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Permanent Settlement

    The 'Permanent Settlement' - also known as the 'Permanent Settlement of Bengal' - was an agreement between the East India Company and Bengal landlords with far-reaching consequences for both agricultural methods and productivity in the Empire and the political realities of the Indian and Pakistani countryside It was concluded in 1793 by the administration headed by Lord Cornwallis

    Background

    Earlier zamindars in Bengal had been functionaries who merely held the right to collect revenue on behalf of the Mughal emperor and his representative or diwan in Bengal who in turn would supervise their activity closely and ensure that they were neither lax nor overly stringent However the East India Company on being awarded the diwani or overlordship of Bengal by the empire following the battle of Plassey in 1765 found itself short of trained administrators especially those familiar with local custom and law As a result landholders found themselves unsupervised reporting to corrupt and indolent officials; consequently the extraction of revenue proceeded unchecked by any regard for future income or local welfare
    Following the devastating famine of 1770 which was partially caused by this short-sightedness the importance of oversight of revenue officials was understood by the Company officials in Calcutta Unfortunately the question of incentivisation was ignored; hence Warren Hastings then governor-general introduced a system of five-yearly inspections and temporary tax farmers
    Naturally those appointed as tax farmers absconded with as much as they could in the time period in between inspections The disastrous consequences of the system were noted in Parliament and Pitt in 1784 directed the Calcutta administration to alter it forthwith; in 1786 Cornwallis was sent out to India to oversee the alteration

    Nature of the Permanent Settlement

    The question of incentivisation now being understood to be central the security of tenure of landlords was guaranteed; In short the former landholders and revenue intermediaries were conferred proprietorial rights to the land they held In addition the land tax was fixed in perpetuity so as to minimise the tendency by British administrators to amass a small fortune in sluiced-away revenueSmallholders were no longer permitted to sell their land though they could not be expropriated by their new landlords

    Influence of the Permanent Settlement

    The Company hoped that the zamindar class would not only be a revenue-generating instrument but serve as intermediaries for the more political aspects of their rule preserving local custom and protecting rural life from the possibly rapacious influences of its own representatives However this worked both ways; zamindars became a naturally conservative interest group and once British policy changed to one of reform and intervention in custom in the mid-nineteenth they were vocal in their opposition
    While the worst of the tax-farming excesses were countered by the introduction of the Settlement the use of land was not part of the subject of the agreement; hence the tendency of Company officials and Indian landlords to force their tenants into plantation-style farming of cash crops like indigo and cotton rather than rice and wheat This was a cause of many of the worst famines of the nineteenth centuryIn addition zamindars eventually became absentee landlords with all that that implies for neglect of investment on the land
    Once the salient features of the Settlement were reproduced all over India - and indeed elsewhere in the Empire including Kenya - the political structure was altered forever with the landlord class holding much greater power than they had under the Mughals where they were subject to oversight by a trained bureaucracy with the power to attenuate their tenure In India not until the first efforts towards land reform in the 1950s - still incomplete everywhere except ironically West Bengal - was the power of the landlord caste/class over smallholders diluted In Pakistan where land reform was never carried out elections in rural areas still suffer from a tendency towards oligarchy reflecting the concentration of influence in the hands of zamindar families

    Further Reading

    • The History of India vol 2, TGPercival Spear Penguin ISBN: 0140138366
    • India John Keay Grove Publishers ISBN: 0802137970
    • An Essay on the Permanent Settlement Ranajit Guha Duke U Press ISBN: 0822317710