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Sons of the Indian soil, 1941

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The Gavara ryot of Madras (left) and the Kunbi cultivator of Gujarat (right)

The Gavara ryot of Madras (left) and the Kunbi cultivator of Gujarat (right)

To present the cultivator as a person and not as an economic unit. This was the object of a delightful and, in its own way, philosophical volume on the Indian cultivator, published more than threescore and ten years ago in 1941.

‘Sons Of The Soil, Studies Of The Indian Cultivator’ was edited by W J Burns, at the time an Agricultural Commissioner with the Government of India, and the book was printed at the Government Of India Press (at 8 Hastings Street, Calcutta).

The Gavara ryot of Madras, by B Ramaiah Garu – Age-long experience has taught him to adjust the details of his operations in such a way that he and the other members of his family are kept engaged throughout the year and employ as little outside labour as possible. He looks after his cattle well and often makes money by purchasing young calves or buffaloes, rearing them and selling them after working them in his own fields for a season or two.
The Kunbi cultivator of Gujarat, By B S Patel – He is fairly hardy and is inured to the toil and hardship associated with farming. He is sober, quiet, industrious, enterprising and frugal, except on special occasions such as marriage and death ceremonies, when he spends rather beyond his means, vying with his richer brethren. He is very  hospitable, frank by nature, simple in his habits and is a good husband and father. His dress consists of a piece of white cloth wrapped round his head by way of turban, a bandi (a coat up to the waist) and a dhoti covering his legs.

I have here very cursorily extracted the text from six of the 25 captivating sketches of these sons of the soil (the regions included four that were in British India but are not in the Republic of India). These sketches, the treatment by their authors of the cultivator as a many-sided personality, shaped by his region and culture, are of a quality that has scarcely in my view been matched in recent years.

The Lingayat ryot of the Karnatak (left) and the Bengal cultivator (right).

The Lingayat ryot of the Karnatak (left) and the Bengal cultivator (right).

The Lingayat ryot of the Karnatak, by Rao Bahadur S S Salimath – His diet is very simple. It consists mainly of jowar bread, nucchu (broken and boiled jowar grain), boiled pulses, & small quantity of any vegetable that may be available and some rice if he can afford it. His holiday dish is either Imggi (whole wheat grain boiled with some gur) or malidi (boiled wheat dried, pounded and mixed with some gur). The latter is preferred for journeys and in camps.
The Bengal cultivator, By K McLean – The cultivator has a long day. Dawn finds the cultivator up and about on the way to the field. His breakfast, consisting of reheated boiled rice, is brought to him in the field and he carries on till midday when he returns to the homestead for the big meal of the day. This consists of rice and curry which may be made of vegetables only or include fish according to the season.

The many volumes of the last score of years that describe the growing of food and the lives of the growers of food usually fall into two categories – the first of the political economy and agrarian relations kind, which are loaded with sociological cant and dense with agro-economic punditry, or they are the ‘market’ kind and erase to a featureless nothingness the cultivating household in favour of advocating various solutions to the problems of yield, or credit, of cooperation or of finding ways to get produce to market.

Both approaches have for the most part lost sight of the cultivator, his habits, his dislikes, his preferred repasts, his entertainment and his eccentricities.

The Kurmi cultivator (left) and the Bihar cultivator (right).

The Kurmi cultivator (left) and the Bihar cultivator (right).

Hence the clear foreword of ‘Sons Of The Soil’ (for clarity was easier then, when needs were fewer and the distance between town and village shorter, both on the road and in the mind), which said of the cultivator: “He is India outside of the towns. He is mentioned in speeches, leaders, lectures and poems usually more as a type than a person. The object of the following sketches is to give some clear outlines in place of this vagueness, and especially to show the variety of individuals and classes who cultivate the soil of this great country.”

The Kurmi cultivator, By M Mohiuddin Ahmad – It is rather creditable to the Kurmi cultivator that, working against heavy odds, he manages to produce excellent crops on his fields and very successfully competes with more advantageously placed cultivators. Every Kurmi cultivator commits to memory a large number of sayings on different agricultural subjects, such as preparation of seed-bed, time of sowing, manuring, weather forecasts, livestock, and so on.
The Bihar cultivator, By D R Sethi – Simple in habits, thrifty to a degree and a master in the art of market-gardening, the Koer is amongst the best of the tillers of the soil to be found anywhere in India. He rarely hires labour but makes all members of his family, including his womenfolk, work in the fields. The Koer does not indulge in expensive social ceremonies and spends less on marriages than other cultivating classes. He is religious and as a rule avoids intoxicants.

“There is,” Burns had written all those years ago, “a family resemblance between these cultivator types, a resemblance that grows as one reads the life-story and daily routine of one son of the soil after another. There is the same plainness of life, the same wrestling with uncertainties of climate (except in favoured areas), the same love of simple games, sport and songs, the same religious background, the same neighbourly helpfulness, and the same financial indebtedness.”

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The legacies of Pusa

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Agricultural Journal of India 1906“In 1904, the Government of India began to recognise its responsibilities in the field of agricultural research. There was a large Government owned estate lylng unused in Pusa (Bihar) to which it was proposed to transfer the research station at Pemberandah. It had already become clear that the Indigo Industry could not be saved, and under these circumstances. However, before this scheme could mature it was superceded by a far more grandiose project under the initiative of the Viceroy Lord Curzon, for an All India Agricultural Service with Pusa as its Research Station under the Central Government and an Agricultural Department in each Province, with its research station and college at which district staff was to be trained.” This memory of more than a century ago comes via ‘Hugh Martin Leake: A Historical Memoir’, an article by N C Shah, in the Indian Journal of History of Science (2002).

Agricultural Journal of India 1906Even more interesting is the role of A O Hume in the establishment of the agricultural sciences centre that Pusa became. “What did Hume hope to do? He began by stressing how much Indian farmers already knew about their soils and climate, about plowing, about crop requirements, and about weeding. (‘Their wheat-fields would, in this respect,’ he said, ‘shame ninety-nine hundredths of those in Europe.’) Still, Hume argued, Indian agriculture had not changed for thousands of years; yields were not two-thirds of what they might be.” This comes from the very absorbing chapter, ‘Agricultural Development in British India’, by Bret Wallach, in ‘Modernisation and the Culture of Development’, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Agricultural Journal of India 1906Wallach continues: ” ‘First and foremost unquestionably stands the increased provision of manure … the crying want of Indian agriculture’. That was Hume’s starting point, and he proposed to develop fuelwood plantations “in every village in the drier portions of the country” and thereby provide a substitute heating and cooking fuel so that manure could be returned to the land. Such plantations, he continues, were ‘a thing that is entirely in accord with the traditions of the country–a thing that the people would understand, appreciate, and, with a little judicious pressure, cooperate in’.”

“Second on his list came an attack on rural indebtedness, chiefly by forbidding the use of land as security, a practice the British themselves had introduced. Hume denounced it as another of ‘the cruel blunders into which our narrowminded, though wholly benevolent, desire to reproduce England in India has led us.’ Third, Hume wanted government-run banks, at least until cooperative banks could be established.”

Agricultural Journal of India 1906“Beyond these things, he noted, there were ‘innumerable other minor matters’ waiting for the department. They included the provision of seeds, the reclamation of salty soils, and plant breeding, a point on which he was astute enough to warn against selection merely for grain size: it was essential, he understood, to choose varieties suited to local physical and cultural conditions. He finished his list with a call for agricultural machinery, especially wind pumps, which he thought promising in a country where ‘gigantic wind-power (second only to the equally unutilised sun-ray power) is running to waste, utterly uncared for over the whole empire’.”

Written by makanaka

December 6, 2009 at 22:15

Concerning the Bank of Upper India, Meerut, 1915

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Old banking stats from 1915 show financial crisis back then too.You can see the difference when there is a certain kind of central banking cadre which is proud of the work it does. Take the Reserve Bank of India’s banking statistics. Although immensely useful to those in the banking and finance industry, and just as useful to those who draw the links between how money is spent and development programmes, hundreds and hundreds of rows and columns filled with numbers to the third decimal are – let’s face it – hardly as exciting as a Twenty20 game.

Enter a dash of history. The conservatively titled regular publication, ‘Statistical Tables Relating to Banks in India 2008-09’, reminds us stolidly that it provides “information on major items such as liabilities and assets, income and expenses, non-performing assets, financial ratios, spatial distribution of offices, number of employees and details of priority sector advances. It also provides bank group-wise monthly data on some of the major items such as aggregate deposits, liabilities to the banking system, assets with the banking system, investments, bank credit, and, sector-wise and industry-wise gross bank credit”.

And then it smoothly brings in the historical view (see pic left). “This publication had started prior to the establishment of the Reserve Bank of India. The first issue was brought out by the then Department of Statistics, Government of India in 1915 which covered data for 1914 and was brought out under the guidance of Mr. G. Findlay Shirras, the then Director of Statistics, Government of India. It is worth mentioning that Late Professor P. R. Brahmananda dedicated his book ‘Money, Income, Prices in 19th Century India’, published in 2001, to Mr. G. Findlay Shirras, among others. In order to commemorate the origin of this publication, the cover page of the first issue brought out in 1915 is reproduced in this volume.”

Reserve Bank of India digs out banking stats from 1915What an evocative cover page it is (see pic right)! The foreword continues: “The work relating to the publication was transferred to the Reserve Bank of India in 1939. The last issue, which incidentally was also the 25th issue, of the publication brought out by the Government of India was in 1941, with data pertaining to 1938. The first issue under the aegis of the Reserve Bank of India was brought out in 1941, with data pertaining to 1939 and 1940. The cover page of the last issue brought out by the Government of India and ‘Prefatory Note’ in the first issue brought out by the Reserve Bank of India as reproduced in Statistical Tables Relating to Banks in India 2005-06 are also given in this volume.”

“This is the 64th volume of the publication by the Reserve Bank of India,” say this issue’s authors. “If we count volumes published by the then Department of Statistics, Government of India, then this could be the 89th volume, marking the long history of continuity of this publication. This publication has continued for nearly a century underscores its relevance. It is also a tribute to the efforts and dedication of concerned officials first in the Government of India and now in the Reserve Bank of India.” Hear, hear. This volume has been brought out under the guidance of Dr. A. M. Pedgaonkar, Principal Adviser, and Dr. Balwant Singh, Adviser, DSIM, and for their historically sensitive presentation alone they deserve to take a bow.