The following excerpts are from ‘The white sahibs in India’ by Reginald Reynolds, a book that we want to re-publish and popularize. The full book is available online here.
Reference has already been made to the antiquity of this panchayat system. Megasthenes, who visited India three centuries before Christ, described the village communities as “republics” which were “almost independent of any outside relations.” The village originally owned the land on which the villagers lived and worked; so that before the dislocation of the peasant industries many of these communities had remained, right up to the time of British rule, economically self-contained units. In the North of India, however, a previous succession of rapacious conquerors had already done much to destroy this economic independence, and the zemindars or rent collectors of the Moslem rulers were already acquiring something like feudal power in pre-British days.
The zemindari system hardened rapidly under British rule. In Bengal the “Permanent Settlement” of 1793 turned these revenue collectors into owners of the soil and confirmed their status as a landed aristocracy. For a hundred and forty years since that time, while the value of money has fallen steadily and the rents of the Bengal peasants have risen in proportion, the tax paid, by the zemindars to the Government has remained stationary, fixed for all time by the settlement of 1793. This far-sighted piece of legislation has enabled the landlord class which it created to squeeze enormous sums from the peasants by the payment of a light tax on the proceeds. The effect of this is that whilst the Government gets a smaller share of the spoils than it might expect by direct taxation of the peasantry, it gains a powerful ally in a landlord class the very existence of which is bound up with the continuation of British rule.
“…to take the ordinary acts of husbandry, nowhere would one find better instances of keeping land scrupulously clean from weeds, of ingenuity in the device of water-raising appliances, of knowledge of soils and their capabilities, as well as the exact time to sow and to reap, as one would in Indian agriculture, and this not at its best alone, but at its ordinary level. It is wonderful, too, how much is known of rotation, the system of mixed crops and of fallowing. Certain it is that I, at least, have never seen a more perfect picture of careful cultivation, combined with hard labour, perseverance, and fertility of resource, than I have seen in many of the halting places in my tour.”
This quotation brings us back once more to the fact that it is from no lack of knowledge or skill, but from the conditions under which he lives that the Indian peasant suffers. An instance indicated by Dr. Voelcker is that of manure, of which there is a great shortage, owing to the prevalence among Indian peasants of the habit of using cow-dung for fuel. This is not, as is commonly supposed, a matter of ignorance or wilful waste, but a matter of necessity. The value of cow-dung as manure is about three times its value as fuel; but as the Forest Laws make it illegal for the peasant even to collect a few twigs from the forests, his manure is the only fuel available. However near he may be to forest land, he must pay for wood, and this he cannot afford to do. Consequently he burns his cow-dung, though he knows its value, simply because it is the only fuel that he can obtain without paying for it.
There is a true story of India that is also a parable of British rule. It is to be found in the history of the Sal forests of the Gangetic Plain.
For fifty years British forestry experts protected these forests from fire, and it was only a few years ago that they made an interesting discovery. It appeared that, after all, these Sal forests, unlike resinous forests, required an occasional fire to stimulate their growth. Fire destroys the undergrowth, leaving an ash which forms an alkaline mould and makes good soil for the young saplings.
Fifty years of protection produced a thick undergrowth, damp and heavy in the rainy season. It kept the light from the young shoots and covered them with a poisonous acid mould which killed them. Such shoots as survived were eaten by deer, which multiplied under British forestry laws. For while deer were protected by law, white sahibs on safari had greatly reduced the number of tigers which (regardless of law) might otherwise have kept down the number of deer.
A few years before, the protection of India’s forests had been considered indisputable evidence of the success of British administration in this sphere. By 1930, though it was not (and will not be) publicly admitted, the experts knew that British efficiency had been misplaced. They were humbly learning from a natural, unprotected forest how sal regenerates itself when freed from interference.