Some 20 years ago during my search of material on pre-British India I had come across substantial and specific material relating to various aspects of the then Indian technology and economy, including Indian agriculture. Following that early search I, along with some friends, have in the last few years been looking at the records of a survey of about 2000 localities in the district of Chingleput adjoining Madras City in Tamil Nadu. The survey was carried out around 1770 by a British engineer, Thomas Barnard, on the instructions of his superiors. Barnard collected detailed data about the area soon after these localities around Madras came under direct British control. We are still processing the data of this seven year survey. But a quick analysis of the agricultural produce from about 800 villages gives results that seem striking in the context of Indian agriculture as we know it for the last 50 - 100 years.

The records of production that we are dealing with relate to five years, 1762-66. From our analysis the average productivity of the area over these five years turns out to be about 36 quintals per hectare of paddy and about 16 quintals per hectare of dry grains. These averages are for an area extending to about 34,000 hectares of irrigated paddy and about 14,000 hectares of unirrigated grains. The total production from the area amounts to an average of 12 lakh quintals of paddy and about 2 lakh quintals of coarse grains per year. The total number of households of both cultivators and non-cultivators in this area is around 26,000. This means that the annual productivity of food grains-per household was in the range of 57 quintals.

Out of the 800 villages we are considering here, there are 130 villages where irrigated lands show average yields of more than 50 quintals per hectare. Among these 130, there are many that produce more than 100 quintals of paddy per hectare of cultivated land. Thus the village Kalakattur produces about 1,500 tons of paddy on 120 hectares of irrigated cultivation, Chinnumbedu produces about 4,700 tons on 435 hectares of irrigated land, Karasangal 885 tons on 83 hectares and Somangalam, 750 tons on 73 I hectares. Villages with smaller amounts of irrigated land having this level of productivity are many more. These 130 villages of relatively high productivity at our present computation produce about half of the total food grains of the area on about one-fifth of the irrigated cultivation. Average productivity of these 130 villages with about 7000 hectares of cultivated paddy land turns out to be as high as 82 quintals per hectare. Incidentally, about half the production of these 130 villages comes from just 18 villages that have cultivated paddy lands of more than a hundred hectares each.

Average productivity of about 36 quintals per hectare of paddy over a large area covering 800 villages and average productivity of 82 quintals per hectare from the relatively more productive lands, seems rather high. Incidentally, the land of Chingleput is of no more than moderate fertility in the Indian context and is not comparable to the fertile lands of Thanjavur district, or of the Godavari area. Other accounts of pre-British Indian agriculture have reported equally high figures for the productivity of cultivated lands in various parts of India. The Ain-i-Akbari records wheat productivity from middling lands which compares well with the highest productivity obtained in post-Green Revolution Indian agriculture. The Cambridge Economic History of India on the basis of the inscriptional records of the Chola period (10th - 13th century f AD) estimates that average produce from lands of various kinds in South Arcot district of Tamil Nadu may have been around 33 quintals per hectare, and some of the best lands in the relatively infertile Ramnad district may even have been producing 66 quintals per hectare of paddy. For early nineteenth century Allahabad an observer reports productivity of about 40 quintals of wheat per hectare. Francis Buchanan travelling in southern as well as eastern India around 1800 estimates rice productivity of about 35 quintals per hectare from Coimbatore, and somewhat lower productivity for wheat from the Patna-Gaya area. John Hodgson, a senior member of the Madras Presidency Board of Revenue, in 1807 estimated productivity of almost 60 quintals of paddy, per hectare for the relatively better lands in Coimbatore. An early discussion on Indian agricultural productivity (about 3 times to that in England) was published in the Edinburgh Review around 1804. The Edinburgh Review also then commented that the wages of the Indian agricultural productivity were also much more than his contemporary British counterpart.

The productivity figures we have obtained for the 800 villages of Chingleput confirm the earlier estimates of high productivity obtained in regions of India. Further, the Chingleput data relates to a much more extensive area and cannot possibly be treated as a 'statistical accident, or as the exaggerated impression of an isolated observer.

How does one explain the spectacular yields obtained by the Indian farmer? The explanation usually offered is that since the pressure of population on land was rather low, only the most fertile lands were brought under cultivation. This may be partly true. But this fact must have been equally applicable all over the world. Yet most observers seem to agree that yields obtained in India in the late eighteenth and earlier nineteenth century seem higher than the yields obtained in England in the last decades of the nineteenth century, after the discovery of the role of nitrogen in plant growth, and consequent agricultural revolution. The English farmers after about 1840 had started to use heavy doses of fertilizers, initially potash from mines of Germany, basic slag from the fast growing British steel works, and during 1840-1860 even importing millions of tons of guano (bird droppings) from distant Peru, in South America, where heaps of guano had accumulated over centuries. This fertilization was subsequently followed by artificial fertilizers.

The high yields of the Indian peasants therefore could not have been the result of merely the fortuitous fertility of the lands they chose to cultivate. The details of the technology that made this productivity possible need to be studied carefully. Many 18th century western observers have often referred to the sophistication of the then Indian agricultural technology. The aspects which have been specially noted are the variety of seeds available to the Indian peasant, the sophistication and simplicity of his tools, and the extreme care and labour he expended in tending to his fields and crops.

According to recent historical findings, 41 different crops were being cultivated annually in the localities of the province of Agra. The number of crops cultivated in other areas of northern India was equally large. For the south of India, Alexander Walker (he was in Malabar and Gujarat from 1780-1810) notes that in Malabar alone upward of fifty kinds of rice were cultivated. This variety of seeds and crops that the Indian peasant possessed and his ability to vary these according to the needs of the soil and the season, seems to set him apart from most other peasants or cultivators of the world whose knowledge was limited to far fewer crops.

Alexander Walker also notes the variety of agricultural implements that the Indian peasants employed. According, to him they had different kinds of plough, both Drill and common, adapted to different sorts of seed, and soil'. The observation of a drill plough working in the fields of southern India in 1795 in fact came as a shock to Captain Thomas Halcott who had imagined this type of plough to be then a recent European invention. He was so impressed by these and felt that they were far superior to the drills then in use in England that he sent these various drills, etc, to the semi-official Board of Agriculture in London.

The care that' the Indian peasant bestowed upon his crops is legendary. Alexander Walker passing through Gujarat was struck by the neatness of the fields there and remarked that, "The whole world does not produce finer and more beautifully cultivated fields J than those in Guzerat." Referring to the careful habits of the Indian farmers he remarked that, "I have seen from Cape Comorin to the Gulf of Kutch details of the most laborious cultivation, of the collection of manure, of grains sown for fodder, of grains sown promiscuously for the same purpose, of an attention to the change of seed, of, fallows and rotation of crops."

It is perhaps this careful attention to every aspect of his fields and crops that provided the Indian peasant access to technologies that made such high productivity possible. It must have been such attention and care that helped the Malabar peasant discover the technology of rice propagation by cutting as noted down by Alexander Walker. However a major component of these technologies was perhaps the way the land in each area was utilized. In the area of the 800 villages of Chengalput that we have talked about an area equal to the total cultivated area was under water. The total cultivated area in these villages is about 54, 000 hectares. The area covered under various source of irrigation amounted to 26, 000 hectares. Another 18,000 hectares was under forest. This high proportion of greenery and water perhaps creates conditions where highly productivity becomes more easily possible.

Increasing the productivity Indian Agriculture is one of the major problems we have been trying to tackle since 1947. For this purpose we have extensively borrowed technologies from elsewhere. In a situation where we have been habitually and mechanically looking outwards for all new ideas in every sphere of life nothing different could perhaps have been expected in the field of agriculture. But the technologies we have imported do not seem to be capable of solving the food problem of India. It is widely said that these technologies are proving ruinous for our land. It seems that we are actually consuming the fertility of our land in order to obtain productivity of the order of 5-6 tons a year on some of the best lands in India. Such technologies may have been appropriate for countries like the USA or the USSR or Australia, South Africa, etc. that have vast uninhabited tracts of land which could be consumed for immediate production and then left to nature to recuperate. But thought needs to be given to whether such practices and technologies are; right for India. India is a compact, geographical entity. All of her areas are densely populated. We cannot possibly afford to follow technologies that run our cultivable land in thirty, forty or even in a hundred years.

Now that we are relatively more experienced about modern science, technology, and Western institutions, and also have time to reflect and do serious thinking, which perhaps we did not have in the 1950's, we need to seriously look at the way Indian peasants of about two hundred years ago managed to produce upto ten tons on a hectare of land without following the ruinous practices of today. We have so far introduced modem practices mostly in the irrigated areas of the country. The rainfed agriculture of India is still relatively untouched. Before we decide to devise newer policies for rainfed agriculture it is imperative to understand the Indian ways of practicing relatively high productivity agriculture in rainfed lands.

It may be said that the best of the Indian practices shall prove inadequate to feed the large population of today. And that following the modern practices is an absolute necessity if we are to continue supporting the present day population.

If this is true, and the truth of it has to be seriously investigated, then we shall have to think out several short-term and long-term strategies, not only in the mix of practices, technologies, which give us the agricultural production that we require and which the soil of India can continue to produce without doing irreversible damage to itself, but also as regards the future of population growth in India. Despite the great popular Indian resurgence of the late 19th and the first half of the present century little worthwhile thought has yet been given to such questions. Far too long India has been directed and planned by people whose contact with the Indian reality has been minimal and who have so far largely functioned on such residual knowledge and methodology which we inherited from 150 years of British dominance, and that which we have since been allowed to borrow from Europe and the USA. The time should have now arrived when, before we borrow any specific knowledge, technology etc. from other lands, we shall first locate and harness our own intellectual and spiritual resources to provide us the basis for the more desirable future. If such effort implies that conscious steps have to be taken, say over two generations, to see that we arrive at a more or less stable population or even a reduced population of say about 50 crores by the year 2050 A.D. such effort shall have to be made on the foundations of our own spiritual and intellectual strength.

What I am suggesting above is not because of any civilization revulsion to learning from the rest of the world. All knowledge in the world is in a way a mix of the indigenous and the alien. Transfer of technology has been going on in the world, at varied paces, from the beginning of history. Much of what the West has structured in the past 600-700 years is to a substantial extent based on such transfer. The British even borrowed quite a few things, in fields as apart as the manufacture of high grade steel and the practice of plastic surgery, from late 18th century India. But it is only such borrowings, which after the transfer can get transplanted and strike root, that have led to growth. In all such cases, the new knowledge was married to the need with dissemination and if it worked it was allowed to modify itself according to the priorities and preferences of the borrower. In India most borrowing in the past 200 years, so far, has largely been a blind and indiscriminate imitation.

If we are seriously concerned with natural resource management for a sustainable Indian agriculture we shall have to reverse the ongoing process and begin to learn from our own people and our environment, and take only that from the outside world which we feel we shall be able to digest and internalize.

Production & Productivity in 800 Villages of Chingleput, 1762-65.

Total Sample
Villages with
paddy Productivity
> 50
Villages with
Prod. >
50 quintals/hect.
and paddy cultivation
> 100 hectares.
Number of villages 800 130 18
Total Households
25,620 6,698 2,455
Total Land (hectares) 1,51,821 26,424 9,415
Land under Forest
15,800 2,201, 398
Land under Irrigation
sources (hectares)
23,392 4,967 1,798
Irrigated Cultivation
'34,136 7,203 3,745
Dry Cultivation
13,857 2,364 1,006
Production of paddy
(Average of 5 years 1762-65
in quintals)
l2,34,329 5,91,107 3,26,114
Production of Dry Grains
(Avg. of 5 years 1762-65
in quintals)
2,17,890 71,975 22,429
Productivity of paddy (q/h) 36.16 82.06 87.08
Productivity of Dry
Grains (q/h) t
15.72 25.13 22.30
Mean Productivity of
the Area (q/h)
30.26 65.87 73.36
Production per household
56.68 99.00 141.97


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