Focus on Punjab peasantry
M. Rajivlochan

Colonizing Agriculture: The Myth of Punjab Exceptionalism
by Mridula Mukherjee.
Sage Publications, New Delhi. Pages 209. Rs 420.

THOSE agriculturists who did not have a non-agricultural income in Punjab had a little chance of becoming prosperous. It was the salaried class who could lead the life of a gentleman. "Naukaran de chitte kapade", the Punjabi peasant would say. Only those with a salary could rise above a life of constant toil with few returns. Even a military pension was better than depending solely on agricultural income. Little wonder that the people of Punjab flocked to the military in such large numbers.

In 1928-29 alone, a sum of Rs 13,904,000 million (sic p. 145) was paid in military pensions to Punjab residents. During the First World War (1914-18) of the total 5.6 lakh soldiers recruited some 400,000 came from Punjab, in addition to about 97,000 non-combatants. Those with land aspired to leave it and begin some new profession. The additional income was not used for the betterment of land and land-related activities but was siphoned off into money-lending activities. In fact, agricultural income too was usually siphoned off to other fields. Renting out of land by the large landowners, rather than self-cultivation, was the preferred mode of activity. The well-to-do agriculturists also were significant participants in the usurious exploitation of fellow agriculturists. The Land Alienation Act, designed to protect the farmer from the moneylender, could do little to prevent such abuse.

The plight of the agriculturist was made worse by the fact that only about 10 per cent held any surplus producing land. The rest paid out the monies demanded by the government and others by generating other income. The income of the tenant farmer, with one or two ploughs, was the same as that of a permanently hired labourer, yet their numbers kept on increasing during colonial times for want of a better income generating activity and the high prices of land.

As foodgrain prices began to shoot up during colonial times, the sale value of land too increased. Between 1871 and 1941, the price of land from an average of Rs 14 per acre went up to Rs 296 per acre, an increase of 2,114 per cent. In the absence of any technological breakthrough, however, the yield of wheat hovered around 0.38 tons per acre. The value of output per acre of wheat though just about doubled, from Rs 22.48 in 1871 to Rs 40.56 in 1941. But it was only the surplus producing farmer who could benefit from the increase in prices. The majority had to suffer because expenses, including those on rent and land revenue, far out-stripped the income from agriculture. The increasing need for money also compelled the farmer to produce high paying crops like wheat and cotton while reducing the acreage for coarser crops like jowar, which were more suited to local ecology.

Government demands on land, even though not a significant part of the income of the government, were enough to put a heavy load on the farmer. The net income of the farmer after paying land tax often went into negative figures. In 1938-39, on the eve of World War II it was merely Rs 0.44 per acre.

The long and short of it is that Mridula Mukherji shows with compelling figures that Punjab agriculture suffered as much during colonial times as did agriculture in other parts of the country. The canal colonies, special recruitment drives for the military and various other administrative efforts at romancing the Jat peasant, were just so much hot air as far as the economic well-being of agriculture and the agriculturist were concerned. The commercialisation of agriculture was forced by the revenue demands of the state.

Producing for the market was not an indicator of prosperity but of compulsion. Her data is very comprehensive and allows for many more insights regarding Punjabi society and polity even when she keeps her analytical focus firmly on agriculture.

She is able to contradict much of the hype about Punjab generated by the colonial administrators and accepted in toto by academics by the simple device of looking at long-term trends and focussing on minutiae. We need to be grateful for the pains that she has taken in bringing forth one of the most comprehensive picture of Punjab agriculture in colonial times.