Agriculture in India: 1911
This article was written around 1911 when conditions were
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Encyclopaedia of India
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The cultivation of the soil is the occupation of the Indian people in a sense which is difficult to realize in England, and which cannot be adequately expressed by figures. As the land tax forms the mainstay of the imperial revenue, so the ryot or cultivator constitutes the unit of the social system. The organized village community contains many other members besides the cultivators; but they all exist for his benefit, and all alike are directly maintained from the produce of the village fields. Even in considerable towns, the traders and handicraftsmen almost always possess plots of land of their own, on which they raise sufficient grain to supply their families with food. The operations of rural life are familiar to every class. They are enveloped in a cloud of religious sanctions, and serve to mark out by their recurring periods the annual round of common life.
But though agriculture thus forms the staple industry of the country, its practice is pursued in different provinces with infinite variety of detail. Everywhere the same perpetual assiduity is found, but the inherited experience of generations has taught the cultivators to adapt their simple methods to differing circumstances. For irrigation, native patience and ingenuity have devised means which compare not unfavourably with the colossal projects of government. Manure is copiously applied to the more valuable crops whenever manure is available, its use being limited by poverty and not by ignorance. The rotation of crops is not adopted as a principle of cultivation; but in practice it is well known that a succession of exhausting crops cannot be taken in consecutive seasons from the same field, and the advantage of fallows is widely recognized. The periodicity of the seasons usually allows two, and sometimes three, harvests in the year, but not necessarily, nor indeed usually, from the same fields. For inexhaustible fertility, and for retentiveness of moisture in a dry year, no soil in the world can surpass the " black cotton-soil " of the Deccan. In the broad river basins the inundations deposit annually a fresh top-dressing of silt, thus superseding the necessity of manures.
Within recent years wheat has become one of the most important crops in India, more especially for export. The canal colonies of the Punjab have turned northern India into one of the great grain-fields of the British empire; and in 1904 India took the first place in supplying wheat to the United Kingdom, sending nearly 252 million cwts. out of a total of 974 millions. In 1905, however, it fell back again into the third place, being passed by Russia and Argentina. Wheat is grown chiefly in the Punjab, the United Provinces, and the Central Provinces. In1905-1906there were 23 million acres under wheat in the whole of India, of which 82 million were in the Punjab alone.
The name of rice has from time immemorial been so closely associated with Indian agriculture that it is difficult to realize how comparatively small an area is planted with this crop. With the exception of the deltas of the great rivers and the long strip of land fringing the western coast, rice may be called an occasional crop throughout the remainder of the peninsula. But where it is grown it is grown to the exclusion of all other crops. The rice crop is most important in Burma, Bengal and Madras, and there is an average of 20 million acres under rice in the other provinces of British India. In Bengal the area varies from 36 to 40 million acres according to the season. In Burma, where the large waste area is being gradually brought under cultivation, there has been an almost uninterrupted increase in the area of the rice crop, and the rice export is one of the main industries of the province. In ordinary years most of this rice goes either to Europe or to the Farther East; but in famine seasons a large part is diverted to peninsular India, and Burma is the most important of the outside sources from which the deficient crops are supplemented. In1905-1906the export of rice from India was valued at 122 millions sterling.
Taking India as a whole, the staple food grain is neither rice nor wheat, but millets, which are probably the most prolific grain in the world, and the best adapted to the vicissitudes of a tropical climate. Excluding the special rice-growing tracts, different kinds of millet are grown more extensively than any other crop from Madras in the south at least as far as Rajputana in the north. The sorghum or great millet, generally known as jowar or cholum, is the staple grain crop of southern India. The spiked millet, known as bajra or cumbu, which yields a poorer food, is grown on dry sandy soil in the Deccan and the Punjab. A third sort of millet, ragi or marua, is cultivated chiefly in Madras and Bengal. There are also other kinds, which are included as a rule under the general head of " other food grains." Millet crops are grown for the most part on unirrigated land. In the Bombay Deccan districts they cover generally upwards of 60% of the grain area, or an even larger proportion in years of drought. In Gujarat about half the grain area is under millets or maize in ordinary years. The grain is consumed almost entirely in India, though a small amount is exported. "A third sort of millet, ragi or marua, is cultivated chiefly in Madras" is not a chief crop of Madras, it is a chief crop of Karnataka. Only Karnataka people in south india eat Ragi crop.
Among pulses gram covers in ordinary years more than so millions of acres, chiefly in the United Provinces, the Punjab and Bengal. Gram is largely eaten by the poorer classes, but it is also used as horse-food. Other pulses, lentils, &c., are extensively grown, but the area under these crops is liable to great contraction in years of drought, as it consists for the most part of unirrigated lands.
Oil-seeds also form an important crop in all parts of the country, being perhaps more universally grown than any other, as oil is necessary, according to native custom, for application to the person, for food, and for burning in lamps. In recent years the cultivation of oil-seeds has received an extraordinary stimulus owing to the demand for export to Europe, especially to France; but as they can be grown after rice, &c., as a second crop, this increase has hardly at all tended to diminish the production of food grains. The four chief varieties grown are mustard or rape seed, linseed, til or gingelly (sesamum), and castor-oil. Bengal and the United Provinces are at present the chief sources of supply for the foreign demand, but gingelly is largely exported from Madras, and, to a smaller extent, from Burma. These seeds are for the most part pressed in India either in bullock presses or in oil-mills. The refuse or cake is of great value to agriculturists, as it forms a food for cattle, and in the case of sesamum it is eaten by the people. But a very large quantity of the seeds is exported. The total value of oils and oil-seeds exported in1905-1906was over 72 millions sterling.
Vegetables are everywhere cultivated in garden plots for household use, and also on a larger scale in the neighbourhood of great towns. Among favourite native vegetables, the following may be mentioned: - the egg-plant, called brinjal or baigan (Solanum Melongena), potatoes, cabbages, cauliflower, radishes, onions, garlic, turnips, yams, and a great variety of cucurbitaceous plants, including Cucumis sativus, Cucurbita maxima, Lagenaria vulgaris, Trichosanthes dioica, and Benincasa cerifera. Of these, potatoes, cabbages, and turnips are of comparatively recent introduction. Almost all English vegetables can be raised by a careful gardener. Potatoes thrive best on the higher elevations, such as the Khasi hills, the Nilgiris, the Mysore uplands, the Shan States, and the slopes of the Himalayas; but they are also grown even in lowland districts.
Among cultivated fruits are the following: - Mango (Mangifera indica), plantain (Musa paradisiaca), pine-apple (Ananassa sativa), pomegranate (Punica Granatum), guava (Psidium pomiferum and P. pyriferum), tamarind (Tamarindus indica), jack (Artocarpus integrifolia), custard-apple (Anona squamosa), papaw (Carica Papaya), shaddock (Citrus decumana), and several varieties of fig, melon, orange, lime and citron. According to the verdict of Europeans, no native fruits can compare with those of England. But the mangoes of Bombay, of Multan, and of Malda in Bengal, and the oranges of Nagpur and the Khasi hills, enjoy a high reputation; while the guavas of Madras are made into an excellent preserve. Spices. - Among spices, for the preparation of curry and other hot dishes, turmeric and chillies hold the first place, being very generally cultivated. Next in importance come ginger, coriander, aniseed, black cummin, and fenugreek. Pepper proper is confined to the Malabar coast, from Kanara to Travancore. Cardamoms are a valuable crop in the same locality, and also in the Nepalese Himalayas. Pan or betel-leaf is grown by a special caste in most parts of the country. Its cultivation requires constant care, but is highly remunerative. The betel-nut or areca palm is chiefly grown in certain favoured localities, such as the deltaic districts of Bengal and the highlands of southern India.
Besides betel-nut (Areca Catechu), the palms of India include the coco-nut (Cocos nucifera), the bastard date (Phoenix sylvestris), the palmyra (Borassus flabellifer), and the true date (Phoenix dactylifera). The coco-nut, which loves a sandy soil and a moist climate, is found in greatest perfection along the strip of coast-line that fringes the west of the peninsula, where it ranks next to rice as the staple product. The bastard date, grown chiefly in the country round Calcutta and in the north-east of the Madras presidency, supplies both the jaggery sugar of commerce and intoxicating liquors for local consumption. Spirit is also distilled from the palmyra, especially in the neighbourhood of Bombay and in the south-east of Madras. The true date is almost confined to Sind.
Sugar is manufactured both from the sugar-cane and from the bastard date-palm, but the total production is inadequate to the local demand. The best cane is grown in the United Provinces, on irrigated land. It is an expensive crop, requiring much attention, and not yielding a return within the year; but the profits are proportionately large. The normal area under sugar-cane in India is generally about 3 million acres, chiefly in the United Provinces, Bengal, and the Punjab. A large share of the produce is consumed in the form of gur or unrefined sugar, and the market for this preparation i= independent of foreign competition. The total import of sugar in1905-1906was valued at £5,182,000, chiefly from Java and Mauritius.
Owing to the manufacture of synthetic indigo by German chemists the export trade in indigo, which was formerly the most important business carried on by European capital in India, has been almost entirely ruined. In the early years of the 19th century there were colonies of English planters in many districts of Bengal, and it was calculated that the planters of North Behar alone had a turnover of a million sterling. The industry suffered depression owing to the indigo riots of 1860 and the emancipation of the peasantry by the Land Act of 1859; but in the closing decade of the century it received a much more disastrous blow from the invention of the German chemists. In1895-1896the area under indigo was 1,570,000 acres, and the value of the exports £3,569,700, while in1905-1906the area had sunk to 383,000 acres, and the value of the exports to £390,879. The only hope of rescuing the industry from total disappearance lies in the fact that the natural indigo gives a faster dye than the manufactured product, while an effort has also been made to introduce the Java-Natal seed into India, which gives a much heavier yield, and so may be better able to compete in price with synthetic indigo.
The cultivation of tea in India began within the memory of men still living, and now has replaced indigo as the chief article for European capital, more particularly in Assam. Unlike coffee-planting the enterprise owes its origin to the initiation of government, and has never attracted the attention of the natives. Early travellers reported that the tea-plant was indigenous to the southern valleys of the Himalayas; but they were mistaken in the identity of the shrub, which was the Osyris nepalensis. The real tea (The y viridis), a plant akin to the camellia, grows wild in Assam, being commonly found throughout the hilly tract between the valleys of the Brahmaputra and the Barak. There it sometimes attains the dimensions of a large tree; and from that, as well as from other indications, it has been plausibly inferred that Assam is the original home of the plant, ] which was thence introduced at a prehistoric date into China. The real progress of tea-planting in Assam dates from about 1851, and was greatly assisted by the promulgation of the Waste-land Rules of 1854. By 1859 there were already fifty-one gardens in existence, owned by private individuals; and the enterprise had extended from its original headquarters in Lakhimpur and Sibsagar as far down the Brahmaputra as Kamrup. In 1856 the tea-plant was discovered wild in the district of Cachar in the Barak valley, and European capital was at once directed to that quarter. At about the same time tea-planting was introduced into the neighbourhood of the sanatorium of Darjeeling, among the Sikkim Himalayas.
The success of these undertakings engendered a wild spirit of speculation in tea companies both in India and at home, which reached its climax in 1865. The industry recovered but slowly from the effects of this disastrous crisis, and did not again reach a stable position until 1869. Since that date it has rapidly but steadily progressed, and has been ever opening new fields of enterprise. At the head of the Bay of Bengal in Chittagong district, side by side with coffee on the Nilgiri hills, on the forest-clad slopes of Kumaon and Kangra, amid the low-lying jungle of the Bhutan Dwars, and even in Arakan, the energetic pioneers of tea-planting have established their industry. Different degrees of success may have rewarded them, but in no case have they abandoned the struggle. The area under tea, of which nine-tenths lies in the new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam, expanded by 85% during the sixteen years from 1885 to 1901, while the production increased by 167%. This great rise in the supply, unaccompanied by an equal expansion of the market for Indian tea, involved the industry in great difficulties, to meet which it became necessary to restrict the area under tea as far as possible, and to reduce the quantity of leaf taken from the plant, thus at the same time improving the quality of the tea. The area under tea in 1885 was 283,925 acres and the yield 71,525,977 lb, while in 1905 the area had increased to 527,290 acres and the yield to 222,360,132 lb, while the export alone was 214,223,728 lb. As much as 92% of the export goes to the United Kingdom, where China tea has been gradually ousted by tea from India and Ceylon. The other chief countries that afford a market for Indian tea are Canada, Russia, Australia, Turkey in Asia, Persia, and the United States. India's consumption of tea is computed to average 84 million pounds, of which 52 millions are Indian and the remainder Chinese. There should therefore be considerable room for expansion in the home market. In 1905 there were 134 tea-planting companies registered in India, about 80% of the capital being held by shareholders in London.
The cultivation of coffee is confined to southern India, though attempts have been made to introduce the plant both into Lower Burma and into the Eastern Bengal district of Chittagong. The coffee tract may be roughly defined as a section of the landward slope of the Western Ghats, extending from Kanara in the north to Travancore in the extreme south. That tract includes almost the whole of Coorg, the districts of Kadur and Hassan in Mysore, the Nilgiri hills, and the Wynaad. The cultivation has also extended to the Shevaroy hills in Salem district and to the Palni hills in Madura.
Unlike tea, coffee was not introduced into India by European enterprise; and even to the present day its cultivation is largely followed by the natives. The Malabar coast has always enjoyed a direct commerce with Arabia, and at an early date gave many converts to Islam. One of these converts, Baba Budan by name, is said to have gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca and to have brought back with him the coffee berry, which he planted on the hill range in Mysore still called after him. According to local tradition this happened more than two centuries ago. The shrubs thus sown lived on, but the cultivation did not spread until the beginning of the 19th century. The state of Mysore and the Baba Budan range also witnessed the first opening of a coffee-garden by an English planter about 1840. The success of this experiment led to the extension of coffee cultivation into the neighbouring tract of Manjarabad, also in Mysore, and into the Wynaad subdivision of the Madras district of Malabar. From 1840 to 1860 the enterprise made slow progress; but since the latter date it has spread with great rapidity along the whole line of the Western Ghats, clearing away the primeval forest, and opening a new era of prosperity to the labouring classes. The export of coffee in 1905 was 360,000 cwt., being the highest for sixteen years. The over-supply of cheap Brazilian coffee in the consuming markets caused a heavy fall in prices at the beginning of the decade, the average price in London in 1901 being 47s. per cwt. compared with toms. in 1894. The United Kingdom and France are the chief consumers. An agreement with France at the beginning of the decade secured to Indian produce imported into that country the benefits of the minimum tariff, thus protecting the coffee industry from taxation in French ports on a scale which would have seriously hampered the trade. There is practically no local market for coffee in India.
The cultivation of cinchona was introduced into India in the year 1860 under the auspices of government, owing to the efforts of Sir Clements Markham, and a stock of plants was prepared and distributed to planters in the Nilgiris and in Coorg. At the same time governmental plantations were established in the Nilgiri hills and at Darjeeling, and these have been continued up to the present time. A considerable amount bf the bark from private plantations is bought by the government and treated at the government factories. The sulphate of quinine and the cinchona febrifuge thus produced are issued for the most part to medical officers in the various provinces, to gaols, and to the authorities of native states; but a large and increasing amount is disposed of in the form of 5-grain packets, costing a farthing each, through the medium of the post-offices. This system brings the drug easily within the reach of the people.