Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Counting the great Indian agricultural mosaic

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There is not a ‘bigha‘ of Bharat that has not been cultivated, used as orchard, or as pasture, or at one time or another over the centuries, times tumultuous or peaceable, belonged in part or wholly to a nearby ‘agrahara‘. The measurement of our land is a science that is as ancient as are the sciences of tending to and cultivating the land, and what today we reckon in hectares and acres (not ours these measures, but left behind and used through administrative inertia) were counted, re-counted, assessed and taxed as being a certain number of guntha, bigha, biswa, kanal, marla, sarsaai or shatak. In these wondrously named parcels of land – bunded and their perimeters shaded, so that the kisans of old could sit under a leafy canopy and enjoy a mid-day meal and a short snooze – grew our foodgrain.

There are 138.35 million operational holdings in India. (Uttar Pradesh has 23.33 million, Bihar 16.19 million, Maharashtra 13.70 million, Andhra Pradesh 13.18 million.) The small and marginal holdings taken together (below 2 hectares) constitute 85.01% of all holdings. This treemap represents the number of holdings, relative in size to each other, in each category of land holding area.

There are 138.35 million operational holdings in India. (Uttar Pradesh has 23.33 million, Bihar 16.19 million, Maharashtra 13.70 million, Andhra Pradesh 13.18 million.) The small and marginal holdings taken together (below 2 hectares) constitute 85.01% of all holdings. This treemap represents the number of holdings, relative in size to each other, in each category of land holding area.

Whether Gupta or Vijaynagar, Hoysala or Kakatiya, Mughal or British colonial, these fields every so often received visitors, at times unwelcome but usually businesslike, for the Bharat of old and of medieval times alike was profoundly productive, and these officials had much ground to cover. In later eras they were known as tehsildar, naib tehsildar, kanungo and patwari and they prepared records such as the ‘shajra nasab‘ (always with the help of a typically tattered ‘jamabandi‘), followed by the ‘khatauni‘ – a laborious task that required the patwari to measure each ‘khasra‘ and appropriately mark it with pencil (a rough marking, to be inked only after final tallying) on the ‘mussavi‘. And to be administratively infallible, for land revenue and land settlement is the most serious of a government’s business, the kanungo re-measured the land and added his observation to the ‘mussavi‘.

And so it went, from one panchayat to the next, from one circle to another, from one tehsil (or mandal or taluka) to the next, passing under the tired eyes and across the cluttered desks of assistant settlement officer (where is the inspection diary, these officers would ask), then to the assistant collector (grades II and I) and then to the spacious chambers (supplied with punkahs and water coolers) of the district collector.

The total cultivated area is 159.59 million hectares, the average size of an operational holding has declined to 1.15 hectare in 2010-11 as compared with 1.23 hectare in 2005-06. (Rajasthan has 21.14 million hectare, Maharashtra has 19.77 million, Uttar Pradesh 17.62 million, Madhya Pradesh 15.84 million.). This treemap represents the cultivated agricultural area, relative in size to each other, in each category of land holding.

The total cultivated area is 159.59 million hectares, the average size of an operational holding has declined to 1.15 hectare in 2010-11 as compared with 1.23 hectare in 2005-06. (Rajasthan has 21.14 million hectare, Maharashtra has 19.77 million, Uttar Pradesh 17.62 million, Madhya Pradesh 15.84 million.). This treemap represents the cultivated agricultural area, relative in size to each other, in each category of land holding.

It was so then, in the time of my grand-parents (two sets, at opposite ends of British India), and it was so in the time of their great grand-parents. During my lifetime it has come to be called – this detailed measuring of our land with a benign view to assessing fairly – the agricultural census, and it is the most recent one, 2010-11, which gives us many points to ponder, but is somewhat lacking when it comes to the labyrinthine histories of the administering of what for so many centuries has been measured and recorded.

Nonetheless the Agricultural Census of India 2010-11 serves us with a commentary that is contemporaneous and informative, for its primary fieldwork consisted of “retabulating the operational holding-wise information contained in the basic village records” which “would be done by the village accountant”, a gentleman (usually, for accounting has not experienced the gender equalising which panchayats have) known in different states by different names – he is the patwari but he is also the lekhapal, the talathi or the karnam. His work (always in progress, just as the seasons are) is supervised by the revenue inspectors.

These worthies (not as dour, I can assure you, as their title suggests, for they are just as often cultivators themselves, or veterinarians, and even ayurvedic practitioners) contribute to the most important part of our agricultural census, and that is the preparation of the list of operational holdings. It is a task far too wide and vast and complex for any revenue inspector, however dedicated and well disposed towards both the physical and mathematical aspects of it, for this officer must examine all the survey numbers in the basic village record, the ‘khasra register’ (or any other equivalent local record), classify the survey numbers held by operational land holders, often cross-reference this tentative list with other village records (like the ‘khatauni‘) which names the cultivators. Many consultations ensue, a few arguments, and a considerable amount of cross-confirmation in dusty stacks and mouldy cupboards.

This is the historical milieu to which our agricultural census belongs. We should savour it, for it is a unique undertaking, just as much as each of our thousands of varieties of rice (‘dhanyam‘ it was in the time of the ‘agraharas‘ and it is so today too) – the careful and ritual counting of the great Indian agricultural mosaic.

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