Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.

Peasantry of India attached to no existing Government—Want of Trees in Upper India [1]—Cause and Consequence—Wells and Groves

What strikes one most after crossing the Chambal is, I think, the improved size and bearing of the men; they are much stouter, and more bold and manly, without being at all less respectful. They are certainly a noble peasantry, full of courage, spirit, and intelligence; and heartily do I wish that we could adopt any system that would give our Government a deep root in their affections, or link their interests inseparably with its prosperity; for, with all its defects, life, property, and character are certainly more secure, and all their advantages more freely enjoyed under our Government than under any other they have ever heard of, or that exists at present in any other part of the country.


The eternal subdivision of the landed property reduces them too much to one common level, and prevents the formation of that middle class which is the basis of all that is great and good in European societies—the great vivifying spirit which animates all that is good above it in the community.[2]


It is a singular fact that the peasantry, and, I may say, the landed interest of the country generally, have never been the friends of any existing government, have never considered their interests and that of their government the same; and, consequently, have never felt any desire for its success or its duration.[3]


The towns and villages all stand upon high mounds formed of the debris of former towns and villages, that have been accumulating, most of them, for thousands of years. They are for the most part mere collections of wretched hovels built of frail materials, and destined only for a brief period.


Man wants but little here below,

Nor wants that little long.[4]


And certainly there is no climate in the world where man wants less than in this of India generally, and Upper India particularly. The peasant lives in the open air; and a house to him is merely a thing to eat and sleep in, and to give him shelter in the storm, which comes upon him but seldom, and never in a pitiless shape. The society of his friends he enjoys in the open air, and he never furnishes his house for their reception or for display.


The peasantry of India, in consequence of living and talking so much in the open air, have all stentorian voices, which they find it exceedingly difficult to modulate to our taste when they come into our rooms.


Another thing in this part of India strikes a traveller from other parts—the want of groves of fruit-trees around the villages and along the roads. In every other part of India he can at every stage have his tents pitched in a grove of mango-trees, that defend his followers from the direct rays of the sun in the daytime, and from the cold dews at night; but in the district above Agra, he may go for ten marches without getting the shelter of a grove in one.[5]


The Sikhs, the Marāthās, the Jāts, and the Pathāns destroyed them all during the disorders attending the decline of the Muhammadan empire; and they have never been renewed, because no man could feel secure that they would be suffered to stand ten years. A Hindoo believes that his soul in the next world is benefited by the blessings and grateful feelings of those of his fellow creatures who unmolested eat the fruit and enjoy the shade of the trees he has planted during his sojourn in this world; and, unless he can feel assured that the traveller and the public in general will be permitted to do so, he can have no hope of any permanent benefit from his good work.


It might as well be cut down as pass into the hands of another person who had no feeling of interest in the eternal repose of the soul of the planter. That person would himself have no advantage in the next world from giving the fruit and the shade of the trees to the public, since the prayers of those who enjoyed them would be offered for the soul of the planter, and not for his—he, therefore, takes all their advantage to himself in this world, and the planter and the public are defrauded.


Our Government thought they had done enough to encourage the renewal of these groves, when by a regulation they gave to the present lessees of villages the privilege of planting them themselves, or permitting others to plant them; but where they held their leases for a term of only five years, of course they would be unwilling to plant them. They might lose their lease when the term expired, or forfeit it before; and the successor would have the land on which the trees stood, and would be able to exclude the public, if not the proprietor, from the enjoyment of any of their advantages.


Our Government has, in effect, during the thirty-five years that it has held the dominion of the North-Western Provinces,[6] prohibited the planting of mango groves, while the old ones are every year disappearing. On the resumption of rent-free lands, even the ground on which the finest of these groves stand has been recklessly resumed, and the proprietors told me that they may keep the trees they have, but cannot be allowed to renew them, as the lands are become the property of Government.


The lands of groves that have been the pride of families for a century and a half have been thus resumed. Government is not aware of the irreparable mischief they do the country they govern by such measures.[7]


On my way back from Meerut, after the conversation already related with the farmer of a small village (ante, chapter 58, text at [7]), my tents were one day pitched, in the month of December, amidst some very fine garden cultivation in the district of Alīgarh;[8] and in the evening I walked out as usual to have some talk with the peasantry.


I came to a neighbouring well at which four pair of bullocks were employed watering the surrounding fields of wheat for the market, and vegetables for the families of the cultivators. Four men were employed at the well, and two more in guiding the water into the little embanked squares into which they divide their fields.


I soon discovered that the most intelligent of the four was a Jāt; and I had a good deal of conversation with him as he stood landing the leather buckets, as the two pair of bullocks on his side of the well drew them to the top, a distance of forty cubits from the surface of the water beneath.


'Who built this well?' I began.


'It was built by one of my ancestors, six generations ago.'


'How much longer will it last?'


'Ten generations more, I hope; for it is now just as good as when first made. It is of 'pakkā' bricks without mortar cement.'[9]


'How many waterings do you give?'


'If there should be no rain, we shall require to give the land six waterings, as the water is sweet; had it been brackish four would do. Brackish water is better for wheat than sweet water; but it is not so good for vegetables or sugar-cane.'


'How many "bīghās" are watered from this well?'


'We water twenty "bīghās", or one hundred and five "jarībs", from this well.'[10]


'And you pay the Government how much?'


'One hundred rupees, at the rate of five rupees the bīghā. But only the five immediately around the well are mine, the rest belong to others.'


'But the well belongs to you; and I suppose you get from the proprietors of the other fifteen something for your water?'


'Nothing. There is more water for my five bīghās, and I give them what they require gratis; they acknowledge that it is a gift from me, and that is all I want.'


'And what does the land beyond the range of your water of the same quality pay?'


'It pays at the rate of two rupees the bīghā, and it is with difficulty that they can be made to pay that. Water, sir, is a great thing, and with that and manure we get good crops from the land.'[11]


'How many returns of the seed?'


'From these twenty bīghās with six waterings, and cross ploughing, and good manure, we contrive to get twenty returns; that is, if God is pleased with us and blesses our efforts.'


'And you maintain your family comfortably out of the return from your five?'


'If they were mine I could; but we had two or three bad seasons seven years ago, and I was obliged to borrow eighty rupees from our banker at 24 per cent., for the subsistence of my family. I have hardly been able to pay him the interest with all I can earn by my labour, and I now serve him upon two rupees a month.'


'But that is not enough to maintain you and your family?'


'No; but he only requires my services for half the day, and during the other half I work with others to get enough for them.'


'And when do you expect to pay off your debt?'


'God only knows; if I exert myself, and keep a good "nīyat" (pure mind or intentions), he will enable me or my children to do so some day or other. In the meantime he has my five bīghās of land in mortgage, and I serve him in the cultivation.'


'But under those misfortunes, you could surely venture to demand something from the proprietors of the other fifteen bīghās for the water of your well?'


'Never, sir; it would be said all over the country that such an one sold God's water for his neighbours' fields, and I should be ashamed to show my face. Though poor, and obliged to work hard, and serve others, I have still too much pride for that.'


'How many bullocks are required for the tillage of these twenty bīghās watered from your well?'


'These eight bullocks do all the work; they are dear now. This was purchased the other day on the death of the old one, for twenty- six rupees. They cost about fifty rupees a pair—the late famine has made them dear.'[12]


'What did the well cost in making?'


'I have heard that it cost about one hundred and twenty rupees; it would cost about that sum to make one of this kind in the present day, not more.'