The ‘new land’ in Punjab

Published: July 20, 2012
The writer edits a quarterly Urdu literary journal Aaj from Karachi, runs a bookshop and City Press, a small publishing house

The writer edits a quarterly Urdu literary journal Aaj from Karachi, runs a bookshop and City Press, a small publishing house

Dr Indu Agnihotri of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi, in her paper published in the Indian Economic Social History Review (1996) under the title “Ecology, land use and colonisation: The canal colonies of Punjab”, summarises the huge project as follows: “The over 13 million acres irrigated by the new schemes covered all or parts of the districts of Shahpur, Jhang, Gujranwala, Multan, Montgomery and Lahore, Lyallpur and Sheikhupura, in all of which lay the Colony tehsils, as they were known. Of these, the last two districts were carved out of previously existing districts in 1904 and 1920 respectively, in view of the tremendous influx of population into these districts.”

Dr Imran Ali, in his paper referred to in my last column, describes the “new schemes” in more detail. Here I summarise and quote from his paper so that we could familiarise ourselves with the contours of a complex story of human planning, endeavour and manipulation.

In the earliest project, Sidhnai Colony in Multan District, it was some Sikh Badechah Juts from Amritsar District who in 1886, tried out the soils. When cultivation was found to succeed, the future of the colony was ensured, and there was no shortage of applications for grants … Of the total land allotted, 80 per cent went to Muslims, mostly from Multan, Lahore and Amritsar Districts. The remaining area of 20 per cent was allotted to Hindus and Sikhs … numbering around 300 with an area of 57,000 bighas, coming predominantly from Lahore and Multan Districts.

Sohag Para Colony, with an allotted area of around 90,000 acres, was situated in Montgomery District and was settled in 1886-88. Jat Sikhs obtained 38 per cent of allotted area, or around 29,000 acres.

Lower Chenab Colony in the Rechna Doab, with an allotted area of over two million acres, was colonised between 1892 and 1905, with further extensions in the late 1910s and 1930s, and entirely took up the newly created Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) District, carved out of Gujranwala, Jhang and Lahore Districts. Jat Sikhs obtained 38 per cent of allotted area, or around 29,000 acres. There were 484 such grantees. Thirty-seven Khatri Sikhs from Rawalpindi District were allotted 3,500 acres, or 45 per cent of colony land. Their average size of holding was 95 acres, indicating landlord origins. These grants were linked to a very major land grant of 7,800 acres, or 10 per cent of colony land, allotted to Baba Sir Khem Singh Bedi, who was also from Rawalpindi. Bedi belonged to a family of Khatri Sikhs claiming descent from Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith. The British believed that the family’s holy status gave it political influence in the Sikh community; and it had also supported them during the struggle of 1857. Two-thirds of the land went to immigrant allottees. These were Muslim and Sikh Jats, Muslim Arains apart from other Hindu and Sikh castes. A very sizeable intake of Sikh settlers from central Punjab occurred in the Rechna Doab. Since the major portion of soldiers in the army came from Punjab, military considerations continued to be an important underlying influence on land utilisation in the canal colonies.

Chunian Colony, with an allotted area of 103,000 acres, was situated in the southern part of Lahore District. It was settled in two stages, between 1896-98 and 1904-06. Grantees were predominantly from within Lahore District, among them Jat Sikhs were the best represented. In the area colonised in 1896-98, they comprised around 35 per cent of grantees. Around 12,000 acres were sold by auction, 5,000 acres were allotted in ‘civil’ grants to retired government officials. And 2,000 acres were allotted to military pensioners, whose share was to increase significantly in later colonies.

In the Lower Jhelum Colony, the military presence was far more pervasive. Larger holdings, known as Yeoman Horse-breeding (ghori-pal) grants, were allotted to members of elite rural families. They were required to maintain several mares (ghoris), at the rate of 40 acres per mare. Developed between 1902 and 1906, the colony was situated in the Shahpur District, with its headquarters in the newly founded town of Sargodha. Like its predecessors, the colony was originally intended to be settled with civilian colonists, to be drawn from north-western Punjab, a predominantly Muslim region. The feeling had grown that too much land had passed to central Punjab and to non-Muslims … Agitations demanding the termination of horse-breeding, or at least relief from primogeniture, periodically shook the colony. The growing discontent against horse-breeding was often centred around Sikh villages, where Akali and Congress sentiments found sympathy. But the military prerogative was such that the British held on to horse-breeding, till it was finally abolished in 1940.

Nili Bar Colony was situated in the Montgomery (now Sahiwal) and Multan Districts. The scheme covered approximately 800,000 acres of land with perennial irrigation, and 260,000 acres with non-perennial irrigation. The unique feature of Nili Bar Colony was that over 360,000 acres, or 45 per cent of perennially-irrigated land, was reserved for sale by auction. Thus for their numbers Sikhs, as well as Hindus, did obtain a disproportionate amount of land, an indication of their stronger economic standing.

The above facts may not be able to present anything resembling a complete picture; they are still useful as they indicate the kind of pressures under which a rapid change was being forced into the society in western Punjab. In Dr Agnihotri’s words, “the extension of canal irrigation meant throwing the weight of the Imperial Regime behind pushing settled agriculture. This marked the extension of the long arm of the state into the very nature and rhythm of life as well as changes in their actual and perceived status”.

Like all such huge interventions, the process had its beneficiaries and victims. The direct victims were the original inhabitants, derogatively called ‘janglis’, who were dispossessed in most senses. Another victim was the environment itself, the degradation of which affected many communities. There were political fallouts, too, which will be discussed in this space later.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 21st, 2012.

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Reader Comments (8)

  • Babloo
    Jul 20, 2012 - 11:53PM

    Why don’t you write this column daily, until you have completed this subject ?
    A wait of 1 week, between your columns, does not provide any continuity.
    Also, it would be useful, if you also referred to census figures by district between 1890 and 1940.


  • Hegdefunder
    Jul 21, 2012 - 12:38AM

    What is a point of this Article ? Its rather lame and incomplete in first instance and seriously lacks the basic facts in regards to the events of 1947-48 and really in this day and age time has well passed for Punjab to be ever viewed in same light !
    The two Punjabs have very different economies and it would have been nice to see an review of both since those dreadful events of 1947.
    Now that would make an interesting reading ! Rest assure !


  • Babloo
    Jul 21, 2012 - 4:26AM

    Eastern punjab, was the poorer part of Punjab in 1947. Western Punjab , was the most prosperous part of entire British India. After Partition, Easetrn Punjab was divided into Punjab, Haryana, Himachal. As per wikipedia, this is what their Per Capita income is today

    Figures in nominal dollars ( not buying capacity )

    Punjab 1415 Pak Punjab 1252
    Haryana 1917
    Himachal 1332

    In an interesting comparison of Pakistani and Indian Punjab, the report pointed out that the average annual growth of Indian Punjab (comprising Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pardesh) in the last decade averaged around 8 percent while Pakistani Punjab posted average growth of 4.5 percent. The agricultural growth rate of Pakistani and Indian Punjab was similar but the industry in Indian Punjab posted average growth of 10 percent compared with 7 percent in Pakistani Punjab. Yields of wheat, rice and sugarcane in Indian Punjab is 65 percent, 77 percent and 18 percent higher.


  • anand singh
    Jul 21, 2012 - 9:05AM

    @ babloo

    W Punjab inherited better irrigation systems – the head-works in most cases remained in India, the IWT also effectively shut of three rivers flowing into Pak.

    This could be a reason for poorer performance in the agricultural field.

    Industrially , W Punjab was never a match to E Punjab.

    Your views ?


  • shaz
    Jul 21, 2012 - 10:29AM

    Mr. Ajmal Kamal has provided useful information about kind of modalities used for attracting cultivators in perennial irrigated areas of western Punjab. However, I do beg to differ about his one conclusion that as result of such land grants, the local people were deprived of the land awards. Even today, please have a look at the feudal lords, as evident from the representation of elected institutions, only locals dominate. As I belong to southern Punjab, I have yet to meet a Muslim feudal lord who was either a settler or immigrant from the upper united Punjab.

    In my view, settlers were brought in from east Punjab, having some experience in irrigated agriculture, to cultivate new lands owned by the local land-lords ( I must say that such policy was based on the preference of local feudal lords as evident from the case of Bahawalpur). Since, other local people had limited experience in irrigated agriculture, local feudal lords preferred settlers from the upper Punjab where rains was more and then Persian-wheel supported irrigated agriculture was being practiced.

    hence, blaming settlers, a new kind of economic slaves, for depriving the locals is misplaced view to say the least. After the partition, new immigrants and settlers were able to get their small parcels of lands transferred through claims as per their small holding in upper united Punjab. In this process, the settlers and immigrants were replaced with locals as the tenants of the local feudal lords whereas the settlers and immigrants preferred to cultivate their own lands. Let us be responsible and careful in deriving such casual conclusions that can become a propaganda tool in the hands of those who are bent upon to make Punjab another Karachi.


  • Narain
    Jul 21, 2012 - 1:03PM

    How did this social engineering effort by the British affect the demographic picture of Lahore city itself? Would it have remained a predominantly non-Muslim city?

    In some Tehsils, Muslims were allotted more land and in some others, non-Muslims had advantage. However, perception matters. If the case that is sought to be made in this series of articles and in Mr. Imran Ali’s thesis – that non-Muslims had advantage in agricultural land allotment and possession – is true, what strikes me as noteworthy from this narrative is that, it appears, the ‘other factor’ was NOT considered at all by the partition council headed by Sir Radcliffe.

    Not totally unrelated to the topic, I have a question. If I remember correctly, Mr. Ishtiaq Ahmed has noted elsewhere that in 1901 census, for the first time Muslims became majority in united Punjab. Also, as this article ascertains, non-Muslims had an advantage economically and in terms of agricultural land-holding. However, Muslim leadership had a disproportionate and profoundly upper hand in Punjab politically throughout the period, up until partition. How could they achieve that?

    Whether they were Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs, their sufferings were all equally sorrowful, because they ALL were human beings. Attempting to discriminate one from the other is no less cruel than the savagery that originally caused the carnage.

    Mr.Ishtiaq Ahmed and Mr. Amal Kamal are doing a great service to the people of our subcontinent particularly that of Punjab that would help heal the wounds of that unspeakable trauma. Thanks, gentlemen!


  • Dushmann (let there be peace)
    Jul 21, 2012 - 1:55PM

    Thanks for information. I had may times requested Mr Riaz Haq -who is a great blogspot scholar on Indo-Pak comparisons- for such a comparison between Pakistani Punjab and Indian Punjab/haryana/HP, but Inever got a reply.
    Also I wish someone posts a comparison of Sindh with Maharashtra and Gujarat which were all part of same Mumbai province. Other tribal states of Pakistan, should be compared with Tribal majority states in central and North-east India.
    I think such comparisons will give more correct picture, rather than comparing West Pakistan directly with entire India.


  • Ken Bryant
    Jul 21, 2012 - 10:09PM

    I find your articles to be a wonderful counterbalance to the usual fare of “crisis management”. I look forward to more of the same!


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