. (TIA, Vol.II, p.6).

The Brahmani bull

The old Hindu system of breeding is carried on by means of the sacred bulls, or ‘Brahmani’ bulls, as they are generally termed. These bulls, dedicated to Siva or some other deity, are let loose when still young, on the occasion of funeral ceremonies, or in fulfilment of a vow. They are picked cattle, and, being sacred, are allowed to roam wherever they please, no one being permitted to kill them. The custom is still maintained, and in some parts there are too many Brahmani bulls… The Brahmani bull, where he exists, is almost always a fine creature, fed on the best of everything. (RIA, p.200).

What is happening to Brahmani bulls?

I heard at Bharwari that the value of a bull had risen from Rs.10 to Rs.25 in consequence of the demand for its flesh. Near Cawnpore I heard complaints that there were no Brahmani bulls left, and that the cultivators have to go to the nearest man who has a bull, of whatever kind it may happen to be. The agitation has, more recently, been increased by a decision given by Mr. Justice Straight, in which he declared the Brahmani bull to be ‘no one’s property’ inasmuch as it could not be said to belong to any particular owner. The bull is thereby deprived of the protection of ownership, and becomes more than ever the prey of cattle-stealers and butchers, while the villagers are deprived of the means of getting their cows served. Surely, such a decision cannot be allowed to stand. That men should be allowed to steal and realise money by the sale of the flesh of stolen animals, and then escape punishment on the ground that the animals are ‘no one’s property’, seems manifestly unjust, and, in the interests of the agricultural communities, the practice should not be permitted to continue. (RIA, p.201).

What steps can the Government take for cattle improvement?

Where Brahmani bulls exist in sufficiency there is no need of doing more; but where they are extinct, or where good country bulls do not exist, then Government can do much good by the distribution of good stud bulls… It is well, perhaps, that I should here interpose a remark to show that, when I speak of improving the cattle by using better sires, I am not at all in favour of trying to improve Indian cattle by crossing them with English bulls. The main object in India is to produce cattle suited for work, and not, as in England, to produce either meat or milk. At the Bhadgaon Farm I saw a bullock that was a cross between a Mysore cow and a Short-horn bull, a big, beefy animal, that ate a great deal, but was not adapted to ploughing. (RIA, p.201-2).

The making of ghi

The native way of making butter is, to boil the milk as soon as drawn from the cow, then to cool it, and after adding a little sour milk, to let it stand from 12 to 20 hours in a brass vessel narrowed towards the top. After standing, the milk is churned by the rapid twisting round in it of a stick which is kept spinning round by the hand, first warm and then cold water being added now and again, but quite empirically. The butter ‘comes’ in about a quarter of an hour, and is strained off on to a cloth, the sour butter-milk, called tak or chas, being much relished by the people. The butter is collected, put into another brass vessel, and melted over a fire. This operation requires careful watching, and good ghi makers are adepts at it. In the heating, the water is evaporated, and a portion of the mass, which is probably the enclosed curd, deposits at the bottom of the vessel, the remainder being poured into jars and stored. This is the ghi, or native butter, so largely used in cooking, etc., and it has the property, which ordinary butter has not, of keeping good for a long time…

In the absence of any chemical investigation into the nature and composition of ghi, it is impossible to say what ghi exactly is, and whether, as made by the Native, it is purely butter-fat, or whether it does not contain some amount of curd. The latter, indeed, is probably the case. (RIA, p.208-9).

Attempts at introducing dairy farming in India

Of late, efforts have been made to extend the practice of Dairy Farming in India. Mr. Ozanne, who, at the time of my visit, was Director of the Department of Land Records and Agriculture in the Bombay Presidency, was foremost in the endeavours to foster this industry. A considerable impetus was given to the movement by the visit to India, in 1889, of Mr. H. A. Howman, a well-known dairy-farmer, from Warwickshire, England, and who came out on behalf of the Dairy Supply Company Limited, of London, for the purpose of introducing the mechanical ‘cream separators’, for which that company were agents. These separators were of Swedish make, the invention of Dr.deLaval, and were of a size which could be worked by hand-power. Mr. Howman also took over with him a number of other appliances for making butter…

It was, however, when Mr.Howman put himself into competition with the skilled ghi makers that he failed in showing that he could produce more ghi than the native manipulator. He could always get more butter, but in making it into ghi the Native excelled. I cannot, however, regard the trials as by any means satisfactory or complete… The butter, as made by Mr.Howman, was merely butter-fat, without curd; this may account for the fact that Mr.Howman obtained more butter but less ghi…Mr.Howman’s visit undoubtedly showed that great improvement was possible in dairy matters in India, but whether the benefit will extend beyond the European Community is questionable…

This leads me to the consideration whether butter-making by improved methods is likely to make much advance in India. I must say I hardly think that it will, so far as the native population is concerned. Butter will not replace ghi, for the reason that it will not keep anything like the time that ghi does. The Native, again, makes ghi with the simple utensils he has at hand; he could not make butter in this way. But, wherever there is a considerable European population, then, I think, English dairying may be pursued with much benefit and comfort to the community. I could not help wondering how, in such towns as Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Poona, Allahabad and others, the English residents put up with the so-called ‘butter’ with which they are supplied. (RIA, p.208-210).

7. Agricultural implements

The excellence of native implements

A detailed description of the various implements in use in Indian agriculture at the end of 19th century may be found in the chapter on ‘Agricultural Implements’ in Mollison (TIA, Vol. I, pp.135-173). The following are his general observations:

In this chapter the more important indigenous tillage implements known in the Bombay Presidency are illustrated and described. I have purposely excluded any reference to or description of agricultural implements which are not purely indigenous. I have done so because I believe that the implements in ordinary use are entirely suitable for the conditions of Indian agriculture. This statement may be objected to by other authorities, but if such is the case, I am afraid, I cannot change a deliberately expressed opinion. To those who are sceptical I can show in parts of the Presidency cultivation by means of indigenous tillage implements only, which in respect of neatness, thoroughness and profitableness cannot be excelled by the best gardeners or the best farmers in any other part of the world. That statement I deliberately make, and am quite prepared to substantiate. The hackneyed expression that an Indian plough merely scratches the surface is pure nonsense. There are ploughs and ploughs. The best of the indigenous kinds - the most effective at work - might with advantage be more widely known in the country and the same might be said of other indigenous implements, but there is certainly no need to go out of the country for the ordinary tillage implements which are required.

The implements and tools required for a fair-sized holding in India cost little more than the price of a single English iron turn-furrow plough… indigenous tillage implements have one special advantage over the stronger and more expensive European implements. Their parts mostly consist of wood, and after rain as soon as the surface dries such implements can be used. Iron implements could not be used so soon because moist earth sticks much more tenaciously to iron than to wood. Delays in tillage or sowing early in the monsoon or, in fact, at any season owing to the cause mentioned would produce disastrous results. The full benefit of a good monsoon can only be obtained when the cultivator exerts himself to the fullest extent in preparing and sowing his fields in the breaks between heavy downpours of rain. (TIA, Vol.1, p.135).

Voelcker, in his report, also expresses similar views on the excellence of the indigenous agricultural implements:

Perhaps in no direction have efforts at improving Indian agriculture been pushed more than in that of introducing new or so-called ‘improved’ implements. Even at the present time it is not unusual, among people who speak of the raiyat’s farming as being ‘primitive’, to say, ‘What can you expect when he uses a plough, which merely scratches the soil?’ After seeing for myself what is used, and what have been suggested for use, I am obliged to conclude that there is not much scope for improved implements under existing conditions. Not that the ones the raiyat uses at present are perfect, or that others have not advantages, but it is equally true that existing implements have also advantages, and the suggested ones disadvantages, both of which have often been overlooked in the past. That there is some room for improvement is shown by the success which has attended the introduction of the Beheea sugar-mill. Still, when this has been mentioned, I confess that one cannot go much further; and if the history of the Beheea mill is looked into, it will be found that it succeeded only after a close study had been made of native ways and requirements, and after the machine had been adopted to these. (RIA, p.217).

The native wooden ploughs vs. iron ploughs

Since this was a subject of great controversy in the last century, we shall quote both from Voelcker’s report and the book of Wallace. Wallace’s observations are:

Many attempts have been made to introduce into India European ploughs which turn down the surface soil, and which replace it with fresh soil from beneath. With few exceptions, in rare and unusual circumstances, those attempts have failed. The refusal of the ryot to adopt the new form of implement has been set down to ‘ignorant prejudice’; but after a careful and minute investigation of the facts and circumstances, I have come to the unqualified conclusion, that the extensive adoption of English forms of ploughs would be ruinous, and, if general, would probably reduce the crops so as to plunge the whole country into famine. If the land were turned up to the action of the sun in the wet condition in which it is now worked, or rather stirred, by native implements, it would in a few hours of hot sun bake into the condition of air-dried bricks, which it would be almost impossible to reduce. Alternate wetting and drying would accomplish it in time; but once thoroughly hard, such soil is not easily wetted, unless it is soaked or submerged in water. Rain falling upon it penetrates but a short distance. If once it assumes the baked condition it is practically impossible in the short preparation time of one season to bring it back to a state fit to grow crops. In addition to this, the land is left open to dry to a greater depth during the scorching heat of summer. (IEE, p.174-5).

Not only has the native plough a peculiar and definite shape for good reasons, but the practices, thought at first to be peculiar, are often well supported by successful experience. (IEE, p.182-3).

Voelcker’s observations on the same issue are:

Ploughs have often been made the subject of attempted improvement, and yet the native wooden plough holds its own, and will continue to do so, I expect, whereas not one of the new kinds of iron ploughs have had more than a local fame… The reasons are several, the first being that of cost. The raiyat’s practice is to buy an iron share in the bazar, for 4 annas; this he takes, along with some babul wood, to the village carpenter, who then makes the plough. In Eastern Bengal a wooden plough costs 8 annas only, but Rs.2 to Rs.4 may be considered the general range of prices throughout India. The cheapest improved plough will, however, cost Rs.5 to Rs.6. The prices are as follows: the ‘Duplex’ Rs.5; the ‘Kaisar’ Rs.6; the ‘Seebpore’ Rs.6; the ‘Watts’ Rs.7; the ‘Saidapet’ Rs.8; and the ‘Hindoostan’ Rs.12As.8. Every attempt has been made to lessen the cost but without avail…

A second objection which the raiyat makes is the weight of an iron plough; it is, he says, heavy to work; his cattle are not strong enough, and he cannot carry it himself, as he does his wooden plough, on his shoulder from field to field. These contentions are often true, but not always. The native plough, generally speaking, weighs about 25 lbs.; some are even lighter; the Konkan plough, for example, weighs only 20 lbs. An ‘improved’ plough will weigh from 30 lbs. to 80 lbs...

The manufacture of wooden ploughs, again, is a regular employment of the village carpenter; he forms part of the village community, and does not charge for his labour, but is kept up at the general expense of the villagers. At harvest-time he gets a proportion of the grain, and, in return, repairs and makes new ploughs all the year round. His occupation would be in great measure gone were iron ploughs substituted for the wooden ones…

Even if properly used, a plough that goes deep may do harm where a native one would not, viz., by turning up inferior soil, and by bringing lumps of limestone (kankar) to the surface.

Again, it is quite possible that, were deeper ploughing to be in vogue, the moisture, which, in the case of some soils, it is so necessary to retain, might be lost. The turning over of a furrow is not always an advantage in India; if the soil be at all stiff, the sun will rapidly bake the slice turned over; it will remain more like a brick than like soil, and will not readily pulverise again. This would not occur with the native plough, the action of which is more like that of a pointed stick running through the ground, just below the surface, say 2½ to 3 inches deep, simply stirring and loosening it. For hard and sun-baked ground, such as is often met with, no action could be better adapted, and, in a trial at Meerut, I saw an English plough completely fail on such land.

I have Mr. W. D. Hudson’s (Tirhoot) authority for saying that for breaking up land in wet weather the native plough is better than a furrow-turning one, for the latter throws over a slice which will not break down readily. In black soil, too, a plough that goes deep is bad, if no rain falls after ploughing.

The fine tilth produced by the frequent ploughing with a native plough produces a surface which will absorb water better, if rain follows, than would that left by a furrow-turning plough.

Against deeper ploughing it may also be said that there is so little manure to go on the land, that more would be lost if the soil were turned up to a greater depth...

Further, land is frequently infested with weeds, such as Kunda (Saccharum Ciliare), which, if buried, will readily spring up, and whereas the native plough, with its digging action, tears the weed out and brings it to the surface, a furrow-turning plough would cover it over, and give to it the very bed it required for propagating itself. So, too, would it be with a field converted with dub grass (Cynodon Dactylon), every joint of which will grow again. For rice cultivation, nothing but a digging and stirring plough, like the native one, would do any good, working, as it does, among mud with several inches of water over it. For breaking up new land the native plough has also advantages, and somewhat resembles the tearing action of the ‘steam-digger’. (RIA, p.217-220).

Why does the Indian cultivator undertake multiple ploughings?

It has been said that if the native cultivator had ‘improved’ ploughs he could dispense with the many ploughings which he gives to the land, and that he would thus save himself the cost of going over his field again and again, crossing and recrossing. These ploughings are always 3 or 4 in number for ordinary crops, and 8, 12, and even as many as 20, for sugar-cane and other special crops. But the answer is, that the end is achieved in time, a finer and better tilth is obtained, and the moisture is not lost. Besides, the raiyat has his bullocks, and it costs no more whether he works them or not, and his labour is not, as a rule, hired labour for which he has to pay, but is his own or his family’s. Ploughing, too, is generally done on a mutual accommodation system, neighbours working together on one another’s fields, and in turn lending bullocks for the ploughing… Had the raiyat to pay for the labour, I could understand that this item would counterbalance the cost of an ‘improved’ plough, but this, as I have stated, is seldom the case. (RIA, p.221-2).

Other implements

If for ploughs of new designs there be but little room, still less is there for more expensive implements, such as seed-drills, mowers, reapers, threshing machines, etc. The native seed-drill will strike every one who sees it at work as being wonderfully efficient, and leaving little to be desired…

[For threshing] the cultivator has his bullocks; they may as well work and tread out the grain; he has no fear of bad weather coming, and no urgent call on his time, nor hired labour to pay; besides, he gets the broken straw and the chaff (bhusa) soft, so that his bullocks will eat it readily. At the Cawnpore Farm there is a threshing machine the price of which is Rs.188, but it is almost needless to say that none of this kind have as yet been sold…

It is only on large estates, the ‘concerns’ of indigo planters, and by Europeans generally, that threshing machines will have any actual use on the farm itself, and then it will be because in such cases there is a great deal to thresh, labour has to be hired, and saving of time is thus an object in view. Against them it is urged that they break and chip the wheat a good deal; that they do not separate gram from wheat; and that the bhusa is not rendered short or soft, as it is by the process of treading out with bullocks...

It may be said generally, as regards machines, that, where speed is not required, cattle-power will always beat steam-power in India.

Anyone who has watched the clever devices of the native cultivators in the implements which they use for harrowing, levelling, drilling, raising water, etc., will see that if anything is to replace the existing implements it must be simple, cheap, and effective. He will indeed be a clever man who introduces something really practical. (RIA, p.223‑4).

After describing various kinds of drill ploughs employed in Indian agriculture, Wallace declares:

These drilling machines, have been in use from time immemorial, and when skilfully handled, which is very frequently the case, they do beautiful work, leaving nothing further to be desired. (IEE, p.188).

The ‘Cawnpore Pump’

At the Cawnpore Experimental Farm several kinds of implements are manufactured and sold yearly. In 1888-89, 84 ploughs (‘Watts’ and ‘Kaisar’), 22 pumps, 24 corn-grinders (costing Rs.25 each), and 8 chaff-cutters, were sold at the Cawnpore Farm. Sometimes implements are given out on trial, but most are sold outright.

The pump sold here is generally known as the ‘Cawnpore Pump’. It is a kind of chain pump, and is admirably suited for raising water the depth of which below the surface does not exceed 20 feet. The pump has had considerable success in the neighbourhood, though it hardly comes within the raiyat’s means; the prices are, for 3 feet to 10 feet depth, Rs.40; for 15 feet depth, Rs.45; and for 20 feet depth, Rs.50. This pump is an adaptation from one brought by Sir Edward Buck from Australia. After a long series of careful trials and modifications, made under the supervision of Mr. W. J. Wilson, of the Irrigation Department, North-West Provinces and Oudh, it was found that for depths between 15 feet and 20 feet the pump could beat all the native devices for raising water, but that at depths shallower than 15 feet or so, and again at depths exceeding 20 feet, the native appliances were superior. (RIA, p.225-6).

The native sugar-mills

The native mills [for making sugar] are either the kolhu, a mortar and pestle arrangement, in which cane is bruised and pressed, or else wooden roller-mills, of which there are two kinds, the gundi or cherki, consisting of two, or sometimes three, upright wooden rollers, and the belna, used in the Punjab, and made of two horizontal wooden rollers. The wooden mills cost Rs.20 to Rs.30, and last about 10 years. They are hard to work, and do the pressing very ineffectually, the canes having to be passed through the rollers several times, always three or four, and sometimes as many as eight times. The only points in favour of the wooden roller-mills are, that they can be made locally, and that the canes have not to be chopped up or cut into short lengths, as is the case with the kolhu and with the iron mills; thus, the fibre, after pressing, is available for rope-making, and especially for ropes for wells. For the latter purpose the sugar-cane fibre is much prized, as it will stand the constant immersion in water necessitated by the employment of the Persian wheel, the method of raising water most common throughout the Punjab. Still, it has been rightly pointed out that there are quantities of munj grass (Saccharum Ciliare), which would serve the same purpose quite as well. (RIA, p. 226).

The story of Beheea sugar-mill

The Beheea mill was introduced in 1873-74, and, as first manufactured, was a two-roller one, costing from Rs.80 to Rs.100, but within the last seven years a three-roller mill has been introduced, and is a greatly improved, though necessarily more expensive, machine. It crushes the cane before it is pressed, and thus presents it flat to the pressing rollers. I have [earlier] spoken of the difficulty attending the repair of the iron mill, and how the proprietors, Messrs. Thomson and Mylne, have met this by establishing depots throughout the country, where worn-out mills can be replaced by new ones…

The Punjab Administration Report (1889) speaks of the Beheea sugar-mill and its modification as being ‘the only implement successfully introduced into the Punjab in late years’. In Rohtak, it is ‘driving the old kolhu (native mill) out of use’; in Kapurthala the substitution of it for wooden mills is actively encouraged… (RIA, p.227).

8. Crops and cultivation

The general excellence of cultivation

I have remarked, in earlier chapters, upon the general excellence of the cultivation; the crops grown are numerous and varied, much more, indeed, than in England. That the cultivation should often be magnificent is not to be wondered at, when it is remembered that many of the crops have been known to the raiyats for several centuries; rice is a prominent instance in point. (RIA, p.232).

A.O. Hume had the following to say on the way the fields were maintained in India:

As for weeds, their wheat-fields would, in this respect, shame ninety-nine hundredths of those in Europe. You may stand on some high old barrow-like village site in Upper India, and look down on all sides on one wide sea of waving wheat broken only by dark-green islands of mango groves - many square miles of wheat and not a weed or blade of grass above six inches in height to be found amongst it. What is to be spied out creeping here and there on the ground is only the growth of the last few weeks, since the corn grew too high and thick to permit the women and children to continue weeding.[31]

Wallace states the following on the abilities of Indian cultivators as contrasted to those in England:

The natives of India have great powers of observation for ordinary everyday objects. They possess a very extensive acquaintance with all common plants and animals. An ordinary ryot will recognise and name nearly every plant that can be picked up on his hand, and with a characteristic sway of his head will indicate whether it is valuable or otherwise. The total ignorance of a country-man at home, in all matters of detail relating to the minor facts of Nature, stands out in striking contrast to the intimate knowledge of, and interest shown by natives in everything which immediately surrounds the human species in India. In mentally answering to myself the great and important question, is the labouring population of India, when free from the ravages and horrors of famine, contented and happy?- I could not help contrasting the results of our modern European civilisation with the guileless plan so well exhibited in India, by which Nature occupies and develops the minds of her votaries, in a light which was decidedly favourable to her methods of working. (IEE, p.277).

Rotation of crops of mixed cropping

Wallace observes that:

It is quite a mistake to suppose that the native cultivators of India are unacquainted with systems of rotation of crops. It is a fact that an extraordinary variety of rotations is practised in India. There, systems are much more varied and numerous than in England. (IEE, p.195).

Voelcker gives the following detailed descriptions of the practice of rotation and on the cultivation or mixed crops:

It is quite a mistake to suppose that Rotation is not understood or appreciated in India. The contrary is the case. Frequently more than one crop at a time may be seen occupying the same ground, but one is very apt to forget that this is really an instance of rotation being followed. It is not an infrequent practice, when drilling a cereal crop, such as juar (Sorghum Vulgare) or some other millet, to put in at intervals a few drills of some leguminous crop, such as arhar (Cajanus Indicus)…

There are many systems in ordinary use which are far more complicated than the above. For instance, not only may there be rows of crops side by side, as noticed above, but the alternating rows may themselves be made up of mixtures of different crops, some of them quick-growing and reaped early, others of slower growth and requiring both sun and air, and thus being reaped after the former have been cleared off. Again, some are deep-rooted plants, others are surface feeders, some require the shelter of other plants, and some will thrive alone. The whole system appears to be one designed to cover the land, and thereby to prevent the bareness and consequent loss to the soil which would result from the sun beating down upon it, and from the loss of moisture which it would incur. It is known also that the process of nitrification in soils is much more active when a growing crop is on the ground than when the latter lies fallow…

The one crop with which rotation is not practised is rice. Why this should be so may be better understood when the conditions under which rice is grown are considered. Rice flourishes on silt-renewed lands that need little or no manure, and which are plentifully supplied with water. The water itself, by its constant renewal, probably makes the soil-constituents more readily available. Under these circumstances the rice plant becomes semi-aquatic in character, and is more independent of manure, and of the manurial benefits effected by rotation. Differences in the mode of cultivating rice may, however, be followed; thus, in some parts of Bengal it is the rule to sow rice broadcasted one year, and transplanted the next. (RIA, p.233-4).

The use of leguminous crops for rotation did not have the sanction of the modern Western science till late in the 19th century. As the famous agricultural scientist, Albert Howard, notes:

Although it was not till 1880 after a protracted controversy lasting thirty years, that Western science finally accepted as proved the important part played by pulse crops in enriching the soil, centuries of experience had taught the peasants of the East, the same lesson.[32] The leguminous crop in the rotation is everywhere one of the old fixed practices. In some areas such as the Indo-Gangetic plain, one of the pulses-the pigeon pea-is used as a subsoil cultivator. The deep spreading root system is used to promote aeration of the closely packed silt soil.[33]

Further light on the indigenous practises of rotation can be found in the book of Mollison, from which the following is extracted:

In the light of recent investigation we now know that although leguminous plants actually remove more nitrogen from the soil than cereals do, yet they also leave the soil richer in combined nitrogen than before they were grown. I have already described how they indirectly fix in organic form the free nitrogen of the air in the soil, and keeping this fact in view we begin to understand how the rayat in India on the best class of soil has been able to grow mixed crops year after year on the same field without the help of manure. It may be conjectured, although it cannot easily be proved, that by growing pulses and cereals mixed, the former during their growth are preparing available nitrogen, which is assimilated by the latter…

The successful practice of growing mixed crops in India points to the fact that the practical experience of the uneducated Indian rayat has determined centuries since a means of providing an inexhaustible supply of nitrogen for the soil, whilst enlightened European agricultural chemists have only recently begun to see the way. It is a common saying in England, ‘Wheat after beans or clover’; the Indian rayat has similar though not identical experience; he knows that a leguminous green manure crop is a very good preparation for sugar-cane (Saccharum Officinarum), that gram (Cicer Arietinum) or ground-nut (Arachis Hypogia) are each uncommonly good rotation crops with cereals, that tur (Cajanus Indicus), a deep-rooted pulse has a decidedly ameliorating effect upon the soil fertility and that a second crop of val (Dolichos Lablab) taken on rice (Oryza Sativa) land in seasons when the land holds sufficient moisture after the cereal is harvested, enriches the soil for the rice crop of the following year…

A rotation in which gram or ground-nut takes a prominent place will to some extent ensure that the land under ordinary tillage will remain tolerably clean. The successful cultivation of some crops demands that the soil be kept absolutely clean. One need not look for a good crop of potatoes (Solanum Tuberosum) or onions (Allium Cepa) or of turmeric (Curcuma Longa) or ginger (Zingiber Officinale), or chillies (Capsicum Frutescens) or sugar-cane, unless the soil is well stocked with manure and is absolutely clean. The tillage of these and other garden crops is only undertaken by well-to-do cultivators and indicates a due appreciation of systematic rotation and an advanced system of husbandry…

In the Bombay Presidency irrigated garden crops are systematically rotated. Less attention is paid to the rotation of purely dry crops. The reason is that everywhere on dry cop land the practice of mixed cropping prevails and the practice obviates to some extent the necessity of other rotation. (TIA, Vol.1, p.43-5).


The following extract is from Mollison:

The principle of bare fallowing demands that the soil be rested and at the same time be thoroughly cultivated. The practice is not unknown in the [Bombay] Presidency. In some talukas of the Broach Collectorate on black cotton soil it is systematically practised. The fields so treated are known as vashil fields. Fallowing is only practised on the more extensive holdings. The occupants can afford to allow a certain proportion of their lands to be fallowed every year. Excellent crops of cotton are got after a year’s fallow without any manure. Where fallowing is systematically practised the holdings are thoroughly clean…

In the poor uplands of the Konkan and elsewhere in the [Bombay] Presidency where the soil becomes worn out by a succession of crops and there is no practical present means of making it recover its fertility, sometimes it is allowed to lie waste for years. When a certain number of years have elapsed it is again brought under cultivation. The land so treated although not fallowed in the true sense of the term recovers fertility. The practice is confined to districts where the rainfall is heavy. Ordinary fallowing would do more harm than good there, because a heavy fall of rain would wash the loosened soil from the sloping ground to the lower levels. Whilst the land is lying waste the spontaneous growth of grass and scrub jungle not only prevents erosion of existing soil, but conserves from waste any soluble matter dissolved from the soil’s mineral store. Vegetation existing on the surface feeds on the soluble matter in the soil and prevents a serious loss which drainage would undoubtedly otherwise cause. Before these lands are again brought under tillage, the scrub growth is cut, laid evenly over the surface and burnt, and although the practice may be described as a wasteful one, the soil is undoubtedly enriched by the ashes, whilst on account of rest it has otherwise recovered sufficient fertility to produce a short rotation of crops consisting chiefly of the poorer hill millets. (TIA, Vol.1, p.41-2).

The Selection of Seeds

Regarding the Indian cultivators’ knowledge of selection of seeds, Voelcker notes:

There are several proverbs, such as one which Mr.Benson found current in Kurnool, pointing to the desirability of selecting seed. ‘As you give gifts to the deserving, so select seeds for your soil’, runs the proverb, but the practice is different to the precept, and seed is not habitually selected.

Now and again selection of seed is practised to a certain extent. Thus in Rawal Pindi Settlement Report, Mr. F. A. Robertson points out that the Arains or Malliars are the best cultivators and that they select their maize seed. (RIA, p.236-7).

Voelcker, however, believes that the Indian cultivators did not follow the practice of selection of seeds as meticulously as the European cultivators:

In this respect the Indian Cultivator might well follow the European planter, as, for example, in the careful selection of indigo seed. (RIA, p.236).

Several authorities have noted the perspicuity of the Indian farmer in differentiating different kinds of seeds and crops. For example, we might cite the following observation of John Kenny:

To preach dry farming to men to whom it was a hoary tradition when Englishmen used paint instead of clothing did not appear to me the surest way to gain the confidence of the Kunbi [Indian peasant], nor did I consider it wise to suggest seed selection in land where 4000 different sorts of paddy are grown in one province alone, and carefully differentiated according to their qualities and the land suitable for them.[34]

Storage of grains

A. O. Hume notes the following in his book:

They [Indian peasants] are great adepts in storing grain, and will turn it out of rough earthen pits, after 20 years, absolutely uninjured. They know the exact state of ripeness to which grain should be allowed to stand in different seasons, in other words, under different meteorological conditions, to ensure its keeping when thus stored; and equally the length of time that, under varying atmospheric conditions, it should lie upon the open threshing-floor to secure the same object.[35]

On the excellence of garden-cultivation

Referring to the garden-cultivation, Voelcker notes:

I may fairly say that nothing in the agriculture of India impressed me so much as the excellence of the cultivation carried on by irrigation from wells (‘garden’ land). This was not in the case of one or two parts only, but in almost every instance where this system of cultivation was adopted.

Whether it be in the betel and plantain gardens of Mahim (Bombay), the market-gardening of Meerut (North-West Provinces), the ‘garden’ land of Coimbatore in Madras, or that of Gujrat and Hoshiarpur in the Punjab, the finest cultivation I have seen has almost invariably been that carried on by well irrigation. Here it is that the greatest care is given, and the greatest economy used; it is for this land that manure is most saved, and from it every weed is plucked away as an intruder; here every inch is utilised for growing crops-not one crop alone, but often three or even four together-and to these crops the precious water is dealt out, as it were, by measure. To take a single instance-at Mahim, the betel plant is watered every sixth day until manure is applied to it, and, after that every third day until rains come; sugar-cane once every six days until the rains; plantains similarly, and ginger at intervals of three days only. The explanation of the excellence of cultivation as carried on by irrigation from wells is found chiefly in the fact that every drop of water has to be raised by the raiyat’s labour and that of his bullocks, and that the well itself has often been built with his own money and by his own hands. But I must not dwell on this except to say in regard to this cultivation that I can suggest nothing in it to improve; indeed, the people have mastered thoroughly all details of the system. English farmers may well join with me and look on in admiration, and it should be the aim of every one interested in agricultural improvement in India to extend this method of irrigation in every way possible. (RIA, p.73-4).

Mollison expresses a similar opinion:

Where there exist, and when well or canal irrigation is available, garden cultivation is started by well-to-do cultivators. The garden lands near to Surat are very fertile and the methods of cultivation can hardly be excelled. The crops grown follow each other in rapid succession; ordinarily the land is double cropped each year. (TIA, Vol.1, p.48).

Cultivation of cotton, tobacco

Voelcker asserts that:

Cotton, like sugarcane, is a very profitable crop for the raiyat to grow. The actual cultivation of it is thoroughly well understood, and I am not aware of any suggestion that can be made for improvement in this respect. (RIA, p.254-5).

The above assertion is all the more significant, for, as we noted in the introduction, much of the effort of British Government towards ‘improving’ Indian agriculture was directed at replacing the indigenous varieties of cotton by the long-stapled American variety. On these efforts Voelcker has the following to say:

Many efforts have been made, and even Government legislation has been tried, in order to keep pure the finer qualities of cotton, and to prevent the increased growing of the coarser native kinds. But all these efforts have failed, and at the present time the cultivation of the indigenous varieties is more extensive than ever. The reasons are, briefly, that the country cotton is a better-yielding variety, it is earlier, and more hardy than the long-stapled kinds… (RIA, p.255).

On the cultivation of tobacco, Voelcker states:

So far as the cultivation [of tobacco] goes, I see nothing in which the raiyat can improve, for, like other ‘garden’ crops, tobacco is one over which no trouble is spared. (RIA, p.272).

Improvements in crops and cultivation introduced by the British

Having spoken of the excellence of Indian cultivation, Voelcker notes that improvement is still possible. The improvements he suggests consist essentially in further commercialisation of Indian agriculture:

Yet, that improvement is not impossible may be seen in the spread, within recent times, of indigo and jute cultivation, the introduction of tea-planting, the raising of the potato and other vegetables, the growing of maize, etc.

The increasing demands of other countries for wheat, oil-seeds, cotton, etc., have exercised an important influence upon the systems of Indian agriculture, and, whereas the raiyat formerly looked to his field yielding him a crop which would provide grain for himself and his family, as well as straw for his cattle, the element of export has now entered into his calculations and has marked changes in the kinds and extent of the crops grown. (RIA, p.232).

Another improvement that Voelcker takes note of concerns the modern European techniques being employed in the notorious indigo plantations:

The cultivation of indigo has been very greatly improved by the European planter… Selection of seed is carefully attended to… imported or ‘improved’ implements have an opportunity of being usefully employed in indigo cultivation... On the indigo estates or ‘concerns’, as they are called, there is a large area to be sown, and it is all important to get this done quickly and just at the right time. Hence the indigo planter uses a drill which will sow, not one, but several rows at a time, and he uses a large number of these drills. (RIA, p.257-8).


This chapter, more than any other part of Voelcker’s report, displays the prejudices of a practitioner of Western science and a representative of the colonial administration.

When will the agricultural methods improve?

If in one part the conditions of living are easy, the agriculture will often be found to be lax; whereas, when the struggle for existence is harder, the agricultural methods will frequently be more closely attended to. (RIA, p.289).

In a subsection entitled, ‘Natural advantages and easy circumstances are not conducive to agricultural improvement’, Voelcker argues:

A low rate of assessment is by no means synonymous with prosperous agriculture. Of many parts of the Central Provinces it might be said that, were the assessment higher, the agriculture would improve, in order to enable the increase to be met. Around Damoh the people have been obliged to embank their land so as to make the crops pay. It is certain that there are many parts where an increased difficulty of living would bring about improved practice of agriculture. It is not where population is least dense that the best agriculture is seen, but more frequently in the most congested districts, such as those around Benares, Azamgurh, and other parts of the North-West Provinces [Uttar Pradesh]. As the struggle for existence becomes harder there is the inducement to put forth effort to meet its demands, whereas comparative ease in circumstances, a light assessment, and a naturally fertile soil, may prevent the exercise of energy, and may foster a backward condition of agriculture. Where such is the case an improvement can only be expected to come from the disturbance which time or pressure of population will make in the easy circumstances which exist. (RIA, p.294).

Defence of the British land revenue policy

Even were the Government demand for land revenue remitted by one-half, it would not result in the production of that which Indian agriculture requires most of all, viz., more manure to put on the land. While this need remains unsupplied the actual produce of the soil cannot be increased, however low the rent payable by the cultivator may be. Nor can a better system of land tenure directly produce an increased yield of a single bushel per acre, nor can it provide wood to replace cow-dung, and so set free the latter for its right use upon the land. Improvement in tenures, remission of rent, etc., may make the condition of the cultivating classes better, but they will not provide more manure, better cattle, more pasture or better seed. (RIA, p.289‑90).

Defence of the export of foodgrains

Voelcker produces the following defence in response to the criticism that the export of foodgrains, made possible by the introduction of railways, was causing famines:

The amount of wheat exported is at present only about one percent of the total of foodgrains produced, and only one-tenth of the total wheat crop.

Railways have, it is true, greatly facilitated export, but they have also done service in preventing fluctuation of prices in different parts, whilst their value, in time of famine, for conveying food to distressed districts can hardly be over-estimated. (RIA, p.295).

10. Agricultural education and Research

The story of the Saidapet Farm

The earliest of all the Experimental Farms was Saidapet, established in 1865. It is also the one on which the greatest attempts have been made to introduce new practices and new implements to the notice of the Indian cultivator. The past expenditure on the Farm has been considerable, and it has now been finally abandoned as an Experimental Station. From 1871 to 1887 it was under the direction of Mr.W.R.Robertson, and was supplemented in 1876 by the starting of an Agricultural College. It is not for me here to go into the past history of the Farm, nor to discuss at length the steps which have led to its abandonment. It is enough to say, in the words of the Director of the Madras Agricultural Departments, ‘The results attained at the Farm are, so far as the agriculture of the country is concerned, purely negative; no attempt is made to connect the one with the other.’ Undoubtedly this failure to bring itself into sufficiently close communication with the native agriculturists has had much to do with the result…

I have already thoroughly endorsed the recommendations of the Committee [The Madras Agricultural Committee, 1890] as to the necessity of abandoning the attempts to teach the raiyat until more is known, through careful enquiry, of what his practices really are, and the conditions under which he pursues them. (RIA, p.370,372).

Achievements of the British educational system

There is very little doubt that the tendency of education in the past has been too much in a purely literary direction, and that it has been diverted from, rather than turned towards, the staple industry of the country, viz., agriculture. Agriculture is by far the most general pursuit, and it is that which contributes the bulk of the Revenues of the country. According to the Census Returns of 1881, 72 percent of the whole male population engaged in some specific occupation are directly supported by Agriculture, and the estimate of the Famine Commissioners was that 90 percent of the rural population live, more or less, by the tillage of the soil. Nevertheless, it is found that the tendency of education at the present time is to draw the rising generation away from the land, and to give a purely literary training, which ends in a young man making his aim the obtaining of a post under Government, or the following of the profession of a ‘pleader’ in the courts. Agriculture is not regarded as a profession, but too often as a medium for deriving an income off the land. (RIA, p.379).

Nature of agricultural education

[The Poona College of Science] in its agricultural branch, is virtually the Agricultural College of the [Bombay] Presidency... In looking over the syllabus in agriculture, it is clear to me that it has been drawn on an English and not on an Indian model. Thus, practices such as ‘paring and burning’ and ‘warping of land’ are mentioned; manures such as sulphate of ammonia, dried blood, soot, and artificial manures, none of which have any place in Indian agriculture, are introduced; the requirements of ‘fattening animals’ are supposed to be learnt, and this is a country where no fattening of animals whatever is carried on. On the other hand, many subjects which have a special interest in Indian agriculture are omitted, such as canal and well irrigation, kankar, oil-cake refuse, ghi, etc. (RIA, p.390).

As a rule the natives seek employment in Government service after agricultural education

The student at an Agricultural College will rather take a Government appointment worth Rs.50 a month than devote himself to the management of his farm, or superintend that of some one else… There is a general impression that everything pays better and is more dignified than farming. (RIA, p.379).

The Madras Agricultural Committee (1890) reported that the results of agricultural education at the Saidapet College were disappointing, and that the sole object of the students joining the College was to obtain employment or promotion in Government service, very few indeed of them subsequently engaging in farming. (RIA, p.382).

The aim of the [native] students is not to study agriculture for its own sake, but for the sake of getting Government employ or preferment. It is, of course, unfortunate that this is so, and especially that it is not merely a tendency but an almost universal rule. I do not think that there is much likelihood of a change, and therefore it is better to provide for things as we find them, and not as they might be. It will be long, I think, before we shall find among the Natives, many workers in pure science who will study it for its own sake. So, too, will it be with agriculture. (RIA, p.382).

What should therefore be done?

If a lower ideal has to be taken, it is nevertheless desirable, to ensure, as far as possible, that the training shall be that which is most likely to be of benefit to the men in the spheres which they will subsequently occupy. It would unquestionably be well that the men who, later on, become Land Revenue Officials, and who in their daily work are brought in contact with agricultural conditions and surroundings, should get some knowledge of the principles of agriculture during their earlier training. Even if they do make the attainment of a University degree the main object, and study agriculture in an academic way, it is more likely to be productive of good in the end than if they had followed a purely literary course…

I do not mean to imply that the improvement of Indian agriculture is in any way dependent upon the conferment by the Universities of an agricultural degree; but I do think that, seeing how matters stand, the granting of a degree would give stimulus to the study of agriculture… (RIA, p.382-3).

iv. Post-script

The question, ‘How to improve Indian Agriculture’, remains as relevant today as it was when Voelcker wrote his Report. The answer that Voelcker provides will come as a great shock for most of our present day scientists. What Voelcker advocates is that first, a thorough study be made of our indigenous agriculture, and that for the following purpose:

I believe that it will be possible here and there to graft onto Native practice the results of Western experience, but the main advance will come from an enquiry into native agriculture, and from the extension of the better indigenous methods to parts where they are not known or employed…

There comes another most important branch wherein enquiry is absolutely necessary; this is the ascertaining of requirements of different parts of the country in respect of… the supply of water manure, wood and grazing. (RIA, p.296-7).

Voelcker was no less ardent an advocate of modern Western science than the most vocal modernisers of today. Every chapter of Voelcker’s report is replete with recommendations that agricultural chemists be appointed to investigate this or that, that various scientific officers-Botanists, Entomologists, Agricultural Engineers, etc.-should be attached to every Agricultural Department, that ‘scientific’ agricultural education should be provided on a large scale if possible, etc. Even his call for a thorough enquiry into ‘Native’ agriculture is to insure that Indian agriculture is carefully looked into from the perspective of modern science.

Therefore it does appear strange that Voelcker should still insist that Indian agriculture was not backward or primitive, but was actually excellent in several aspects. Voelcker was writing at a time when modern science had not developed new packages to replace various traditional inputs in agriculture. Of course, the situation was changing fast. While Voelcker argued that artificial manures or ‘improved’ implements were not suited for Indian agriculture, yet within a few decades there was near unanimity amongst all scientists and agricultural experts that what Indian agriculture needed most was ‘newer’ fertilisers, implements, seeds, etc. Within a rather short period, all the basic recommendations made by Voelcker were completely undermined.

The Royal Commission on Agriculture in India of 1926, in its report published in 1928, paid glowing tributes to Voelcker’s report:

Although thirty-five years have elapsed since this work was written, the ability which Dr. Voelcker displayed in his comprehensive survey of the agricultural conditions of India, in his analysis of problems they present and in his recommendations for their solution, still renders it a book of the utmost value to all students off agriculture in India.[36]

The Commission also tended to agree with Voelcker’s description of the problems faced by the cultivators. Thus, in the context of the availability of manure, the Commission, almost echoing Voelcker, says:

Much of the farmyard manure available is burnt as fuel whilst a large quantity of combined nitrogen is exported in the form of oil-seeds, food and other grains, and animal products such as hides and bones.[37]

The commission went on to add that the above loss was in no way compensated by the import of nitrogenous fertilisers which had then recently begun, and amounted to a mere 4,724 tons in 1925-26. After presenting the problem, the Commission however came to the conclusion that it would not help even if farmers were provided the much-needed firewood for fuel:

The view is generally held that it is the absence of a sufficient supply of firewood which, over large parts of India, compels the burning of cow-dung as fuel. But it must be recognised that there is often a definite preference for this form of fuel, as its slow burning character is regarded as making it specially suitable to the needs of the Indian housewife. Thus we are informed that, in Burma, immigrant labourers from India persist in using cow-dung as a fuel, although an abundant supply of firewood is readily available.[38]

Further, the Commission concluded that:

Neither an export tax on oilseeds or oil-cakes nor a prohibition of such export, can be justified…

Neither an export tax on bones, meal or fish manures, nor the total prohibition of such exports can be justified.[39]

Having dismissed the possibility of ensuring sufficient supplies of cow-dung and other natural manures, it was natural for the Commission to call for massive imports of artificial fertilisers, ‘the adoption of which has received powerful support’. The Commission went on to suggest: ‘It would assist in popularising the use of [artificial] fertilisers if the railway rates on them were reduced.’ (p. 94) The Commission had thus arrived at a solution that was way off from what Voelcker had suggested - making fire-wood available to the cultivators so that they would have some cattle-manure.

The Commission similarly reversed Voelcker’s position on the introduction of newer agricultural implements in India. One of the main pre-occupations of the Commission was with finding ways of introducing newer implements in Indian agriculture on a large scale. It expressed its dissatisfaction with the sporadic attempts made by the various Agricultural Departments to improve the indigenous implements, and declared:

We are informed by one large firm of manufacturers in England that, of the 350 types of ploughs that they were making, mass-production had only proved possible with a dozen types and that this was the experience of the trade as a whole. It will, however, be obvious that notwithstanding the great diversity of local conditions, a country such as India, in which the total number of ploughs is about 25 millions presents great possibilities of advance in this respect.[40]

And this led to the suggestion that:

The aim of the Agricultural Departments should be the evolution of a small number of types of implements and machinery suitable for a wide range of conditions and suitable for mass production… Railway freight rates on agricultural machinery and implements should be re-examined and, where possible, concessions should be given.[41]

We shall not go into a discussion of how various other recommendations of Voelcker were undermined in a rather short period. Voelcker’s insistence that indigenous Indian agriculture was in itself efficient, and that the necessary knowledge, skills, inputs and implements for practising efficient agriculture in India, were already available in India, could not have been allowed to stand. In fact, later Indian agricultural experts were worried that Voelcker’s conclusions might deflect India from the policy of modernising Indian agriculture and introducing newer and imported skills, inputs and implements. For instance, in a well-known work on Indian Economics, first published in 1921, which served as a standard text-book and went through several editions, the authors caution against taking Voelcker’s work out of its ‘context’ and interpreting it as an endorsement of the validity and vitality of indigenous agriculture. They state:

Dr.Voelcker, Consulting Chemist to the Royal Agricultural Society, who was sent out in 1889 to report on the agricultural practice in India from the modern scientific point of view, has borne admiring testimony to the careful husbandry ‘combined with hard labour, perseverance and fertility of resource’ of the Indian agriculturist. Opinions of this kind bearing the imprimatur of high scientific authority must be respected and should leave us in no doubt as to the excellence which Indian farming is capable of attaining under favourable conditions. But we must not allow such laudatory remarks, torn out of their context and mainly intended to correct extreme views in the opposite direction, to lull us into a false sense of security. If the average cultivator in India had been as efficient and go-ahead as the unwary may be led to imagine from encomiums such as that of Dr. Voelcker, the rural problem in India would have been much simpler than it is…We must admit that, generally speaking, the Indian peasant is lacking in originality and initiative and is too much wedded to traditional methods and practices, many of which are wasteful and unscientific. Also, he is steeped up to the lips in superstitions and prejudices, which in their totality are a serious drag on his economic progress. The dead weight of his inertia, apathy and conservatism is an obstacle in the way of every reform proposed for alleviating his condition…[42]

This emphatic assertion coming from native Indian experts poignantly tells us why indigenous agricultural practices were not taken seriously in Independent India.


[1] We may cite, for example, the following observation of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, the French traveller of the 17th century (Travels in India, Oxford 1925, Vol. I, p.238): “Even in the smallest villages, rice, flour, butter, milk, beans and other vegetables, sugar and other sweetmeats, dry and liquid, can be procured in abundance.”

[2] For example, the Encyclopaedia Britannica (XIV Edition, Chicago 1959) refers to three major innovations carried out in British agriculture in the 18th century, the so-called ‘Era of Improvement’. First was the ‘invention’ of the drill plough by Jethro Tull in 1731, ‘whereby the turnips could be sown in rows and kept free from weeds by hoeing, thus much increasing their yields.’ Next was the introduction of the four-course rotation of crops by Lord Townshend during 1730-38, which was further elaborated by Thomas Coke, the Earl of Leicester from 1778 onwards. As L. C. Pearson notes in his Principles of Agronomy (Reinhold, New York 1967, p.79): ‘As a result of this rotation, the average yield of wheat in England increased from 8 bushels per acre (in early 18th century) to 20 bushels per acre within a few decades prior to 1840, and it established England as the school of agriculture for the entire Western world.’ The other major advancement made in this ‘Era of Improvement’ was in connection with the selective breeding of cattle, initiated by Robert Bakewell (1725-95).

[3] Thos Halcott, On the Drill Husbandry of Southern India; the citation is from the reprint of Halcott’s account in Dharampal, Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteen Century, Delhi 1971, Reprint Hyderabad 1983, p.259-260.

[4] Reprinted in Dharampal, cited above, p.229-256.

[5] Cited from R.C. Dutt, Economic History of India, Vol. I, London 1901, Delhi Reprint 1970, p.191

[6] For instance, C. B. Clarke wrote in 1870: “I conclude my first [1868] paper on rice by saying that I did not think we had much to teach the Bengalis in rice-growing and this statement did not, I fear, conduce to the popularity of that paper.” (Quoted from J. Kenny, Intensive Farming in India, 2nd Ed., Higginbothams 1916, p.304-5).

[7] For more details of these efforts, see the chapter ‘Western Science in India up to the End of the Nineteenth Century’ in, D.M.Bose, S.N.Sen and B.V.Subbarayappa, A Concise History of Science in India ,New Delhi 1971, p.484-567.

[8] For more details, see A Concise History of Science in[ India, cited above.

[9] J. A. Voelcker, Report on Improvement of Indian Agriculture, Calcutta 1893; second edition, 1895; reprint Agricol, New Delhi 1986. All page references are to the 1986 reprint edition, hereafter abbreviated RIA.

[10] Incidentally, this was the period when the British and European agriculture started taking a more ‘modern’ and ‘scientific’ turn, symbolised by the employment of chemical fertilisers, newer mass-produced implements, etc., and the further shifting of the knowledge of agriculture from the peasantry to agricultural research institutes and colleges. As the Royal Commission on Agriculture in India declared in its report of 1928: ‘The dependence of agriculture on empirical methods was general even in Western countries until towards the middle of the nineteenth century, when the applications of Chemistry to soils in 1840 and the establishment of the Rothamsted Research Station in 1843 were rapidly followed by the opening of the first agricultural college in England at Cirencester in 1845.’ (Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture, Bombay 1928, Reprint Delhi 1983, p.15)

[11] Cited from M S Randhava, A Hisotry of Agriculture in India, Vol. III, Delhi 1983, p.178.

[12] In this context it should be noted that there was a significant increase in the incidence of famines in India in the second half of 19th century. While there were about 7 famines and 1.4 million victims, as per official estimates, in the period 1800-1850, these figures rose to about 24 and 20 million respectively, in the period 1850-1900. It is well-known that this rise in the number of famines was closely related to the great spurt in the export of foodgrains, from £0.9 million in 1849 to £7.9 million by 1877 to £19.3 million by 1914, made possible by the introduction of railways in the 1850’s and the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869.

[13] Cited from M S Randhava, A Hisotry of Agriculture in India, Vol. III, Delhi 1983, p.177-8.

[14] A. O.Hume, Agricultural Reform in India, London 1879, p. 4, 6.

[15] R.Wallace, India in 1887, Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh 1888 (hereafter abbreviated IEE).

[16] J.Mollisson, A Text-Book on Indian Agriculture, in 3 Vols., Bombay 1901 (hereafter abbreviated TIA).

[17] Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture in India, Bombay 1928, Reprint Delhi 1983, p.ii

[18] A.O.Hume, 1879, cited earlier, p. 4-5.

[19] Voelcker also notes: ‘It must not be forgotten, it is true that the wheat crop of England is generally a nine months’ crop, that of India only a five months’ crop.’ (RIA, p.41). In this connection, we may also note that in early 18th century wheat yield in England was around 8 bushels per acre. This rose to nearly 20 bushels per acre by the end of 18th century. Further increase in wheat yields occurred only after 1840.

[20] For details concerning the high yields achieved by the fertile Indian lands from ancient times till early nineteenth century and for the continuous and steep decline in productivity suffered during the British rule, see J.K.Bajaj and M.D.Srinivas, Annam Bahu Kurvita, Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai 1996, p.189-190, 200-201.

[21] A. O.Hume, Agricultural Reform in India, London 1879, p. 23.

[22] R.C.Dutt, The Economic History of India, Vol. II, London 1903; Reprint, Delhi 1970, p.123.

[23] These are published in the book W. Wilcocks, Lectures on the Ancient System of Irrigation in Bengal and its Application to Modern Problems, Calcutta University, Calcutta 1930.

[24] The largest perhaps was Sulekere, in the Shimoga District with a circumference of about 64 kilometres, which is said to have been built in the 11th century.

[25] cited from C. Hayavadana Rao, Mysore Gazetteer, Vol. III, Banglore1929, p.157

[26] cited from Census of India 1951, Vol. XIV Part I, p.6

[27] Thomson’s quotation and the following two quotations from Montgomery Martin and John Bright are cited from R.P.Dutt, India Today, London 1940; Reprint Calcutta 1972, p.213-4

[28] A.O.Hume, 1879, cited earlier, p.26.

[29] On the traditional understanding of the role of forests Voelcker notes : “I am reminded here of an old Sanskrit saying which describes the rainfall as being divided into twelve parts, and assigns them as follows. ‘Six for the sea, Four for the forest and mountains, and Two for the land.’” (RIA, p.31)

[30] A plantation of 1265 acres, established in 1865.

[31] A.O.Hume, cited earlier, p.5.

[32] According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (XIV Edition, Chicago 1959), ‘In 1886, Hellriegel and Wilforth determined that certain micro-organisms in combination with leguminous plants obtained nitrogen from the air.’

[33] Albert Howard, An Agricultural Testament, Oxford 1940, p.14-15

[34]John Kenny, Intensive Farming in India, 2nd Ed. Higginbothams 1916, p. iii.

[35]A.O.Hume, cited earlier, p.5.

[36] Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture, Bombay 1928, Reprint Delhi 1983, p.18.

[37] Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture, cited above, p.80.

[38] Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture, cited above, p.82-3.

[39] Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture, cited above, p.124.

[40] Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture, cited above, p.112.

[41] Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture, cited above, p.127.

[42] G.B.Jathar, and S.G.Beri, Indian Economics, 8th Edition, Vol. I, Oxford 1947, p.212-213.