Agricultural history of the Indian subcontinent - Geography for You

Agricultural history of the Indian subcontinent

History of agriculture in the Indian subcontinent
History of agriculture in the Indian subcontinent

Indian agriculture began by 9000 BCE as a result of early cultivation of plants, and domestication of crops and animals. Settled life soon followed with implements and techniques being developed for agriculture. Double monsoons led to two harvests being reaped in one year. Indian products soon reached the world via existing trading networks and foreign crops were introduced to India. Plants and animals—considered essential to their survival by the Indians—came to be worshiped and venerated.

The middle ages saw irrigation channels reach a new level of sophistication in India and Indian crops affecting the economies of other regions of the world under Islamic patronage. Land and water management systems were developed with an aim of providing uniform growth. Despite some stagnation during the later modern era the independent Republic of India was able to develop a comprehensive agricultural programme.
Grand Anicut dam on river Kaveri (1st-2nd Century CE) is one of the oldest water-regulation structures in the world still in use.

Early history
Wheat, barley and jujube were domesticated in the Indian subcontinent by 9000 BCE. Domestication of sheep and goat soon followed. This period also saw the first domestication of the elephant. Barley and wheat cultivation—along with the domestication of cattle, primarily sheep and goat—was visible in Mehrgarh by 8000-6000 BCE. Agro pastoralism in India included threshing, planting crops in rows—either of two or of six—and storing grain in granaries. In the period of the Neolithic revolution (roughly 8000-5000 BCE.), agriculture was far from the dominant mode of support for human societies. But those who adopted it, have survived and increased, and passed their techniques of production to the next generation. This transformation of knowledge was the base of further development in agriculture. By the 5th millennium BCE agricultural communities became widespread in Kashmir. Zaheer Baber (1996) writes that 'the first evidence of cultivation of cotton had already developed'. Cotton was cultivated by the 5th millennium BCE-4th millennium BCE. The Indus cotton industry was well developed and some methods used in cotton spinning and fabrication continued to be practiced till the modern Industrialization of India.


A variety of tropical fruit such as mango and muskmelon are native to the Indian subcontinent. The Indians also domesticated hemp, which they used for a number of applications including making narcotics, fiber, and oil. The farmers of the Indus Valley, which thrived in modern-day Pakistan and North India, grew peas, sesame, and dates. Sugarcane was originally from tropical South Asia and Southeast Asia. Different species likely originated in different locations with S. barberi originating in India and S. edule and S. officinarum coming from New Guinea. Wild Oryza rice appeared in the Belan and Ganges valley regions of northern India as early as 4530 BCE and 5440 BCE respectively. Rice was cultivated in the Indus Valley Civilization. Agricultural activity during the second millennium BC included rice cultivation in the Kashmir and Harrappan regions. Mixed farming was the basis of the Indus valley economy. Denis J. Murphy (2007) details the spread of cultivated rice from India into South-east Asia:

Several wild cereals, including rice, grew in the Vindhyan Hills, and rice cultivation, at sites such as Chopani-Mando and Mahagara, may have been underway as early as 7000 BP. The relative isolation of this area and the early development of rice farming imply that it was developed indigenously....Chopani-Mando and Mahagara are located on the upper reaches of the Ganges drainage system and it is likely that migrants from this area spread rice farming down the Ganges valley into the fertile plains of Bengal, and beyond into south-east Asia.

Irrigation was developed in the Indus Valley Civilization by around 4500 BCE. The size and prosperity of the Indus civilization grew as a result of this innovation, which eventually led to more planned settlements making use of drainage and sewers. Sophisticated irrigation and water storage systems were developed by the Indus Valley Civilization, including artificial reservoirs at Girnar dated to 3000 BCE, and an early canal irrigation system from circa 2600 BCE. Archeological evidence of an animal-drawn plough dates back to 2500 BC in the Indus Valley Civilization.

Vedic period – Post Maha Janapadas period (1500 BCE – 200 CE)
Gupta (2004) finds it likely that summer monsoons may have been longer and may have contained moisture in excess than required for normal food production. One effect of this excessive moisture would have been to aid the winter monsoon rainfall required for winter crops. In India, both wheat and barley are held to be Rabi (winter) crops and—like other parts of the world—would have largely depended on winter monsoons before the irrigation became widespread. The growth of the Kharif crops would have probably suffered as a result of excessive moisture. Jute was first cultivated in India, where it was used to make ropes and cordage. Some animals—thought by the Indians as being vital to their survival—came to be worshiped. Trees were also domesticated, worshiped, and venerated—Pipal and Banyan in particular. Others came to be known for their medicinal uses and found mention in the holistic medical system Ayurveda. The Encyclopedia Britannica—on the subject of agriculture of the later Vedic period—holds that:

In the later Vedic texts (c. 1000–500 BC), there are repeated references to iron. Cultivation of a wide range of cereals, vegetables, and fruits is described.  Meat and milk products were part of the diet; animal husbandry was important. The soil was plowed several times. Seeds were broadcast. Fallowing and a certain sequence of cropping were recommended. Cow dung provided the manure. Irrigation was practiced.

The Mauryan Empire (322–185 BCE) categorized soils and made meteorological observations for agricultural use. Other Mauryan facilitation included construction and maintenance of dams, and provision of horse-drawn chariots—quicker than traditional bullock carts. The Greek diplomat Megasthenes (c. 300 BC)—in his book Indika— provides a secular eyewitness account of Indian agriculture:

India has many huge mountains which abound in fruit-trees of every kind, and many vast plains of great fertility. . . .The greater part of the soil, moreover, is under irrigation, and consequently bears two crops in the course of the year.. . . In addition to cereals, there grows throughout India much millet . . . and much pulse of different sorts, and rice also, and what is called bosporum [Indian millet]. . . . Since there is a double rainfall [i.e., the two monsoons] in the course of each year . . . the inhabitants of India almost always gather in two harvests annually.

Early Common Era – High Middle Ages (200–1200 CE)
The Tamil people cultivated a wide range of crops such as rice, sugarcane, millets, black pepper, various grains, coconuts, beans, cotton, plantain, tamarind and sandalwood. Jackfruit, coconut, palm, areca and plantain trees were also known. Systematic ploughing, manuring, weeding, irrigation and crop protection was practiced for sustained agriculture. Water storage systems were designed during this period. Kallanai (1st-2nd century CE), a dam built on river Kaveri during this period, is considered the as one of the oldest water-regulation structures in the world still in use.

Spice trade involving spices native to India—including cinnamon and black pepper—gained momentum as India starts shipping spices to the Mediterranean. Roman trade with India followed as detailed by the archaeological record and the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Chinese sericulture attracted Indian sailors during the early centuries of the Common Era. Crystallised sugar was discovered by the time of the Guptas (320-550 CE), and the earliest reference of candied sugar come from India. The process was soon transmitted to China with traveling Buddhist monks. Chinese documents confirm at least two missions to India, initiated in 647 CE, for obtaining technology for sugar-refining. Each mission returned with results on refining sugar. Indian spice exports find mention in the works of Ibn Khurdadhbeh (850), al-Ghafiqi (1150), Ishak bin Imaran (907) and Al Kalkashandi (fourteenth century).


Noboru Karashima's research of the agrarian society in South India during the  Chola Empire (875-1279) reveals that during the Chola rule land was transferred and collective holding of land by a group of people slowly gave way to individual plots of land, each with their own irrigation system. The growth of individual disposition of farming property may have led to a decrease in areas of dry cultivation. The Cholas also had bureaucrats which oversaw the distribution of water—-particularly the distribution of water by tank-and-channel networks to the drier areas.

Late middle Ages – Early Modern Era (1200–1757 CE)
The construction of water works and aspects of water technology in India is described in Arabic and Persian works. The diffusion of Indian and Persian irrigation technologies gave rise to an irrigation systems which brought about economic growth and growth of material culture. Agricultural 'zones' were broadly divided into those producing rice, wheat or millets. Rice production continued to dominate Gujarat and wheat dominated north and central India. The Encyclopedia Britannica details the many crops introduced to India during this period of extensive global discourse:

Introduced by the Portuguese, cultivation of tobacco spread rapidly. The Malabār Coast was the home of spices, especially black pepper that had stimulated the first European adventures in the East. Coffee had been imported from Abyssinia and became a popular beverage in aristocratic circles by the end of the century.  Tea, which was to become the common man's drink and a major export, was yet undiscovered, though it was growing wild in the hills of Assam. Vegetables were cultivated mainly in the vicinity of towns. New species of fruit, such as the pineapple, papaya, and cashew nut, also were introduced by the Portuguese. The quality of mango and citrus fruits was greatly improved.

Land management was particularly strong during the regime of Akbar the Great (reign: 1556-1605), under whom scholar-bureaucrat Todarmal formulated and implemented elaborated methods for agricultural management on a rational basis. Indian crops—such as cotton, sugar, and citric fruits—spread visibly throughout North Africa, Islamic Spain, and the Middle East. Though they may have been in cultivation prior to the solidification of Islam in India, their production was further improved as a result of this recent wave, which led to far-reaching economic outcomes for the regions involved.

Colonial British Era (1757–1947 CE)
Few Indian commercial crops—such as Cotton, indigo, opium, and rice—made it to the global market under the British Raj in India. The second half of the 19th century saw some increase in land under cultivation and agricultural production expanded at an average rate of about 1 % per year by the later 19th century. Due to extensive irrigation by canal networks Punjab, Narmada valley, and Andhra Pradesh became centers of agrarian reforms. Roy (2006) comments on the Influence of the world wars on the Indian agricultural system:
Sutlej Valley from Rampur ca. 1857. A number of irrigation canals are located on the Sutlej river.

Agricultural performance in the interwar period (1918–1939) was dismal. From 1891 to 1946, the annual growth rate of all crop output was 0.4 %, and food-grain output was practically stagnant. There were significant regional and intercrop differences,

However, nonfood crops doing better than food crops. Among food crops, by far the most important source of stagnation was rice. Bengal had below-average growth rates in both food and nonfood crop output, whereas Punjab and Madras were the least stagnant regions. In the interwar period, population growth accelerated while food output decelerated, leading to declining availability of food per head. The crisis was most acute in Bengal, where food output declined at an annual rate of about 0.7 % from 1921 to 1946, when population grew at an annual rate of about 1 %.

The British regime in India did supply the irrigation works but rarely on the scale required. Community effort and private investment soared as market for irrigation developed. Agricultural prices of some commodities rose to about three times between 1870 -1920.


A rich source of the state of Indian agriculture in the early British era is a report prepared by a British engineer, Thomas Barnard, and his Indian guide, Raja Chengalvaraya Mudaliar, around 1774. This report contains data of agricultural production in about 800 villages in the area around Chennai in the years 1762 to 1766. This report is available in Tamil in the form of palm leaf manuscripts at Thanjavur Tamil University, and in English in the Tamil Nadu State Archives. A series of articles in The Hindu newspaper in the early 1990s authored by researchers at The Centre for Policy Studies [21] led by Shri Dharampal highlight the impressive production statistics of Indian farmers of that era.

Republic of India (1947 CE onwards)
Special programmes were undertaken to improve food and cash crops supply. The Grow More Food Campaign (1940s) and the Integrated Production Programme (1950s) focused on food and cash crops supply respectively.  Five-year plans of India—oriented towards agricultural development—soon followed. Land reclamation, land development, mechanisation, electrification, use of chemicals—fertilisers in particular, and development
Bhakra Dam (completed 1963) is the largest dam in India.

of agriculture oriented 'package approach' of taking a set of actions instead of promoting single aspect soon followed under government supervision. The many 'production revolutions' initiated from 1960s onwards included  Green Revolution in India, Yellow Revolution (oilseed: 1986-1990),  Operation Flood (dairy: 1970-1996), and Blue Revolution (fishing: 1973-2002) etc. Following  the economic reforms of 1991, significant growth was registered in the agricultural sector, which was by now benefiting from the earlier reforms and the newer innovations of Agro-processing and Biotechnology.

Due to the growth and prosperity that followed India's economic reforms a strong middle class emerged as the main consumer of fruits, dairy, fish, meat and vegetables—a marked shift from the earlier staple based consumption. Since 1991, changing consumption patterns led to a 'revolution' in 'high value' agriculture while the need for cereals is experienced a decline. The per capita consumption of cereals declined from 192 to 152 kilograms from 1977 to 1999 while the consumption of fruits increased by 553  %, vegetables by 167 %, dairy products by 105 %, and non-vegetarian products by 85  % in India's rural areas alone. Urban areas experienced a similar increase.
Indian Agriculture
Agricultural exports continued to grow at well over 10.1 % annually through the 1990s. Contract farming—which  requires the farmers to produce crops for a company under contract—and high value agricultural product  increased. Contract farming led to a decrease in transaction costs while the contract farmers made more profit  compared to the non-contract workforce. However, small landholding continued to create problems for India's farmers as the limited land resulted in limited produce and limited profits. Some Indian farmers. The 1991 reforms also contributed to a rise in suicides by indebted farmers in India following crop failures (e.g.  Bt cotton). Various studies identify the important factors as the withdrawal of government support, insufficient or risky credit systems, the difficulty of farming semi-arid regions, poor agricultural income, absence of alternative income opportunities, a downturn in the urban economy which forced non-farmers into farming, and the absence of suitable counseling services.

Since independence, India has become one of the largest producers of wheat, edible oil, potato, spices, rubber, tea, fishing, fruits, and vegetables in the world. The Ministry of Agriculture oversees activities relating to agriculture in India. Various institutions for agriculture related research in India were organised under the  Indian Council of Agricultural Research  (est. 1929). Other organisations such as the  National Dairy Development Board (est. 1965), and  National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development  (est. 1982) aided the formation of cooperatives and improved financing.

The contribution of agriculture in employing India's male workforce declined from 75.9  % in 1961 to 60  % in 1999–2000. Dev (2006) holds that 'there were about 45 million agricultural labor households in the country in 1999–2000.' These households recorded the highest incidence of poverty in India from 1993 to 2000. The green revolution introduced high yielding varieties of crops which also increased the usage of fertilisers and pesticides. About 90  % of the pesticide usage in India is accounted for by  DDT  and  Lindane  (BHC/HCH). There has been a shift to organic agriculture particularly for exported commodities.

During 2003-04, agriculture accounted for 22  % of India's  GDP  and employed 58 per cent of the country's workforce. India is the world's largest producer of  milk,  fruits,  cashew nuts,  coconuts,  ginger,  turmeric,  banana, sapota, pulses, and black pepper. India is the second largest producer of groundnut, wheat, vegetables, sugar and fish in the world. India is also the third largest producer of tobacco and rice, the fourth largest producer of coarse grains, the fifth largest producer of eggs, and the seventh largest producer of meat.


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