Land Revenue System of Akbar

There was no Mughal land revenue system before Akbar. His father Humayun and grandfather Babur did not introduce any changes because they were the first conquerors of their dynasty and remained pre-occupied with subduing rebellions, consolidating empires and maintaining order.

A proper land revenue system was founded by Akbar. However, the system of Akbar was itself based on what Shershah Suri implemented during his short tenure. Thus, the land revenue system of Akbar was neither an innovation nor an invention. His indebtedness to the earlier rulers is immense but this has not diminished his fame as far as land revenue system is concerned. He followed the policy of Shershah with greater precision and correctness and then extended it to various subah or provinces of his empire. But this correction or precision did not came overnight. Initially was tortuous enough to turn peasants into beggars, and forcing them to sell their wives and children. But it was revised several times.

The first question is – what were the corrections and precisions Akbar did in the existing system created by Shershah? The corrections done by Akbar in land revenue system can be mainly divided into three heads as follows:

  • Standardization of measurement of land
  • Ascertaining the produce per Bigha of Land
  • Fixation of state’s share in that produce

Standardization of measurement of the land

In Akbar’s administration, we find so many territorial divisions and sub-divisions for the first time in medieval history. For political as well as fiscal purposes Akbar had divided his empire into 15 Subahs (originally there were 12 Subahs, but by the time Akbar died, the number stood at 15), 187 Sarkars and 3367 Mahals. He ordered a standardization of measurement unit and the so called Ilahi Gaj was made the definite unit of land measurement. This Ilahi Gaj was equivalent to some 41 fingers (29-32 inches), and was shorter than the Sikandari Gaj (approx 39 inches) used by Shershah.  The Gaj as measurement of land finds its origin during Sikandar Lodi’s times.

Standardization of land measurement was adopted to brush aside all kinds of vagueness in defining extent of land and to reduce extortion / corruption by officials.

For land measurement (Paimaish), a rope called Tenab was used in those days. Since, this rope was subject to variation in its length due to seasonal dryness or humidity, Akbar made reforms in Tenab also. Instead of an ordinary rope, Akbar ordered the Tenab to be made of pieces of Bamboo joined together with iron rings. This made sure that the length of Tenab varies little during different seasons of a year.

A further change done by Akbar was to fix definite measurement to Bigha of land. A Bigha was made of 3600 Ilahi Gaj, which is roughly half of modern acre. Several Bighas made a Mahal. Several Mahals were grouped into Dasturs.

Ascertainment of produce per Bigha

After the standardization of land measurement, Akbar turned towards ascertainment of the amount of produce per Bigha and the state’s share in it. Shershah Suri had already divided land into four different categories. Akbar followed the system and to make a comparative estimate of the produce of lands and fixed different revenues for each of them. These four types were as follows:

Polaj

Polaj was the ideal and best type of land throughout the empire. This land was cultivated always and was never allowed to lie fallow.

Parati or Parauti

This was the land kept out of cultivation temporarily in order to recoup its lost fertility.

Chachar

Chachar was a kind of land allowed to lie fallow for three or four years and then resumed under cultivation.

Banjar

Banjar was the worst kind of land that was left out of cultivation for five years or upwards.

Fixation of state’s share in produce

The best lands viz. Polaj and Parauti were subdivided into three categories viz. good, middle and bad. Average produce of these three categories, called Mahsul was taken as a normal produce per Bigha. One third of this Mahsul (average produce) was fixed as state’s share. The Parauti land also was liable to pay the Polaj rate (one third of Mahsul) when cultivated. Chachar land was allowed to pay a concessional rate until it was cultivated again to be liable to pay the Polaj rate. Banjar lands were also not totally neglected.

Further, the peasants were given option to pay either in cash or kind, whichever was convenient to them.

It’s worth note here that during British Era, the land was divided on the basis of natural or artificial qualities of soil in clay, loam, irrigated, unirrigated and so on. However, the basis of land classification by Akbar was on the continuity or discontinuity of the cultivation. Akbar’s vazirs had not taken account the soil qualities for ascertaining the produce.

Fixing Rate of Assessment

Once the land was measured and state’s share in produce was fixed per Bigha of land, Akbar next proceeded to fix the rate of assessment. This was the most contentious part and in fact several changes were done in the system till 1585. Firstly, Akbar adopted Shershah’s Rai system in which cultivated area was measured, and a central schedule was created fixing the dues of peasants crop wise on the basis of the productivity of the land. The state’s share was fixed one-third of the produce under the schedule (Dastur-i-amal) to be paid in cash. The peasant’s tax was based on annual system of collecting prices and settlements of revenues for the previous years. But there were several problems with this arrangement. Firstly, the prices of crops could not reasonably be applied  to the whole  empire. Prices were lower in rural areas which were far away from the urban centres. Secondly, the cultivators found it difficult to pay in cash at the official rate. Thirdly, this system was affected by corruption of the revenue collectors, particularly the Karoris appointed in 1573-74. Fourthly, fixing prices every year and doing settlements of revenues of previous years was a cumbersome practice. Akbar ordered that the settlement should be concluded for past 10 years. An aggregate of the rate of revenues from 1570 to 1579 was made and a decennial average was fixed as demand of the revenue. This brought certainty to collections and alleviated the problem of peasants to great extent. This was the so called Dahsala system or Zabti System, that was implemented by Raja Todarmal. This  remained a standard system of revenue assessment during the greater part of the Mughal empire. During Shahjahan’s era,  it was introduced in the Deccan by Murshid  Quli khan.

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