A Policy of Credit Disruption: The Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900

by Latika Chaudhary (Naval Postgraduate School) and Anand V. Swamy (Williams College)

This research is due to be published in the Economic History Review and is currently available on Early View.


Farming, farms, crops, agriculture in North India. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

In the late 19th century the British-Indian government (the Raj) became preoccupied with default on debt and the consequent transfer of land in rural India. In many regions Raj officials made the following argument: British rule had created or clarified individual property rights in land, which had for the first time made land available as collateral for debt. Consequently, peasants could now borrow up to the full value of their land. The Raj had also replaced informal village-based forms of dispute resolution with a formal legal system operating outside the village, which favored the lender over the borrower. Peasants were spendthrift and naïve, and unable to negotiate the new formal courts created by British rule, whereas lenders were predatory and legally savvy. Borrowers were frequently defaulting, and land was rapidly passing from long-standing resident peasants to professional moneylenders who were often either immigrant, of another religion, or sometimes both.  This would lead to social unrest and threaten British rule. To preserve British rule it was essential that one of the links in the chain be broken, even if this meant abandoning cherished notions of sanctity of property and contract.

The Punjab Land Alienation Act (PLAA) of 1900 was the most ambitious policy intervention motivated by this thinking. It sought to prevent professional moneylenders from acquiring the property of traditional landowners. To this end it banned, except under some conditions, the permanent transfer of land from an owner belonging to an ‘agricultural tribe’ to a buyer or creditor who was not from this tribe. Moreover, a lender who was not from an agricultural tribe could no longer seize the land of a defaulting debtor who was from an agricultural tribe.

The PLAA made direct restrictions on the transfer of land a respectable part of the policy apparatus of the Raj and its influence persists to the present-day. There is a substantial literature on the emergence of the PLAA, yet there is no econometric work on two basic questions regarding its impact. First, did the PLAA reduce the availability of mortgage-backed credit? Or were borrowers and lenders able to use various devices to evade the Act, thereby neutralizing it?  Second, if less credit was available, what were the effects on agricultural outcomes and productivity? We use panel data methods to address these questions, for the first time, so far as we know.

Our work provides evidence regarding an unusual policy experiment that is relevant to a hypothesis of broad interest. It is often argued that ‘clean titling’ of assets can facilitate their use as collateral, increasing access to credit, leading to more investment and faster growth. Informed by this hypothesis, many studies estimate the effects of titling on credit and other outcomes, but they usually pertain to making assets more usable as collateral. The PLAA went in the opposite direction – it reduced the “collateralizability” of land which should have  reduced investment and growth, based on the argument we have described. We investigate whether it did.

To identify the effects of the PLAA, we assembled a panel dataset on 25 districts in Punjab from 1890 to 1910. Our dataset contains information on mortgages and sales of land, economic outcomes, such as acreage and ownership of cattle, and control variables like rainfall and population. Because the PLAA targeted professional moneylenders, it should have reduced mortgage-backed credit more in places where they were bigger players in the credit market. Hence, we interact a measure of the importance of the professional, that is, non-agricultural, moneylenders in the mortgage market with an indicator variable for the introduction of the PLAA, which takes the value of  1 from 1900 onward. As expected, we find that  that the PLAA contracted credit more in places where professional moneylenders played a larger role – compared to  districts with no professional moneylenders.  The PLAA reduced mortgage-backed credit by 48 percentage points more at the 25th percentile of our measure of moneylender-importance and by 61 percentage points more at the 75th percentile.

However, this decrease of mortgage-backed credit in professional moneylender-dominated areas did not lead to lower acreage or less ownership of cattle. In short, the PLAA affected credit markets as we might expect without undermining agricultural productivity. Because we have panel data, we are able to account for potential confounding factors such as time-invariant unobserved differences across districts (using district fixed effects), common district-specific shocks (using year effects) and the possibility that districts were trending differently independent of the PLAA (using district-specific time trends).

British officials provided a plausible explanation for the non-impact of PLAA on agricultural production: lenders had merely become more judicious – they were still willing to lend for productive activity, but not for ‘extravagant’ expenditures, such as social ceremonies.  There may be a general lesson here:  policies that make it harder for lenders to recover money may have the beneficial effect of encouraging due diligence.



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Landlords and tenants in Britain, 1440-1660

review by James P. Bowen (University of Liverpool)

book edited by Jane Whittle

‘Landlords and tenanta in Britain, 1440-1660’ is published by Boydell and Brewer. SAVE  25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 15th August 2019. See below for details.



This book, the first volume in the Economic History Society’s ‘People, Markets, Goods: Economies and Societies in History’ paperback series, revisits Tawney’s classic work, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century, published in 1912. It arises from a conference held to mark the centenary of the book’s publication and includes the leading figures in rural and agrarian history showcasing the latest research on issues originally discussed by Tawney. The book is logically structured. Keith Wrightson’s foreword provides personal insight as to attitudes amongst Cambridge economic historians who maligned Tawney. The first three chapters offer overviews beginning with Jane Whittle’s historiographical essay concerning Tawney, providing background to his Agrarian Problem. Christopher Dyer surveys the fifteenth century, given Tawney’s view that demographic changes were key in creating change in fifteenth-century England, providing the conditions for the ‘problem’ of the sixteenth century. Harold Garrett-Goodyear addresses the issues surrounding copyhold tenure and the institutional function of manor courts in promoting lords’ private interests as landowners and how this was reflected in economic and social change with the emergence of agrarian capitalism, greater social differentiation and the transition from feudal to modern society.

The remaining chapters are thematic, several of which are detailed local or micro-studies. Briony McDonagh and Heather Falvey explore the enclosure process at a local level. Complementing the rural viewpoint, Andy Wood shows how notions of custom and popular memory were prominent in urban society below the ‘middling sort’, specifically weavers of Malmesbury, Wiltshire, a cloth-working town. Whilst there is an apparent lack of evidence for Tawney’s sense of ‘ideal customary’, he suggests this does not undermine his view, conversely reinforcing his argument about the centrality of custom in popular political culture and disputes arising because of struggles over customary entitlement and urban identity. Providing a comparative dimension Julian Goodare searches for a Scottish agrarian problem, pointing out that whilst the two countries had different legal and political systems, similar processes seem to have been at play, suggesting a common economic problem rather than law or political structures.

Several chapters address the issue of tenure, Tawney having pointed to the insecurity of leasehold tenure and the increasing commercial landlord policies as being central to the agrarian problems of the sixteenth century. Jean Morrin examines a landlord-tenant dispute on the Durham Cathedral Estate over the abolition of traditional customary tenures, specifically tenant-right. She argues for a more subtle approach to leases in the early modern period given the various forms which they took, presenting a picture of negotiation and compromise, which not only encouraged tenants to improve farms, but also granted them the right to bequeath, sell or mortgage their leases to whomever they chose. Jennifer Holt explores the case of the Hornby Castle Estate in north Lancashire, analyzing the potential income from customary land and quantifying the shares of lords and tenants, demonstrating how manorial tenants benefitted despite the lord’s attempt to raise rents and fines, retaining their tenures on a customary basis.

Chapters by Bill Shannon and Elizabeth Griffiths look at landlord-driven agrarian improvement intended to raise revenue. Christopher Brooks considers the legal and political context, in particular the impact of the Civil Wars and Interregnum, highlighting the complexities which weakened Tawney’s assessment of the mid- and later seventeenth century. He highlights the common laws engagement with customary tenures by 1640, arguing that greater security afforded to smallholders enabled them to assert their rights more aggressively, with patriarchal and seigniorial landlord-tenant relationships being replaced by economic relations. Legal developments meant common law served the interests of ‘middling’ agricultural society and the gentry and that by the 1680s, land, including copyhold, had been absorbed into the market for both property and credit. Finally, David Ormrod reflects on the significance of Tawney’s work in relation to long-standing theoretical debates regarding the rise of capitalism and the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

Whittle’s short conclusion effectively synthesizes the chapters, showing that debates have progressed since Tawney’s work not least with regard to the newer approaches towards political, social and rural history. Emphasis is placed on the ‘blurred boundaries’ which existed, leading to disputes notably over enclosure and tenure. Developments in England are viewed in a wider western European perspective, with reference to up-to-date research and future questions identified. The chapters form a coherent volume which, as the title suggests, focuses on the changing relationship between landlords and tenants, a well-established trend in agrarian historiography. Moreover, while it is recognized that any notion of a sixteenth-century agrarian revolution has been rejected, it nevertheless rightly argued that Tawney’s Agrarian Problem, ‘remains a crucial reference point’, containing much to, ‘inform and inspire the twenty-first-century historian seeking to understand the changes that took place in rural England between 1440 and 1660’ (pp. 17-18).


SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher using the offer code B125 online hereOffer ends 15th August 2019. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291, and quote the same code. Any queries please email marketing@boydell.co.uk


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