The British transformation of the Punjab – disruption and imbalance.

A version of this piece appeared in Firstpost on Apr 06.

Last time, we looked at how water shaped the Indus Valley Civilization, and inspired the Vedic inhabitants. Moving forward by a few millennia, we come to the British, who, with the defeat of the Sikh empire, annexed the Punjab to their Empire. History’s rhythmic drumbeats echo loudly in the valley, and in how the British transformed a community-based rural economy to a market-based economy, one that was, arguably, ill-equipped, mentally to make that transition, and left it vulnerable to external shocks. Since this is key to understanding “can the tap be turned off?”, let us delve in – by dissecting the transformation in four different ways: Philosophy, Markets, Impact on local resilience and geopolitical considerations.

Philosophy and Infrastructure – Control, Profit and Colonize

To the Rig Vedic denizens of the Indus Valley, control of Nature would have been unthinkable – they marvelled at the “unrestrained” nature of the Indus. To the British, however, the “capricious tyrant” of a river was a threat, an impediment, which, properly harnessed, however, became a revenue-generating asset.

Same river system, two vastly different philosophies.

To effect this, the British surveyed the land, its inhabitants, and then transformed the Indus river system through their canals, and the spirit of community through land reform. The focus, you see, was on maximising extraction, not adapting to what was. It’s useful to think of canal infrastructure as a physical manifestation of a particular philosophy. Seen that way, the canal colonies represented the ultimate subjugation of Nature to serve the will of Man as Ian Talbot writes,

The transformation of 6 million acres of desert into one of the richest agricultural regions in Asian was a stupendous engineering feat that was seen as the colonial state’s greatest achievement.”

Figure 1: Punjab Canal Colonies; By W. H. Allen and Co. – Pope, G. U. (1880), Text-book of Indian History: Geographical Notes, Genealogical Tables, Examination Questions, London: W. H. Allen & Co. Pp. vii, 574, 16 maps, PD-US,

The canals cemented the British control of a region, provided immense profits and secured for the British, the loyalty of their subjects. Let us visit each in turn.


First, the canal system functions as a unit, with some canal colonies dependent on water from another. For instance, The Lower Bari Doab Canal, part of the Triple Canal Project, diverted water from the Jhelum to the Chenab, and from the Chenab to the Ravi – an early ancestor of the River Linking Scheme, if you will. The local community’s control was ‘ceded’, structurally, to a non-local distant power. The canal systems depended on a single controlling unit to decide water allocation, release and timing – setting the stage for an upstream controller potentially “turning off the tap”. Was this threat always part of the design? After all, this way the farmers needed to remain in the ‘gora sahib’s’ good books, because he, the sahib, had his hand on the figurative button which delivered water to a dry land.


Second, for all the  paternalistic or “civilizing” spin around the canals, they represented a hard-nosed, highly profitable, revenue-generating investment for the Raj:

A few figures will show what a wonderful success the Chenab canal has proved financially” writed CH Buck gleefully in 1906. “…irrigates annually about 2,000,000 acres, while there is a net profit to the State of £450,000, which gives a return of 23 per cent on the capital cost”. The Raj profited in other ways as well. The freight alone on carrying away the “goods” of wheat, cotton, other food grains and oil seeds amounted to an additional £450,000. A handsome investment indeed.

An important point to consider is that the profit was possible only because so much ‘new’ revenue came out of those lands. This largesse that the canals provided went almost entirely to Pakistan upon partition – something that was a sore point, which we will consider in a later piece.


Third, the canals were a key weapon in colonization armoury, by securing the devotion of those militarily loyal to the Raj. How? The canals converted dry land, which received little rainfall, into irrigated land capable of producing one or two crops per year. The land became valuable only because of the non-local rainfall that was brought by the canals. This now-valuable land became a powerful new resource for the Raj, which could be given as largesse to loyalists. For example, Baba Sir Khem Singh Bedi, received about 7800 acres from the Lower Sona Parag Colony. Bedi was a great catch, he was a direct descendant of Guru Nanak, so had spiritual street cred. He also supported the British militarily in the first war of Indian Independence (also called as the Indian or Sepoy Mutiny) in 1857.

Initially, the land was granted to primarily to peasant cultivars, but not the landless labourers:

well-to-do yeomen of the best class of agriculturists, who will cultivate their own holdings

Land was also given to government pensioners and retired soldiers (if their service was held to be good enough) and to others who the Raj believed it should reward.  

As time went on, the later canal colonies acquired more of a distinctly military character  with land grants based on horse breeding, and reward for good army service. It also translated into the “Punjabization” of the army: in 1929, 62% of the British Indian Army was Punjabi. This is an important historical relic that influences decision making today. While post-partition, the Indian army began to geographically diversify their recruitment, the Pakistan army continued with its Punjabi tilt (in 2001, 71% of the Pakistan army was Punjabi). The result of which, Punjabis call the shots (and the water) in Pakistan.

The physical infrastructure ushered in a different psychological regime: of market over community.

Ushering in a ‘Market’ Economy

Arguably, the most profound change came by replacing community-rooted and managed farming, with a quasi-market (after all, the British called the shots) approach to farming. Earlier, during Sikh rule, as the indefatigable pen of Septimus Thorburn, a British settlement officer of the Raj, writes,

There being little money in circulation, most payments, including land-revenue, were made in kind. The revenue demand, therefore, corresponded with each season’s yield.

The British changed this with the summary settlement, where based on the speedy judgement of a few survey officers, community ownership of land was sundered, and land titles were conveyed to those found cultivating the land. Importantly, however, the peasants had only occupancy rights and not proprietary rights over their land. This ensured their good behaviour towards their imperial landlord.

But, as Thornburn writes,

The result is a sort of elaborate Doomsday Book, which permanently fixes individual rights in land and water

But the most profound change was converting a variable tax, based on the actual yield, to a fixed tax based on an assessment of the ‘productive’ capacity of the land and historical yields. Thornburn calls this:

“Without doubt a grave error was made upon annexation, in suddenly substituting for an elastic kind of assessment a fixed cash assessment.”

This asked a farmer, who had never handled coin in his life before, … to pay to his Government twice a year a fixed sum of money-crop or no crop.”

At a time of drought, he would now need to borrow to pay the tax. This is where the summary settlement played its part: individual ownership came with important new collateral, which could be leveraged to raise credit. The combination of required a fixed tax and a new source of collateral to a population unused to credit was explosive.

At the same time converted collective into individual ownership of land, … we made an unconditional gift of a valuable estate to every peasant proprietor in the Punjab, and raised his credit from the former limit of the surplus of an occasional good crop, to the market-value of the proprietary right conferred.”

This created the ascendancy of the money lender, which had profound implications for Partition (the Congress, for instance, was seen as the urban party) and Indian agriculture of the future. But this particular community-to-individual and local-to-non-local had one more implication.

Undermining local resilience

Because the emphasis shifted to ‘water from elsewhere’, and on a fixed tax, many farmers shifted to cash crops like cotton. Combined with the fact that community began to recede in importance, community-driven activities such as small-scale irrigation began to be neglected. As Mike Davis writes in ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’,

 “In the Late Victorian Punjab, as Singh has shown, the neglect of small-scale irrigation improvements in the noncanal districts brought about increased dependence upon rainfall and thus greater vulnerability to drought.”

This is not unique to the Punjab. We have seen this same pattern repeat in the neglect of the cascading tank system around Madurai.

There was also a widespread change of the microclimate of the area by decimating forests. Thorborn writes in his ‘Musalman and Money-lenders’,

Villages were therefore few in number, and much of the best arable land in the country-particularly in the broad valleys of the Punjab river beds was jungle.

Entire forests, thousands of trees, were cleared to provide timber to underlay the new railway tracks that would carry the freshly harvested wheat and cotton to the port to feed the British machine. Others write of this widespread, brutal transformation of a landscape. Pallavi Das quotes from the Public Works Department Proceedings of 1861:

It is found that the deodar timber is admirably adapted for railway sleepers, and every region in the hills, from the Indus to the Sutlej, is ransacked to provide the requisite supply. The resources of the Jhelum and Chenab are almost exhausted, and hitherto the forests on the Sutlej have been entirely neglected … The forests close to the water edge have long since been cleared away, and it is only at a distance of a mile or more from the river base that trees are found.”

Thus we see the transformation of Punjab left it vulnerable to external shocks. But for the British to extract from the Punjab, to subjugate the Punjab and to secure the Punjab was key. Was there another reason?

Geopolitical compulsions – The Russians

The nineteenth century witnessed a security and strategic threat – the Russian threat to North-Western India. The Russian Empire expanded in Central Asia, and, by 1850, it was about a thousand miles from the British Indian Empire. Some believe that the militarization of the canal colonies, and securely bringing them under British control, were in some part motivated by strengthening the frontier against potential Russian action. If so, it only shows how ironically history rhymes, because a century later, this was a similar motivation that drove American actions in the Indus Valley – which is what we explore next.

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