This article throws light upon the top three land tenure systems during the British rule in India. The tenure systems are: 1. The Zamindary System: The Permanent Settlement 2. The Ryotwari System 3. The Mahalwari System or the Communal System.

Land Tenure System # 1. The Zamindary System: The Permanent Settlement:

Early revenue experiments of the EIC brought tremendous sufferings to the royts and the land revenue administration was thus subverted. The entire period 1769-93 witnessed a continuous opposition from the ryots leading even to sporadic revolts.

Immediately after putting his legs in India, Lord Cornwallis in 1786 opined once-for-all settlement with the zamindars for the collection of land revenue. In fact, Lord Cornwallis cut the Gordian knot in 1790 when the decennial permanent settlement system was decided to be introduced in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa.

On March 22, 1793, the settlement with the zamindars, and not with the cultivators, was declared permanent which made the land revenue ‘fixed in perpetuity’. Hence the name Permanent Settlement (PS). Under this arrangement, property rights in land were conferred upon the landed aristocracy, subject to the punctual payment of revenue to the government at a fixed rate.


The system thus created a kind of landlordism in the areas where it had been planted by Cornwallis. The landlords, in their turn, were entrusted with the responsibility of collecting rent from the cultivators. Thus the zamindars were used to act as intermediaries between the cultivators and the state.

On any failure to discharge their obligations, the estates of the zamindars were liable to be sold by the government for the realization of their dues so as to establish the principle of survival of the fittest through the active market in land. To protect themselves against revenue defaults, the zamindars leased their estates to a large number of sub-landlords who, in turn, leased their lands to middlemen like patnidar, dur patnidar, and so on.

By making revenue payments punctually, zamindars were assured of no-enhancement of revenue and, hence, no resumption of land by the government. Hence the expression “PS”. The government demand for land revenue was fixed at ten-elevenths of the total payments collected from tenants and the remainder, i.e., one-eleventh, was left to the zamindars as their remuneration.

The PS introduced three interests on land—the government, the owners of the estates, and the tenant-cultivators—and two payments—the payment of rent by the cultivators to the revenue collectors who overnight (by the proclamation issued on 22nd March 1793) became landlords, and the payment of land revenue by the zamindars to the Government.

Motives behind the Introduction of PS:


The chief architect of PS, Lord Cornwallis, had some definite motives for its introduction:

Firstly, the ideological basis of PS was that the zamindars who had “complete command over the mass of the people” should play their assigned role by becoming the agent of progress in the way as British landlords were doing the same in England at that time. It was possibly envisaged by Cornwallis that the arrangement of fixed land revenue would address the issue of revitalization of Indian agriculture. Its twin purposes were: first, security of revenue, and, most importantly, the prosperity of Company’s commerce.

Above all, this land revenue arrangement would boost the confidence of people in property. Once landed property ownership psychology starts working, people would be induced to make larger capital investment in agriculture. It was believed by the ideo­logues of PS that this would usher in an agricultural revolution in India. And agrarian revolution in India meant fanning out of an industrial revolution in England. This motive has been corroborated by the Census Report of 1951.

The Report remarked that Cornwallis trusted the zamindars “to reduce the country to an agricultural land, to draw more and more away from indigenous trade commerce and industry, and have the sphere so abandoned to be filled up by manufactured imports from England and abroad.”


Secondly, the purpose of PS was to create a new loyal stable body of landowners after the English model as the social buttress of English rule. The newly created “hereditary owners” of land were conceived as the native agents of the alien government. Lord William Bentinck—the Governor General of India from 1828 to 1835—remarked that PS wanted to make the zamindars a bulwark against any social revolution.

Ironically, these landed proprietors were “deeply interested in the continuance of British Dominion”. That is to say, in the race for empire-building in India by the foreign ruler, the native zamindars would show interest if they were bribed. And the PS did it very smartly.

Thirdly, it was hoped that “the magic touch of property … would set a certain productive principle in operation” that would serve as an engine of agrarian prosperity in India. And, agrarian prosperity would, in turn, serve the British interest in various interconnected ways.

Firstly, it would secure a guaranteed income for the Company and the attention of the Government would be devoted to the establishment of good laws and good administration. Such a Cornwallis system, in the opinion of N. K. Sinha, was to mark the transition from ‘unregulated imperialism’ to ‘regulated imperialism’.

Secondly, agricul­tural prosperity could be deemed as a safety valve against sporadic revolts and zamindars were assumed to be permanent improvers of land.

Thirdly, prosperous agriculture would set in a chain of improvements in trade and commerce since the principal articles of exports were the produce of the land. Frankly speaking, England’s prosperity depended on “one of the richest regions of the earth”. Knowing this, Cornwallis engineered the scheme of PS as an important institution to sub-serve the British interests.

Finally, the PS arrangement would save the foreign Government from the nightmare of uncertainty in the realm of revenue collection. And the land revenue that had been fixed could not be regarded as a moderate jumma (i.e., land revenue assessment). This was strengthened by the notorious “Sunset Law”—the law that revenue must be deposited in the government treasury before sunset of the last date fixed for such payment. The policy of earning stable revenue necessitated such institutional innovations.

Land Revenue Arrangements under PS:

Land revenue was fixed at nine-tenth of the rent, which was “fixed in perpetuity”. Zamindars were strictly required to pay their revenues punctually to the government, without any claim for remission and reduction. In default, the estates of zamindars were liable to be auctioned to realise the revenue dues. Hence the name “revenue-sale” system.

Gifting the hereditary proprietary rights in the soil, the Cornwallis system retained the full power for protection and welfare of the tenants into the hands of the government. Cornwallis anticipated that such unilateral proprietary rights might induce zamindars to enhance rents thereby causing tremendous hardship to the tenants.

At that time, few had .proper documents or deeds of occupancy rights, i.e., ‘pattas’, and the illiterate attendants could be cheated easily with unfair pattas. Truly speaking, zamindars were unwilling to grant pattas. Cornwallis insisted that zamindars could be made to grant a written patta to every cultivator specifying clearly the terms of tenure, the exact amount of rent payable by them. However, the terms and conditions laid down in the pattas were so harsh that the ryots showed an aversion to receive pattas.

The rate of land revenue being very high, many of the zamindari estates were sold out for revenue falling into arrear. Seeing the dangers of proprietary rights in land, zamindars sharpened their weapons and demanded that they should be empowered in the realisation of rent as was used by the Government for the realisation of revenue dues.

The Government stepped in and introduced Regulation XVII (Sec. II) of 1793 which authorised zamindars and talukdars to distain for arrears the tenants’ crops, grain, cattle, and all personal properties. As this was considered to be inadequate, another arm was attached through Regulation VII of 1799 which gave wide powers of distraint against the ryots. However, in 1812, the working of the system of distraint experienced some sort of palliatives. Still, it was insufficient. Actually, the laws of distraint gave a blank cheque to the zamindars to defeat the ends of justice.

Another concomitant feature of the revenue-sale system was the encourage­ment of the process of sub-infeudation which brought into existence a chain of intermediaries. Under the process of sub-infeudation, zamindars sublet portion of their lands to innumerable tenure-holders, who grant temporary lease to ‘under-rentiers’.

However, sub-infeudation, as opposed to the spirit of the Cornwallis system, became legally recognised by the Patni (subordinate land tenure in Bengal) Regulations in 1819. Seeing the land revenue assessment heavy, these Patni Regulations aimed at relieving the difficulties of collecting land revenue by patni selling or leasing taluks.

Those who took such lease came to be known as dur-patni talukdars. This process went unabated. There were patnidars, dur-patnidars, dur-dur-patnidars, and so on. However, the Cornwallis system did contemplate only one or two intermediaries between the government and the ryot.

Critical Assessment of the PS System:

British land revenue and tenancy policies were moulded basically by a combination of greed for an increasing revenue and the desire for conversion of cultivated lands into a form of business investment. Cornwallis anticipated that the PS would encourage allegiance of zamindars to the British rule, efficiency in revenue collection, and the extension of agricultural activities. But the PS was condemned even by imperialists.

The modern apologists of imperialism like Vera Anstey offered an explanation that its introduction in India was an innocent mistake, made through simple ingenuous ignorance of the fact that the zamindars were not the landlords. But R. P. Dutta remarked, “This fairy tale is plain nonsense.” He stated that Cornwallis and his associates were perfectly conscious of creating a new class of landlords and of their purpose in doing it.

The PS shattered the age-old spirit of mutual dependence between landlords and tenants. All existing customary rights of tenants were annulled. Further, records of these rights were destroyed forever. Karl Marx remarked that the PS was nothing short of “the confiscation of raiyat land in favour of the zamindars”.

To realise the revenue dues from the zamindars, the devise of “revenue-sale system” or Sunset Law was engineered by the authors of the PS. Further, Patta Regulations were framed in such a way that the ryots found them virtually unacceptable. Failing to bear the burden of excess land revenue, zamindars demanded wide powers for the realisation of their rent.

The Government acceded this demand and passed the Regulation VII of 1799 which empowered zamindar to put his tenants in prison for non-payment and to sell off their personal chattels for the realisation of arrears of rent, of course, without any previous enquiry into the validity of their claim by a court of law. “There could not be any equality between the zamindar and tenant before the court of law. The wolf and the lamb were left to fight out the quarrel.”

In addition, the Patni Regulations sanctioned the practice of sub-infeudation of estates and holdings which meant diffused ownership of land or fragmentation of zamindari into small units and the creation of a hierarchy of land interests. Thus, the process of sub-infeudation was directly connected with the over- assessment of land revenue and the difficulty of collecting rents from the ryots.

Confronted with this difficulty, a long chain of landlordism had been created and the zamindars managed the rental income in a purely parasitical fashion. The patni system, with its ramifications, like patnidars, dur-patnidars, multi­plied under tenures and the chain of subletting rolled even to the fiftieth degree or more between zamindar at the top and the actual cultivator at the bottom.

Agricultural land was, thus, subjected to the pressure of too many rent-receiving interests who merrily exploited the tenants by raising rent. What is clear is that the governments’ share of revenue was permanently fixed while rent charged by different degrees of intermediaries continued to climb up much beyond the capacity of the cultivators.

The wordings of a district judge and magistrate in 1814 are worth noting: “…The unfortunate ryot is in the meantime ruined …Summum juris Summa injuria”. From a mere proprietor of land he had been reduced to the status of a mere tenant. The old ties between these two classes were snapped and the payment of rent stood as a link between them, of course in a mechanical fashion.

It has been said that the problem of landlord-tenant relationship was intimately connected with rent. The Cornwallis scheme demanded a fixed sum of revenue payable to the Government. But so far as rent collection by the zamindars was concerned, the Cornwallis Code was conspicuously silent.

Tremendous upsurge in population, rapid disappearance of local small-scale industries, the relentless economic law of demand and supply and the growing translation of laissez-faire philosophy into practice made the settlement permanent only to the intermediaries and middlemen but not to the ryots. This simply intensified the opportunities for feudal exploitation. Some ameliorative measures to improve the lot of the ryots were taken up in 1859. Even then, legal protection accorded to ryots proved illusory in practice.

As a result, the rights and privileges of the cultivators passed away sub-silentio and they became, to all intents and purposes, tenants-at-will. Truly speaking, “undermining the protection of ryots’ and giving a bias to the interests of the zamindars, the Permanent Settlement altered the balance of rural society in Bengal.”

It has been said earlier that the PS or the so-called “revenue-sale” system contributed to the growth of absentee landlordism. Being sure of an income on a permanent basis, zamindars left the villages leaving the revenue collection to different rent-seeking classes. Further, revenue demand being pitched high, it was not easy for the zamindars to be strictly punctual in the payment of revenue dues.

Above all, with their easy-going happy-go-lucky character and inefficient management they could not become punctual rent collectors. Consequently, the defaulting zamindaries were auctioned to realise revenue dues. In 1797-98, zamindaries covering 17 p.c. of the total revenue had been sold out by auction and their place had been occupied by moneyed persons from trade, commerce, government and zamindari services.

The country then witnessed the formation of the land market following this land revenue arrangement. All these factors increased the market value of the landed property and a heterogeneous class of un-enterprising propertied people flourished at the expense of the ordinary ryots.

Finally, Cornwallis hoped that the “magic touch of property” would give a strong inducement to the zamindars for the permanent improvement of land. But to the zamindars it had never been an exciting scheme and they did not stand out as improvers of land. This is because of the stringent conditions relating to fixed government jumma laid down in the Cornwallis Code.

Further, the Cornwallis scheme sabotaged some of the basic rights and privileges hitherto enjoyed by the landlords. Above all, absentee landlordism was a curse to the whole system of land revenue. Absentee landlords, in whose hands the agricultural surplus accrued, extravagantly frittered away these for conspicuous consumption without caring for investment in land. Cornwallis wanted to make the zamindar an economic man caring for profit and loss. But such expectation had been belied since attractive alternatives for investing surplus in spheres other than land were available.

These were:

(i) Money lending,

(ii) Buying government bonds, shares of agency houses, and

(iii) Land speculation.

Parking surplus money in these forms was more profitable than improvement of agriculture which was uncertain, and risky due to its monsoon dependence. The capital thus raised in these ways found an outlet in buying new zamindaries since land is a perennial source of status symbol. “Such an archipelago of zamindaries gave its holder not only the highest capital return, but also the greatest social and political benefits associated with such empire- building.”

Rentier classes also had no inducement to go in for entrepreneurial risks and, consequently, no inducement for innovation. It is worth noting here Ratnalekha Ray’s comment: “A traditional mode of production controlled by a creditor class of village landlords persisted open the basis of a backward technology of agriculture. Large-scale capitalist farming through increased capital inputs and improved techniques, as envisaged by the framers of the Permanent Settlement, did not develop in Bengal.”

In the ultimate analysis, the PS heralded the consolidation of semi-feudal land relations. Zamindars turned out to be mere rent-seekers. This new class of rural capitalists and landlords ‘lived on interest on agricultural debts and rent from land’. Oppositely, the poor cultivator in the countryside did not get any relief from this extortionate class.

The EIC remained a mute spectator. Hemmed in by a series of anti-ryot legislations, the PS resulted in a wholesale expropriation of the peasantry. Zamindars were looked upon as agents of alien government. The PS had been labelled as “one of the great wrongs”, “one of the most enormous blunders” made by the British government.

Search for Alternative Systems:

Despite administrative convenience and ideological considerations, the British Government had to think over other land systems in view of the deprivation of the government of its due share. The British administrators saw that the share of the government remained fixed at the 1793 level, but with little room for raising revenues.

The benefit of this land arrangement had been reaped neither by the actual tillers nor by the government but by the zamindars and their intermediaries. As the number of intermediaries increased, their incomes multiplied by several times at the expense of the government revenue. Highly elastic earnings of intermediaries enabled them to carry out frivolous consumption while inelastic income of the government was definitely an embarrassment to meet increasing expenditures.

Absentee landlordism drained out whatever wealth was produced in the countryside to the urban centres, leaving the agricultural society bogged in a miserable existence. Thus the euphoria which the PS generated in the minds of the British administrators was gradually petering out and the administrators went in search for other land systems. The motive behind this search was to make a revenue agreement directly with the ryots, thereby marginalizing the chain of intermediaries.

A new ideological consideration also played an important role as a reaction against the PS in Bengal. The ideology that became prominent at the hands of David Ricardo and John Bentham was known as utilitarian economics. So far as land settlement was concerned, Ricardian influence was tremendous.

In spite of being a zamindar, his theory of rent was basically “anti-zamindar”. This ideo­logical underpinning (i.e., utilitarianism) and the loss of faith on the working of PS in Bengal paved the way for the introduction of a new type of land system— the Ryotwari and the Mahalwari system.

Land Tenure System # 2. The Ryotwari System:

The follies committed by the British Government by introducing the PS in Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, parts of Utter Pradesh, and North Madras had not been repeated in other parts of the country. Credit goes to Thomas Munro for the introduction of the ryotwari system in Southern Madras, Bombay, East Punjab, and parts of Assam where subsequent zamindari settlements were made temporary in 1820.

Instead of creating a stable body of landowners and intermediaries, the new system proceeded to make a revenue settlement directly with the ryots or cultivators, not permanently, but temporarily without any need of creating the ‘parasitic’ zamindars and fostering growth through direct assessments.

Under this system, ryots were placed directly under the state who were recognised as the proprietors of land i.e., they could sublet, mortgage or transfer by gift or sale. Indulgence towards eviction of ryots from land had been rejected so long as they paid the revenue demand. Being a temporary one, the ryotwari settlement varied between 20 and 40 years.

In theory, as the ryotwari system bypassed intermediaries, it was a better arrangement from the point of the royts as it appeared to favour ‘peasant proprietorship’ rather than the permanent zamindari settlement. Under this system, the ryot was brought directly under the state.

Further, being the proprietor of land, it was expected that the ryots would make permanent improvement of land. It was argued that “the magic of property would encourage enterprise and help to raise the standard of living” . Again, the roytwari system was hailed by the alien administrator as the precursor of stability and peace in the countryside.

This arrangement thus helped to win over the cultivating classes to the support of British rule. Finally, elasticity of land revenue under this settlement was considered to be a boon to the ryots since revenue demands could be reduced according to the exigencies of the situation. This is because the system ensured the benefit of revenue increase in future in the event of extension of cultivation and/or the price rise of crops. But, like the PS, the ryotwari system too did spell disaster.

The condition of the ryots was very miserable under any system of land tenure—PS or the ryotwari system. While commenting on these two land systems, Raja Rammohun Roy said that, under the former, the cultivators were placed at the mercy of zamindar’s avarice and ambition and under the latter they were “subjected to extortion and intrigues of the surveyors and other government revenue officers.”

Because of the insatiable demand for higher and higher revenue assessments, the ryot obtained nothing beyond his food. The high rate of land revenue generally exceeding 50 p.c. of the gross revenue left virtually nothing to invest in direct agricultural production. As a result, the extent of cultivation remained unchanged and the ryot remained a proprietor of land only in paper. This sort of “magic touch of property” shattered the enthusiasm which private ownership in land was supposed to confer upon the ryot.

He was to bear “the woes of private property. The uncertainty of land tax hangs like the sword of Damocles on his head”. Very rightly, R. C. Dutt commented “A system of periodical settlement, which enables the state to derive profits from improvements made by private owners, is the surest bar to all improvements”.

Woes of ryots did not stop here. The not-so-infrequent crop failure due to the vagaries of monsoon and the tortuous revenue system inevitably led the cultivators to fall into the clutches of professional moneylenders who ultimately brought both the crops and the lands under control by loans. And, because of growing indebtedness, they found it almost impossible to extricate themselves from the hands of moneylenders except by parting with his piece of land. As a result, agricultural land became a vendible commodity.

With the growth of population, land achieved a high market value. Coupled with this, the growing indebtedness of cultivators led to large scale transfer of lands to a new class of landlords who happened to be non- agriculturists. It had been estimated that over 30 p.c. of lands were not cultivated by the tenants themselves in Madras and Bombay.

In Madras, between 1901 and 1921, the number of non-cultivating landowners increased from 19 to 49 per thousand; the number of cultivating landowners decreased from 484 to 381 per thousand; and the number of cultivating tenants swelled from 151 to 225 per thousand.

The ryotwari system, although it was advocated as a closer approach to Indian institutions, involved a movement to a pattern of rights closer to private property. It broke right across the Indian institutions by making the settlement with individual ryots and by its assessment on the basis of land and not on the proportion of actual produce.

In theory, under the ryotwari system, the ryot came in direct touch with the state. But, in actuality, it generally involved dealing with upper land-holding castes who were assumed to be more than mere cultivators. These upper castes extracted surpluses of various kinds from either tenants or agricultural labourers lying below them.

Thus, caste played a crucial role, blocking some groups from access to land holding and enabling upper caste farmers to control various forms of semi-slave or the so-called ‘bonded’ labour through a combination of social pressure and usury. Anyway, the ultimate pattern in the ryotwari system was too dissimilar from the zamindari system.

Land Tenure System # 3. The Mahalwari System or the Communal System:

Parts of Uttar Pradesh came into British possession between 1775 and 1856. The then Governor General Lord William Bentinck laid the basis of the Mahalwari system in 1833. It was first adopted in Agra and Oudh and later extended to the Punjab. Under this system, the whole village was treated as a unit and the village lands were held jointly by the village communities.

This means that ownership of property was communal or joint. Further, the village common or shamlat was the property of the village community as a whole. Same was true for the waste land. The village headman or a co-sharer was entrusted with the responsibility of assigning and collecting land revenue and depositing it in the treasury.

“Primarily each man cultivates and pays for himself but ultimately, he is responsible for his co-villagers and them for him; they are ultimately bound together by a joint responsibility.” If one of them was compelled to sell his rights to meet demands upon him, others had the right for pre-emption.

While the ownership of land was collective, the period of settlement, fixation of land revenue, etc., used to differ in different mahalwari areas resulting in different types of Mahalwari system. For instance, it was the zamindari system with the temporary settlement in Oudh and the ryotwari system in certain areas of the Punjab.

Despite this variation, the cultivators were placed at the most disadvantageous position who languished in the country in the 19th century while the landlords, moneylenders flourished at the expense of the hapless agriculturists. This system was the product of Muslim tradition and development parti­cularly in the Punjab.