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Economic Policy and the True Believer: The Use of Ricardian Rent Theory in the Bombay Survey and Settlement System

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 March 2009

Michelle Burge McAlpin
Associate Professor of Economics at Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts 02155


The classical political economists, especially James Mill, had a major role in shaping British land tax policy in India. Only in Bombay Presidency did the men who administered the land tax share Mill's view of rent as the legitimate and appropriate source of revenue for government expenditure. These men created a land tax of considerable complexity in their desire to collect only a part of the rent from each field and thereby to foster economic development in the region. Even with their cadastral survey completed, however, they were compelled to use circumstantial evidence to determine whether any particular level of taxation was less than or greater than the rent. Agriculture in the Deccan and the Karnatak did improve after the implementation of the survey and settlement system, but available evidence suggests that rising prices for agricultural goods may have been as or more important than careful adherence to the finer points of Ricardian rent theory.

Papers Presented at the Forty-Third Annual Meeting of the Economic History Association
Copyright © The Economic History Association 1984

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1 Smith, Adam, Wealth of Nations (New York, 1965). See especially Book 4, chap. 7, part 3, and Book 5, chap. I, part 3, second article.Google Scholar

2 See Keynes, J. M., The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes: Vol. XV. Activities 1906–1914, India and Cambridge, ed. Moggridge, Donald (London, 1971).Google Scholar

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4 Although Bombay Presidency was a relatively small part of India it was absolutely very large. At the time of the first complete census in 1872 it had a population in excess of 14 million. By comparison the population of England and wales in 1871 was 22.7 million.Google Scholar

5 Mill, unkindly, testified that he thought one reason for the permanent settlement was “The detail of the business was so great, that it frightened Lord Cornwallis…” Testimony of James Mill to the Select Committee on the Affairs of the East India Company, 1831, Parliamentary Papers, 1931, vol. 5, extracted in Winch, Donald, ed., James Mill: Selected Economic Writings (Chicago, 1966), p. 425. Stokes is the best source for a general description of the progress of the debate about land revenue.Google Scholar

6 Letter to Dumont, 13 Dec. 1818, quoted in Winch, James Mill, p. 18. Winch also notes that Ricardo may have been among those whose influence helped Mill secure the position, although he also cites evidence that it was Mill's History of British India that was the deciding factor (p. 17).Google Scholar

7 Winch, James Mill, p. 197.Google Scholar

8 Stokes, English Utilirarians, pp. 94–95; Mill's testimony to the Select Committee, Winch, James Mill, p. 424.Google Scholar

9 For the bureaucratic battles, see Stokes, English Utilirarians, pp. 110–39.Google Scholar

10 McAlpin, Michelle Burge, Subject to Famine: Food Crises and Economic Change in Western India, 1860–1920 (Princeton, 1983), pp. 103–8.Google Scholar

11 Stokes, English Utiligarians, pp. 99–103; McAlpin, Subject to Famine, pp. 108–9.Google Scholar

12 Alone or with others, Wingate wrote virtually every substantive statement about the philosophy and working of the Bombay Survey and Settlement System from its inception until his retirement in 1854. He continued to be an authority on the system and to be quoted and to have his advice sought for at least another decade. In 1865 he was made a baronet and a Knight Commander of the Star of India. In his nomination for these honors, Bartle Frere, Governor of Bombay Presidency, wrote: “Major George Wingate, retired from the Bombay Engineers has had a greater share than any man now living in organizing and carrying out the system of Revenue Survey and assessment which has been adopted throughout the British possessions in Western India, and from which the Government, and at least 15 millions of the agricultural population have in many cases for more than 25 years past, profited so largely, and which has done so much to attach to the British Government all classes of the population who were affected by it. During my 30 years experience in India I have known no man, with the exception of Mr. Mount Stuart Elphinstone the first governor of Bombay to whom I consider the government and people of this part of India under greater obligation than to Major George Wingate” (India Office Records, Order of the Star of India, Desparches and Recommendations from the Institution of the Order till 1870, p. 839).Google Scholar

13 Mill's testimony to the Select Committee, Winch, James Mill, p. 424.Google Scholar

15 There is a vast amount of debate about whether or not people who paid land taxes to the government owned the land. I use the term “own” because I find it convenient and at least as accurate as “hold” and “occupy.”Google Scholar

16 Official Correspondence on the System of Revenue Survey and Assessment (Bombay, 1850), pp. 10–12 [henceforth, Joint Report].Google Scholar

17 Bombay Presidency, The Survey and Settlement Manual, vol. 3 (Bombay, 1902), pp. 96–99.Google Scholar

18 Ibid., pp. 27–30.

19 Joint Report, p. 15.Google Scholar

20 In 1846 Wingate wrote: “For the first nine years of the diagram, we observe a high average assessment, and a slowly diminishing rental and cultivation, as far as the latter can be ascertained, indicating unmistakeably that the assessment was in excess. For the next five years we have a much reduced assessment, and in this period, it will be observed, cultivation steadily advanced…” “Report by Captain G.Wingate, Superintendent of the Revenue Survey in the Southern Mahratta Country, on the Survey and Assessment of the Bunkapoor Talook in the Zillah of Dharwar,” Parliamentary Papers (18521853), vol. 75, p. 389.Google Scholar

21 Survey and Settlement Manual, vol. 1, app. 1, p. viii.Google Scholar

22 Ibid., p. vi.

23 See McAlpin, Subject to Famine, pp. 113–31, for an extended discussion of the changes in agriculture in the Deccan and the Karnatak under the Bombay Survey and Settlement System.Google Scholar