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We have in the present chapter very briefly reviewed the legislation which was undertaken by Lord Canning and his successors to secure tenant-rights to the cultivators of Northern India. No more useful or beneficial legislation was ever undertaken by the British Government in India. The wise administrators of the day did not desire to set aside the landed classes. On the contrary, they respected their rights while they also extended protection to those who actually tilled the soil under them. Nor did Canning and Lawrence introduce new ideas and new rights for the Indian tenants. On the contrary, they only defined, improved, and codified those rights which Indian cultivators had always enjoyed by custom for centuries and thousands of years. The historian of the Indian people dwells with pleasure on the legislation of these years—legislation which respected the great and protected the weak, and which was based on the unwritten customs and the ancient rights of India. The credit of this wise and beneficent legislation was principally due to Lord Canning who first gave the protection of law to Bengal cultivators, and to John Lawrence who extended the same protection to the cultivators in Oudh and the Punjab. History recognises the heroic services of these two men in saving the British Empire in India in the dark days of 1857; but history scarcely condescends to note the services which they rendered to the voiceless tillers of Northern India by their strong determination to save their interests and secure their welfare. It is the special privilege of the chronicler of the economic condition of the people to recognise, fully and emphatically, this almost unnoticed work of the two greatest of Indian administrators.
And while those eminent rulers limited the demands of the landed classes from the cultivators of the soil in Northern India, they exerted with equal courage to limit the demands of the Government itself on the landed classes. For they held, and rightly held, that there could be no permanent prosperity, no accumulation of wealth,
and no adequate motive for improvement in an agricultural country, if the Government of the country demanded a continuous increase of the Land Revenue at each recurring Settlement. Canning and Lawrence desired to limit the increasing demand in order that the people might be prosperous, and the revenue of the State might increase with the general prosperity of the people. Canning and Lawrence failed because narrower views prevailed with the succeeding generation of statesmen, with men who were less in touch with the people and thought less of the people when the empire was safe. The story of this controversy has a melancholy interest, and will be narrated in the following chapter.
THE famine of 1860 was the severest calamity that had visited the people of Northern India since the famine of 1837. It affected an area of 25,000 square miles, and a population of 13 millions. Delhi, Agra, Allahabad, and other towns suffered severely. The Government opened relief works for the able-bodied men and women who could work. Gratuitous relief was provided at the expense of the charitable public for those who could not work. The mortality was less than in 1837. When the great calamity was at last over, Lord Canning appointed Colonel Baird Smith to inquire into its causes and its extent. No better man could have been selected. Baird Smith had distinguished himself as the Chief Engineer at the recapture of Delhi in 1857. But his fame rested chiefly on those great irrigation works in Northern India by which he had extended the limits of cultivation and added to the food of the people. He entered upon his new task with all his wonted energy and zeal. After an exhaustive inquiry into the condition of the faminestricken tracts, he submitted three reports in May and August 1861. And he may be said to have discovered some facts which are true of all Indian famines. In the first place, he clearly showed that the famine was due, not to want of food in the country, but to the difficulty of the starving people in obtaining the food. And in the second place, he also pointed out that the staying power of the people depended greatly on the land system under which they lived.
“No misapprehension can be greater than to suppose that the settlement of the public demand on the land is only lightly, or, as some say, not at all connected with the occurrence of famines. It lies, in reality, far nearer to the root of the matter, because of its intimate and vital relation to the every-day life of the people and to their growth towards prosperity or towards degradation, than any such accessories as canals, or roads, or the like, important though these unquestionably are. It is no doubt quite true that not the best settlement, which mortal intellect could devise, would cover the skies with clouds, or moisten the earth with rain, when the course of nature had established a drought. But given the drought and its consequences, the capacity of the people to resist their destructive influence is in direct proportion-I would almost say geometrical proportion—to the perfection of the settlement system under which they are living and growing:"1
A careful and exhaustive comparison of the famines of 1837 and 1860 confirmed Colonel Baird Smith in this belief. The areas affected by the two famines were about the same; the population affected by the later famine was larger; and the other conditions were worse in 1860. Nevertheless, the sufferings and deaths in 1860 were far less than in 1837, because the land system introduced in Northern India, since 1833, was infinitely better than the previous system.
“Foremost, then, among the means whereby society in Northern India has been so strengthened as thus to resist, with far less suffering, far heavier pressure, from drought and famine in 1860-61 than in 1837–38, I place the creation, as it may almost literally be called, of a vast mass of readily convertible and easily transferable agricultural property, as the direct result of the limitation for long terms of the Government demand on the land, and the careful record of individual rights accompanying it
1 Report of August 14, 1861, paragraph 36.
which have been in full and active operation since the existing settlements were made.”1
Relying on the facts and figures he had collected, and on his careful inquiries into the state of Northern India as it was then and as it had been before, Colonel Baird Smith recommended a Permanent Settlement of the Land Revenue as a protection against the worst effects of future famines, and as a means of increasing the general revenue of the country with the general prosperity of the people.
“ The good which has been done by partial action on sound principles is both a justification and an encouragement to further advances; and entertaining the most earnest conviction that State interests and popular interests will be alike strengthened in an increasing ratio by the step, the first, and, I believe, the most important remedial measure I have respectfully to submit for consideration, is the expediency of fixing for ever the public demand on the land.”
“ It may be supposed that a great sacrifice of public revenue is involved in the concession of a perpetually fixed demand on the part of Government. It is to be observed, however, that, with a single exception to be noticed separately, the recent tendency of the measures of Government has shown a different conviction, and indicated a belief that its interests are best secured, not by general enhancement, but by general lightening of its demand on the land. ... The land would enjoy the benefit of such accumulations, and as a necessary consequence of the increased prosperity of that class which must always be the very core of Native society, and with the strength of the weakness of which the social fabric generally must always have the acutest sympathy, trade and commerce and general wealth would not only increase, but as years passed on the community must grow stronger and stronger, and the risk of its collapsing under any such calamities as that we are now considering would gradually become
1 Report of August 14, 1861, paragraph 60.