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Changes in Agrarian structure : New land tenures and land revenue policy

Study Material > History

The new land systems (zamindari And roytwari ) made mobile land and the peasants, and left the way open for the growth in power of the moneylender and the absentee landlord.

̶  D. & A. Thorner


  • The British Imperial ruler of India unleashed far-reaching changes in Indian agrarian structure. New land tenure, and new land ownership concepts, tenancy changes and heavier state demand for land revenue triggered of far-reaching changes in rural economy and social relationships. The Government policies ushered in a new era of distorted modernisation.

Pre-British Agrarian Structure

  • Since the time, village communities in India functioned as units of local self Government and land revenue administeration. in the pre-capitalist stage of the Indian economy, the idea of absolute ownership of land did not exist. All classes connected with land possessed certain rights. The cultivator possessed the right to cultivate and enjoyed security of tenure on the condition of payment of more or less fixed share of produce of the Year to the overlord. The Patil or the village headman acted as mamlatdar or the collector (and magistrate and head farmer also) and passed on the state demand of land revenue (which varied from 1/6th to 1/3rd of the rental value) to the ruler or the Nawab. The internal village arrangement connected with cultivation, allotment of the same categories of land to certain categories of cultivators, provision of irrigation facilities, allocation and collection of land revenue from individual cultivators etc., were settled by the Patil in consultation with the village Panchayats according to local customs and practices.

British land revenue system and administration

  • The British conquerors of India Sought to derive the maximum economic advantage from their rule in India. British Industrial and mercantile interests (by advocating Free Trade principles) prevented the East India Company from raising any substantial revenue from high customs tariffs. The Company's government in India had, therefore, to rely on land revenue as the principal source of income for the state. As such land revenue matters received the maximum care of the new colonial rulers.
  • Early British administrators of the East India Company considered India as a vast estate and acted on the principle that the Company was entitled to the entire economic rent, leaving to the cultivators merely the expenses of cultivation and wages of their labour. Village communities wear disregarded. In almost all parts of the Company’s territories, the early administrators resorted to the ‘farming’ of land revenues. Excessive land revenue demands proved counter-productive. Agriculture began to languish, large areas went out of cultivation and famines stared the people in the face. This necessitated some serious thinking, both in India and England, about land revenue matters. Some policy decisions emerged from serious deliberations.

New Land Tenures

  • The words Land tenure are used to refer to the conditions on which land is held by the zamindars/cultivator from the state or the cultivator from the landlord. Broadly speaking, the English adopted three Types of land tenures in India viz., the Zamindari tenure the Mahalwari tenure and the Ryotwari tenure.

The permanent zamindari settlement

  • The zamindari system was a creation of the British rule and many non economic considerations entered into its acceptance. The system was known by different names like Jagirdari, Malgujari, Biswedari etc. Under the Permanent Settlement system the state’s land revenue demand was settled once for all while in other Zamindari tracts the land revenue was revised after a fixed number of years ranging from 10 to 40 years. Under the zamindari system, the zamindar was recognized as the owner who could mortgage, bequeath and sell the land. The state held the zamindar responsible for the payment of land revenue and in default there of the land could be confiscated and sold out. The State’s land revenue demand was fixed very high. In Bengal, for example, the State demand was fixed at 89% of the rental, leaving only 11% with the zamindar.
  • A snag in the Permanent Settlement of Bengal was that while the State’s land revenue demand was fixed, the rent to be realised by the landlord from the cultivator was left unsettled and unspecified. This resulted in rack-renting and frequent ejections of tenants from their traditional holdings. The Bengal Rent Acts of 1859 and 1885 provided some relief to the cultivators. Some Scholars believe that the much praised tenancy legislation was primarily enacted to keep the countryside quite.

Features of the Zamindari system

  • The main features of the zamindari Settlement were as follows:
    1. Zamindari System was introduced by Cornwallis in 1793 through Permanent Settlement Act.
    2. It was introduced in provinces of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Varanasi.
    3. Also known as Permanent Settlement System.
    4. The zamindar was recognised as the owners of land as long as they paid the revenue to the East India Company regularly.
    5. The amount of revenue that the zamindar had to pay to the Company was firmly fixed and would not be raised under any circumstances. In other words the Government of the East India Company got 89% leaving the rest to the zamindars.
      ⇒The realized amount would be divided into 11 parts. 1/11 of the share belongs to Zamindars and 10/11 of the share belongs to East India Company.
      ⇒ The ryots became tenants since they were considered the tillers of the soil.
      ⇒ This settlement took away the administrative and judicial functions of the zamindars.
  • The Permanent Settlement of Cornwallis was bitterly criticised on the point that it was adopted with ‘undue haste’. The flagrant defect of this arrangement was that no attempt was made ever either to survey the lands or to assess their value. The assessment was made roughly on the basis of accounts of previous collections and it was done in an irregular manner.

Effect of the system

  • The effects of this system both on the zamindars and ryots were disastrous. As the revenue fixed by the system was too high, many zamindars defaulted on payments. Their property was seized and distress sales were conducted leading to their ruin. The rich zamindars who led luxurious lives left their villages and migrated into towns. They entrusted their rent collection to agents who exacted all kinds of illegal taxes besides the legal ones from the ryots.
  • This had resulted in a great deal of misery amongst the peasants and farmers. Therefore Lord Cornwallis’ idea of building a system of benevolent land-lordism failed. Baden Powell remarks, “The zamindars as a class did nothing for the tenants”. Though initially the Company gained financially, in the long run the Company suffered financial loss because land productivity was high, income from it was meagre since it was a fixed sum. It should be noted that in pre- British period a share on the crop was fixed as land tax.
  • Nevertheless, this system proved to be a great boon to the zamindars and to the government of Bengal. It formed a regular income and stabilised the government of the Company. The zamindars prospered at the cost of the welfare of the tenants.

Ryotwari System

  • Ryotwari System was initially introduced by Shershah Suri. He had surveyed the entire land under cultivation of his territory and fixed per bigha due on the basis of average of three rates representing good, middle and low soils under continuous cultivation (Polaj) and temporary out of cultivation (Parauti). This average rate was called “Rai” and the cultivator was called Ryot. The Rai system was initially adopted by Akbar.
  • In the East India Company’s territories, the Ryotwari system was introduced by Thomas Munroe and Captain Reed first in Madras presidency. It was later extended to Bombay, Parts of Bengal, Assam, Coorg etc.
  • This system was exactly opposite to the Zamindari system. In this system, peasants were given the ownership and proprietorship and they would make direct payment to state as 55% of produce. But the system was such that whatever government calculated was faulty and exploitive. Thus, excessive rate of revenue made the agriculture unprofitable.  Then, the ways of collecting revenue were so harsh and rigid that the peasants would like to handover their ryots to some money lenders. It is not that uniformly all the tillers were recognized as proprietors.

Assessment of Ryotwari System

  • Ryotwari system of land tenure was introduced early in the nineteenth century in Presidencies of Bombay and Madras. Under this system the settlement was made by the government directly with the cultivator (ryot) who thus was the proprietor, but only for a period of time. This time was fixed for thirty years after which it was subject to re-assessment and re-settlement on new terms. The government share was fixed at 55% of the produce, which was highest ever share. Though the cultivator got security of tenure but was subject to a very heavy duty, thus leaving no motivation for cultivation.

Features of Ryotwari System

  • Ryotwari System was introduced by Thomas Munro in 1820.
  • Major areas of introduction include Madras, Bombay, and parts of Assam and Coorg provinces of British India.
  • In Ryotwari System the ownership rights were handed over to the peasants. British Government collected taxes directly from the peasants.
  • There was no intermediary like a Zamindar between the peasant and the government. So long as he paid the revenue in time, the peasant was not evicted from the land. Besides, the land revenue was fixed for a period from 20 to 40 years at a time.
  • The revenue rates of Ryotwari System were 50% where the lands were dry and 60% in irrigated land.
  • Every peasant was held personally responsible for direct payment of land revenue to the government.
  • However, in the end, this system also failed. Under this settlement it was certainly not possible to collect revenue in a systematic manner. The revenue officials indulged in harsh measures for non payment or delayed payment.

Impact of Ryotwari system

  • Even while the position of cultivator became more secure, but the rigid system of revenue collection forced ryots into the hands of moneylender.
  • Since the government itself became a big zamindar, it had right to enhance revenue at will. The cultivator was left at the mercy of the collecting officers.

Mahalwari System

  • TheMahalwari was a revenue collection system that was introduced by Holt Mackenzie in British India
  • Mahalwari system was introduced in 1833 during the period of William Bentinck.
  • It was introduced in Central Province, North-West Frontier, Agra, Punjab, Gangetic Valley, etc of British India.
  • The Mahalwari system had many provisions of both the Zamindari System and Ryotwari System.
  • In this system, the land was divided into Mahals. Each Mahal comprises one or more villages.
  • Ownership rights were vested with the peasants.
  • The villages committee was held responsible for collection of the taxes.
  • Impact of Mahalwari System:
  • Since the government revised the revenue periodically, the peasants had not much benefit of elimination of middlemen between the government and the village.
  • This brought about some improvement in irrigation facilities, though major benefits of the system were largely enjoyed by the government.

Impact of Land Tenure System

  • These land settlements introduced a market economy and removed customary rights. With cash payments of revenue, there was increased money-lending activity.
  • The Land tenure system sharpened social differentiation. While rich had access to the courts to defend their properties, the poor didn’t have any resources.
  • The peasants were forced to grow commercial crops which led them to buy food grains at higher prices and sell the cash crops at low prices.
  • The land revenue system of British in India shook the stability of Indian villages where majority of the people depended on agriculture and related activities. They became miserable if crop failed in any given year.

Disintegration of Village Economy

  • The overall impact of the East India company's revenue systems and excessive state demand coupled with the new judicial and administrative setup turned Indian ruler economy upside down with the village Panchayats deprived of their two main functions- land settlements, judicial and executive functions- the old politico-economic social framework of village communities broke down. The introduction of the concept of private property in land turned land into a market commodity. Changes came in social relationships. New social classes like the landlord, the trader, the money lender, and the landed gentry shot into importance. The class of ruler proletariat, the poor peasant proprietor, the subtenant, and the agricultural labour multiplied in number. The climate of cooperation gradually gave place to the system of competition and individualism. The prerequisites of the capitalist development of agriculture were created. Further, new modes of production, introduction of money economy, commercialization of agriculture, better means of transport and linkage with the world market added a new dimension to Indian agriculture and rural economy.

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