The Permanent Settlement (also Premanent Settlement of Bengal) was introduced by Lord Cornwallis in 1793. It was an agreement between the British East India Company and the Landlords of Bengal to settle the Land Revenue to be raised. Lord Cornwallis came to India as the Governor General.
The Permanent Settlement was one of the most famous measures of Lord Cornwallis. It was agreed that the landlords would have perpetual and hereditary rights over the land, so long as they pay the fixed revenue to the British Government.
The landlords were also given the right to transfer their land. Since, the tax burden on land was fixed, investment in land became an attraction for zamindars and landlords.
The Permanent Settlement
Clive, the founder of the British Empire, could not give to Bengal a good land system. The land revenue was collected from peasants through oppressive agents.
Warren Hastings tried his best to bring a better system. He established a Board of Revenue. He appointed European District Collectors to remain in charge of revenue collection. But still, the difficulties continued. The real problem of the Government was how to go to the countless villages and get land revenue from millions of peasants according to the size and nature of their lands. It was impossible for the European District Collector, who was only one for each district, to do that work through his subordinate officers.
So, Warren Hastings thought of a system of auction. By that system, any man, who promised to collect the largest amount of revenue from an area, was given that land for 5 years. That man collected land revenue from villagers and paid to the district authorities. The system proved dangerous. Those who promised to pay the maximum, tried to collect as possible by oppressive means. The people suffered badly. Hastings also experimented with annual settlement of lands. But, that too, failed.
That was the condition of land revenue system when Cornwallis came. He came from a family of landlords in England. In those days, the British landlords were regarded as the permanent masters of their lands. They looked to the interests of the peasants and their lands, and collected revenue from them. As the landlords were hereditary, their interests the in lands were of a permanent nature.
Cornwallis thought of such a system in India. He thought of creating a class of hereditary landlords who should become permanent masters of their lands. They should collect land revenue from the people and deposit it at the government treasury regularly for all times.
In this work, the governor-General was helped by an able administrator of that time, John Shore. He justified the need of a permanent class of landlords or zamindars, for the “security of government with respect to its revenues and the security and protection of its subjects”. In Bengal, before the British conquest, there were old zamindar families who enjoyed hereditary rights on lands for long. But after the country was conquered by the English, those zamindars disappeared. Their lands were taken over by the Government. And, the Government collected revenues by various methods, as already discussed. Cornwallis and Shore wanted to revive that class and give them the responsibility of revenue collection.
So, at last, Cornwallis issued a Proclamation in 1793, introducing the permanent Settlement. The Proclamation ran as follows: “The Marquis Cornwallis, Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, governor-General-in-Council now notifies to all zamindars, independent talookdars and other actual proprietors of land in the provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, that he has empowered by the Honorable Court of Directors of the East India Company to declare the Jumma which has been or may be assessed upon their lands, fixed for ever.
Features of Permanent Settlement
The Permanent Settlement of Bengal stood on the following features :
Firstly, it recognized the landlords as the proprietors of the land. It also recognized the rights of hereditary succession for the heirs or lawful successors of the landlords. The Government believed that these landlords would remain faithful to the British.
Secondly, the landlords were given the right to transfer or sell their lands if they liked.
Thirdly, all the rights of the landlords depended on their payment of the fixed revenue on the fixed date at the treasury of the Government. All their rights ended if they failed to pay.
Fourthly, it fixed once for all total amount of revenue to be paid by each landlord for his zamindari to the Government. It was agreed that the tax rate would not increase in future.
Finally, the landlord was required to give to the tenant the patta describing therein the area of the land and the rent to be collected for that land. Thus the tenants got rights on their holdings and knew of the revenue to be paid.
Merits and Demerits of Permanent Settlement
The Permanent Settlement became a subject of great controversy in future. It contained both merits and demerits.
Merits of Permanent Settlement
Among the merits, the following are noteworthy:
Firstly, in those beginning days of the British rule, the British administrative machinery could not touch the remote peasantry to collect revenue. Modern means of communication did not exist. It was decoded, therefore, to shift the responsibility to the shoulders of Indian nobility. The landlords looked into the problems of the peasants. As the British Government could not have done much to solve the land problems, it was better that the class of landlords took up that work.
Secondly, the landlords were themselves the sons of the soil. They understood the real difficulties of the Indian villager and the problems of his cultivation. Therefore, in those days they served the people better. They knew that the land belonged to them for all time. It was their hereditary property. Therefore, they felt attached to their zamindari and worked for its improvement.
Thirdly, the Permanent Settlement, by being a permanent system, created a sense of security in everyone concerned. There was a feeling of certainty in matters of land and revenue. The Government knew its exact income from the land. It knew the time of that income. It was also confident of the regularity of that income. And, all such benefits were enjoyed without the burden of collecting it from individual peasants. The landlord knew the area of his zamindari. He knew the amount to be collected from that area. He knew the amount to be paid to the Government from his collection. He knew the amount of his own income as the zamindar. Therefore, he became habituated with a system on a permanent basis. It helped him to acquire efficiency in his work. The peasant knew the plot of his land. He regarded the patta as the proof of his possession. He knew the amount of the revenue to be paid to the landlord. And, he knew where, when and how to pay. Thus, the Government, the landlord and the peasant were all aware of their respective position in revenue matters.
Fourthly, all kinds of details regarding the lands, the papers of the countless riots, the questions of their rights, etc., were managed by the lords, and their naibs or managers, etc. The servants of the zamindars were usually competent persons. They took their duties seriously and worked to the best of their ability.
Fifthly, many of the landlords believed in philanthropic works for the benefit of their tenants. In those days, the Government did not establish charitable dispensaries, or schools. Government also did not dig wells or ponds for people’s welfare. Such works were done by the landlords out of religious considerations as well as for gaining popularity. Some of them believed that the prosperity of their sons and grandsons depended on their charitable works.
Thus, in those remote days, the Permanent Settlement served some useful purpose.
Demerits of Permanent Settlement
Yet, the Permanent Settlement had its grave defects. Those defects may be classified as administrative, economic, social and political. They are given below:
Administratively, by giving the landlords the responsibility of revenue collection, the Government avoided its own duty. It was no credit for any government to have done that. The landlords regarded the revenue collection as their rightful work. But, they never thought if they had any administrative duty at all. Many landlords were oppressive by nature. They punished the people, tortured them and at times put them to great hardship for nonpayment of revenue. They did not always think if people had capacity to pay. In time of flood, drought or famine, many landlords did not show kindness to peasants. The peasants were too poor and too ignorant to complain against landlords before the Government. They suffered the indifference of the Government and the oppression of the zamindars. If the zamindar was good, the people were happy. If he was bad, there was nobody to protect the weak. In brief, in matters of revenue administration, the Government remained far from the people by throwing them to the mercy of the landlords.
Economically, the Permanent Settlement had several drawbacks. The land revenues were fixed in a random way. The nature of the soil, etc., was not taken into account. So, good and bad plots were assessed in the same manner. That was a defective system of assessment. Similarly, the revenues were fixed permanently. If the productive capacity of the land increased, the revenue did not increase proportionately. That was a loss to the Government. Out of the total revenue of an area, the Government took the greater part. But the Government did not do anything to improve the condition of agriculture. The landlord got his share of the revenue, which he spent for himself. At times, the landlord extended the areas of cultivation in his zamindari. But, the Government did not get any extra revenue for that. It went to the pocket of the landlord. Thus, in course of time, when areas of in cultivation increased, it is the landlords who gained. Neither the Government nor the people had any economic benefit from that. And when, the income of the landlord increased, his luxury and extravagance also increased.
Socially, a small class of landlords formed the upper aristocracy in the society. They enjoyed social prestige arising out of status and wealth. Their presence prominently showed the existence of a class of nobility at the top, and the class of the poor tillers of the soil at the bottom. Social privileges led to various social evils. The landed aristocrats of Bengal encouraged such social evils as polygamy and Kulinism, etc. Many landlords looked down upon others as socially inferior to them.
Politically, the British Government regarded the landlords as the loyal supporters of the Empire. In fact, most landlords remained loyal to the British till the last. When the freedom movement began, the landlords as a class were suspected by the nationalists as the agents or supporters of the Government and enemies of the people. Exceptions were there. But on the whole the presence of the zamindars, like the presence of the princes, was a great political strength for the British.
Those were some of the demerits of the Permanent Settlement. It lasted, however, as long as the British rule lasted in the areas where introduced.