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Indian Villages

Gilbert Etienne

Part 1 – Before the Green Revolution

Chapter 1 – From the British to Independent India

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1A major defect of British rule was the growing imbalance between population and resources. The former grew from 150-200 million at the end of the eighteenth century to 420 million in 1947 (Pakistan included). Until 1921 India was primarily exporting cereals. From that year on imports began, and would eventually reach 3 million t in 1950, versus 54 million t of food grains output. Imports further rose to 5 million t in 1951 due to a very severe drought, consequently avoiding casualties as had been the case during famines in the nineteenth century and during the severe Bengal famine in 1943.

2In spite of totally insufficient efforts to promote agriculture, the British created wide networks of irrigation canals in the Indus and Upper Ganges Basins, as well as in the Southeastern deltas in the latter part of the nineteenth century and in the beginning of the twentieth century. In those areas, production and double cropping increased along with a growing amount of agricultural commodities entering market centres and cities, the latter being facilitated by the construction of the main roads. Landowners, of course, benefited from these developments, but small farmers and landless agricultural workers also improved their living conditions. In the 1930’s, Nehru was surprised by the differences in poverty between Punjab and Eastern UP, which was amply confirmed by the following data:

Table 1: Daily Agricultural Wages in Annas (16 annas = 1 rupee)


Punjab irrigated

Western UP irrigated

Eastern UP irrigated









Source: Raj, K.N. et al., eds.. 1983, p. 142.

3Such trends confirm what happened in Asia, as well as in parts of Europe, wherever rainfed crops were replaced by irrigated ones. In the Archives of Catalonia (Spain) one reads, “Water makes you free, water makes you rich” (1243), a comment more true nowadays than ever before.

4The British introduced jute in Bengal, tea in Assam and the Nilgiris, and coffee and rubber in Kerala. They also encouraged the expansion of cotton and sugarcane in other provinces. While well-received, these changes remained far behind population growth in the country. In wide rainfed tracts, crop yields were more or less stagnant. Land holdings became fragmented and the number of landless peasants increased. The percentage of cultivators and casual agricultural workers grew from 62% of the working population in 1881 to 71% in 1951 (Census). Acute misery was prevalent in a number of villages, and many people owned only the shabby dresses they were wearing. In some cases, only one member of the family could go out of their hut, for lack of clothes for all the family members, as had been observed by Mahatma Gandhi’s wife in Bihar in the 1920s.

5The per capita availability of food declined between 1891 and 1947. “Even the population growth rate of 0.67% was higher than the increase in food grain output” (Dantwala 1973, 24). The rate of urbanization, in spite of growing, was still very low in 1951 at 16%. At the time, India figured as the tenth largest industrial power in the world (in absolute figures) and important industrial, trading and banking centres were created by both British and Indians. However, such trends were much too limited to absorb a large number of peasants as had happened, by contrast, in the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

6A major change did, however, occur. During Mughal days, the vast plains stretching from Benares to Bengal, not too heavily populated at the time, were feeding the imperial cities of Agra, Delhi and Lahore, mostly through transport along the Ganges. They were also exporting rice and cotton textiles to Southeast Asia, sugar to the Middle East, and textiles of various types to Europe.

7As for Punjab and present day Western UP, they were quite poor with limited irrigation, only a few wells, and rainfall that was much lower than in the Eastern plains. A major shift took place from the latter part of the nineteenth century onwards: thanks to the irrigation canals, Punjab and Western UP became the granaries of India.

8Rural infrastructure was hardly developed at the all India level. Out of 565,000 villages, only 5,000–10,000 were electrified. While the British built a substantial network of railways and highways, most villages remained isolated with poor tracks that were often cut off during the monsoon. Motor vehicles were hardly visible and most local transport depended on bullock carts. Like trade, money was limited in villages.

9Caste factors are important in the overall assessment. Usually you would have a dominant caste in a village or an area. This is often the largest community, if not the majority, and often owns a sizeable part of the land. Members of the dominant caste play an important role in the local affairs (M. N. Srinivas 1976). When the dominant caste was agriculture oriented by tradition – like the Jats, Patidars, Kammas – the tillage and care of land was much more prominent than under castes such as the Rajputs or Thakurs; Bhumihars; and certain sub-castes of Brahmins. This did not escape the attention of British officers. In 1920, the famous Sir Malcolm Darling, who was posted in Punjab, mentioned the major differences between a Jat and a Rajput village (Darling 1947, 31).

10An important innovation introduced by the British, inspired by the Chinese model, was the creation of the ICS (Indian Civil Service) in 1858. The recruitment of senior officers was carried out through competitive examination. ICS officers (numbering 800-1200) were the heads of districts and led both provincial and central administrations. The system was de jure open to both British and Indians since its inception, although de facto the purpose of colonial administration meant retaining institutional barriers for Indian aspirants, until reforms in the early twentieth century. At the time of independence in 1947, the Indian recruits were the de facto majority (Knight 2012; Mansingh 2010). They became a big asset for the Indian and Pakistani governments.

11Land tenure was often under the Zamindari system (particularly in the North) or under the Ryotwari system. In the former, big or fairly big cultivators were made owners of the land. In the Zamindari system, occupancy tenants were cultivating a large part of the land, and could retain occupancy by paying rent to the zamindars (landlord). The zamindar kept part of the rent and gave the rest, as land revenue, to the state. Both rent and revenue were fixed by the State. Under the Ryotwari system, the farmers were owners of the land and paid the land revenue directly to the State.

12During famines, in several cases, the British organized public works to help peasants earn some living, a system still practiced after independence. The British introduced, on a limited basis, rural credit cooperatives in 1904. Some research institutes were created to improve crops, as one could observe in the Northwest for wheat and sugar cane.

After Independence, 1951 to 1966

13The tasks of the new State were particularly heavy and complex. One had to make up for lost time during the Raj and promote a more dynamic form of agriculture and to curb poverty while promoting economic growth. The new rulers fully understood such issues. We read in the first Five Year Plan (FYP 1951-56) that: “Agriculture, including irrigation and power, must have the top priority.” (49).

14Several major irrigation projects were started. It was impressive, in 1953, to visit the site of the Bhakra dam project in Punjab for power and irrigation. Most of the work was organized and implemented by Indian engineers (there were only a few foreign consultants) who were using all means available, from bulldozers to files of women with baskets of sand on their heads. Minor irrigation was no less developed: open wells and TWs (tube wells) were being used, with the latter being encouraged by rural electrification since electric engines of TWs are cheaper than diesel ones. All-weather roads began to take villages out of isolation, although motor vehicles remained rare. Agricultural extension services (see below) started promoting better tillage techniques, including the introduction of chemical fertilizers, as well as education and health.

15Between 1951 and the 1960s, the net cultivated surface area rose from 120 million ha to 140 million ha, but part of the additional land was rather marginal in peninsular India. Since then, there has hardly been any new land to reclaim because there is no more extra land fit for agriculture. As for the net (topographical) irrigated surface area, it increased from 21 million ha in 1951 to 27 million ha in 1964/65. When including double cropping on the same soil in the year, the gross area rose from 22.6 million ha to 31 million ha.

16Institutional changes implemented by the central or state governments accompanied such investments. The Zamindari system was abolished. The tenants became, in most cases, full owners of the land they were cultivating. They were also freed from various obligations to the zamindar, such as begar or forced labour for some days, or fees on special occasions. The zamindars were allowed to keep the land that they were, themselves, cultivating. In many cases, this could be around 10–20 ha. Later on, several states passed a ceiling law for landowners in order to recover land for landless peasants (6.3 irrigated hectares in UP). These laws, however, were poorly implemented. It was already very obvious that there was not enough land to accommodate all marginal cultivators and the landless, as would be observed in the field. The alternative to such inequality would have been collectivization of the land as was done in China, a solution unthinkable in India where state legislative assemblies were dominated by middle and upper class farmers at that time. A law to improve the conditions of the tenants was also not successful.

17In 1952, following a pilot project in Etawah (UP) started in 1948 with the very able support of an American, Albert Mayer, the whole of India was gradually covered by Community Projects through Development Blocks (sub-districts). A BDO (Block Development Officer), assisted by village level workers (VLW), was charged with promoting self-help at the village level, with new inputs in agriculture, education, health and village sanitation. The Block worked closely with the growing number of cooperative societies for the purpose of giving loans to farmers.

18After this came the Panchayati Raj, instituted in order to strengthen village level administration. The idea first came from Lord Ripon, Viceroy in 1882, when he introduced the principle of self-government. Until then there had existed – as do now – caste panchayats dealing with the caste members’ problems. Experiences of village panchayats with limited suffrage were introduced before 1939. The idea came up again during the preparation of the Indian Constitution. One of the main authors, Dr. Ambedkar, a Mahar (an upper Dalit caste of Maharashtra) and one of the first educated Dalits, was against it because he was well aware that such village councils would unavoidably strengthen the influence and power of the dominant castes. He succeeded in reducing the role of such panchayats in the Constitution, though they were greatly favoured by Mahatma Gandhi.

19The idea of strengthening the panchayats came up again in 1957 with the Mehta Report – named after the president of the study team on Community Projects. A three-tier system was conceived and implemented: the gram (village) panchayat, an elected body at the village level; the Block Samiti, with the presidents of gram panchayats, at the Block level; and the Zila Parishad at the district level.

20The new institutions were, at least, partly disappointing. Community projects tended to focus too much on social goals, including latrines which were dear to Mahatma Gandhi, instead of giving top priority to agriculture. Panchayati Raj yielded very limited results, especially in Northern India. Cooperative credit considerably increased, but was hampered by leakage and corruption. On principle, loans were devoted to agriculture, while there were also loans which financed marriages.

21When travelling through India in the 1950s, one observed only a limited opening up of the rural world. Most modern inputs like chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation pumps were only just beginning to be used. Tractors were exceedingly rare. Bullock carts were dominant even on most National Highways. Extreme poverty and caste differences were widespread in many villages in the plains or in the Deccan. As for the Adivasis, (aboriginal castes) they were just simply forgotten.

22There were exceptions to these trends. Punjab (which included the future state of Haryana) was forging ahead under the strong and efficient leadership of Pratap Singh Kairon, Chief Minister from 1952 to 1964. He had been trained in American universities before the war, and after his return he became a militant nationalist. One could see how agriculture was progressing during his leadership. The Sikhs who had left the Pakistani part of Punjab were often resettled on land left behind by Muslims who went to Pakistan. Mostly Sikh Jats displayed their resilience while being actively supported by the Chief Minister’s policies: land consolidation, agricultural research in the new university of Ludhiana, the setting up of rural roads, electricity, cooperative credit and irrigation. One must, however, add that he was very corrupt and had to resign in 1964. He was assassinated the next year.

23In the Ganges Basin, agricultural changes were still at the very initial stage. In the rich Southern deltas, as in Thanjavur, the level of agriculture was already quite high with paddy yield at around 2,000 kg/ha or a bit more, versus 1,000 to 1,500 kg/ha in many rainfed areas. In peninsular India, cities and industries in Maharashtra and Gujrat could attract migrants from villages, thus reducing poverty, whereas in more isolated parts of the peninsula these limited safety valves were lacking.

24After the success of the first FYP – though priorities changed in favour of heavy industry in the next plan, particularly in favour of the public sector – further progress was recorded in agriculture and rural infrastructure until the mid 1960s. By that time, agricultural growth was levelling off while the population was rising faster, at a rate higher than 2% per year versus 1.3% in the 1951 census.

25Since there was no more new land to cultivate after the increases made between 1950 and 1960, rising yields, which required massive technical innovations, had become crucial. Similar currents did appear, at the same time, in Pakistan, as well as in future Bangladesh, in Indonesia and China. In 1965 and 1966 the country faced two consecutive and terrible droughts. India was saved from what could have been a devastating famine due to the supply of US grain and the ability of the administration to distribute it. A few years before, China was hit by an extremely terrible famine, with about 40 million casualties, largely due to the absurdity of the Great Leap Forward (1958–61), while imports of cereals kept on rising Indonesia and Pakistan.

26It had become quite clear in India and in other Asian countries that major efforts were needed to boost further agriculture. Political leaders, senior civil servants, agronomists and research institutes were increasingly conscious of the key role of technical factors.

27These situations fitted well with the book, recently published at the time, by Theodore Schultz, future Nobel Prize winner in economics, titled Transforming Traditional Agriculture (1964). The book relied mostly on field studies carried out by the professor’s students, in particular David Hopper who lived and studied in a village in Benares district for 18 months. The main points of the study are as follows:
1. Traditional techniques follow rational practices within the technical know-how of the peasant.
2. Any technical system finally reaches its limits and, consequently, technical innovations are needed to proceed further.
3. The bulk of technical innovations can be adopted by illiterate farmers.


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