Advantages and Disadvantages of the 1793 Permanent Settlement of Land Revenue in Bengal

The Advantages and Disadvantages claimed by Contemporary Opinion for the Permanent Settlement of Land Revenue in Bengal, 1793 are given below:


Advantages and Disadvantages

Contemporary opinion claimed a number of advantages for the permanent settlement.

Financially:

The permanent settlement secured a fixed and stable income for the state and the state could depend upon that income, monsoons or no monsoons. Further, it saved the Government the expenses that had to be spent in making periodical assessments and settlements.

Economically:

It was claimed that the permanent settlement would encourage agricultural enterprise and prosperity; Waste land would be reclaimed and the soil under cultivation would improved; the Zamindars would introduce new methods of cultivation like better rotation of crops, use of manure etc. Thus the settlement would create conditions for the development of the fullest Power of the soil. This in turn would create a contented and resourceful peasantry.

Politically, Cornwallis expected that the Permanent settlement should create a class of loyal Zamindars who would be prepared to defend the company at all costs because their rights were guaranteed by the company.

Thus the permanent settlement secured for the government the Political support of an influential class in the same way as the Bank of England had for William III after 1694. The Zamindars of Bengal stood loyal during the great rebellion of 1857. Seton Karr commented that the “Political benefits of the settlement balance its economic defects”.

Socially, the hope was expressed that the Zamindars would out as the natural leaders of the ryot and shows their public spirit in helping the spread of education and other charitable activities.

Lastly, the permanent settlement of Bengal set free the ablest servants of the company for judicial services. Further it avoided the evils normally associated with the temporary settlements, the harassment of the cultivators, the tendency on the part of the cultivators to leave the land deteriorate towards the end of the term to get a low assessment etc.

Disadvantages:

Whatever little economic or Political purposes the settlement might have served during its first few years, it soon turned into an engine of exploitation and oppression. It created “feudalism at the top and serfdom at the bottom”. Many of the advantages claimed proved to be illusory.

Financially:

The state has proved to be a great loser in the long run. The advantages of a fixed and stable income were secured at the great sacrifice of any prospective share in the increase of revenue from land.

Even when new areas of land were brought under cultivation and the rents of the land already under cultivation had been increased manifold, the state could not claim its legitimate share in the increase. The state demand fixed in 1793 remained almost the same even in 1954.

The permanent settlement retarded the economic progress of Bengal. Most of the landlords did not take any interest in the improvements of the land, but were merely interested in extracting the maximum possible rent from the ryot.

The cultivator, being under the constant fear of rejectment, had no incentive to improve the land. The Zamindars did not live on the estates, but away in the cities where they wasted their time and money in Luxury.

Thus, the Zamindars became a sort of ‘distant suction pumps’, sucking the wealth of the rural areas and wasting it in the cities. Besides, a host of intermediaries grew up between the state and the actual cultivator.

This process of sub-infatuation sometimes reached ridiculous proportions, there being as many as 50 intermediaries. All the intermediaries looked to their profits and the ryot was reduced to the position of a pauper. In this context it may be worthwhile to quote the view of Carver who wrote: “Next to war, famine and pestilence, the worst thing that can happen to rural community is absentee landlordism”.

Politically, the permanent settlement did fit in the game of the company and the Zamindars along with other vested interests became the favourite children of Imperialism. However, the British Administration gained the loyality of the few at the cost of the alientation of the masses. Besides, the system divided rural society into two hostile classes, namely, the Zamindars and the tenants.

Socially, the permanent settlement stands condemned. By recognising the absolute right of ownership of the Zamindars the company sacrificed the interests of the peasants whether of property or occupancy.

In a way the peasants suffered from a double injustice, first by surrendering their property rights and secondly, by being entirely left at the mercy of the Zamindars who rack-rented them. True the Government attempted rectification and passed tenancy legislation (Bengal Rent Acts of 1859 and 1885) to protect the interests of the ryot, but the Zamindars evaded the protective legislation.

The growth of population resulting in an excessive pressure on land played into the hands of the Zamindars and they not in-frequently ejected the ryot. In fact, the peasant was reduced to the position of a Serf.

In the beginning the Zamindars themselves were in great difficulty. The state demand was pitched very high. Added to this over-assessment was the harshness in the method of collection of revenue.

The Zamindars were required to deposit the revenue in the government treasury by the sunset of the last day fixed for the purpose failing which the lands were confiscated and auctioned. This ‘Sunset’ law created great hardships and deprived many Zamindars of their land for temporary difficulties. During 1797-98 estates worth 17 per cent of the total revenue of Bengal were sold for non-payment of the state demand in time.

The ‘Sunset’ law created so great insecurity that one time no bidders were coming forth. The frequent changes in the ownership of land affected adversely the condition of the cultivators.

We might say in condition that a temporary settlement for 40 or 50 years, renewable again and again, would have secured all the objectives Cornwallis had in view. It was hardly a wise policy measure to bind posterity for all times.

If some Indian nationalists like Romesh Dutta gave their unqualified support to the policy of permanent settlement it was partly due to the fact that they themselves came from a class which was the beneficiary from the settlement of Bengal and partly due to the fear that the control of the bureaurcray would be worse than that of the Zamindars.

In the twentieth century the economic insufficiency and social injustice of the settlements became very glaring. Besides, it was found against the tenants of political or social justice.

The Government of Free India has tried to set right the wrong done by Cornwallis. The West Bengal Acquisition of Estates Act, 1955, has abolished Zamindars by paying compensation to the Zamindars at a huge expense to the public exchequer.

The Indian career of Cornwallis was to reinstate British reputation. He was the first honest incorruptible Governor India ever saw, and after his example hardly any Governor had dared to contemplate corruption. Hastings is widely credited with the reforming the administration; as matter of fact he achieved practically nothing in this respect, after a first spurt of early promise of some success.

“In his contempt for Jobbery, his determination to place the company’s servants, whom he transferred from merchants to administrators, above the reach of temptation in his anxiety to protect native rights and interests, in constructive ability and in tenacity purpose, he may challenge a comparison with some of the most eminent men who have ruled in India”.