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The First Firangis | Chap 3 | Lord Cornwallis & His Permanent Settlement

Previous one in the series – The First Firangis: Hey Pitt, What’s Your Act?

This British soldier and statesman was probably best known for his defeat at Yorktown, Virginia, in the last important campaign (September 28–October 19, 1781) of the American Revolution.

And yet he was appointed the Governor General of India? FTW!

Yea well, perks of coming from an influential & aristocratic family! He was a close friend of Prime Minister Pitt and of Dundas, the most influential member of the Board of Control. Remember these two guys from the earlier comic?

Anyhow, so Cornwallis stays in India as Gov General from 1786-1793 and his stint was quite remarkable.



A blue-blooded aristocrat, he discharged his duties fearlessly, and naturally was a stickler of justice and doing things right.

His greatest work was the purification of the civil service by the employment of capable and honest public servants.


He persuaded the Directors of the Company to pay handsome salaries to the Company servants in order that they might free themselves from commercial and corrupting activities.

Quite cool, right? For someone to have such foresight, am sure you guys would have wanted his ghost to preside over the 7th pay commission!


Here’s a brief history of revenue collection till Cornwallis arrived at the scene

  1. Clive, the founder of the British Empire, could not give to Bengal a good land system. The land revenue was collected from peasants through oppressive agents.
  2. Warren Hastings established a Board of Revenue, appointed European District Collectors but still there were so manyy villages and so few officers to just go and collect revenue.
  3. Hastings tried to experiment with a bidding system wherein one big player agrees to take care of revenues for ~5 years and then it’s his headache to collect it from the peasants. As you would understand, this led to oppression and extortion of the farmers. Bad move!

Here’s where Lord Cornwallis steps into the scene and gives the gyaan on *Permanent Settlement*


Cornwallis came from a family of landlords in England. In those days, the British landlords were regarded as the permanent masters of their lands. They looked to the interests of the peasants and their lands, and collected revenue from them.

… and this is where he committed the mistake of comparing apples to oranges!

He thought of creating a class of hereditary landlords in India who should become permanent masters of their lands. He did not realise that Indian Zamindars had no love of land, or the love for people but anyway, in 1793 (his last year of governorship), he instituted Permanent Settlement in Bihar, Bengal & Orissa.

  1. Permanent Settlement recognized the landlords as the proprietors of the land.
  2. The landlords were given the right to transfer or sell their lands if they liked.
  3. Of course, all their rights ended if they failed to pay the revenue.
  4. Interestingly, once settled, the tax rate would not increase in future, hence the name – permanent settlement.

Ques: In the interest of time & space, we would require readers to tell us the merits and demerits of Permanent Settlement. Quick bullet points would do.

Do you guys remember the Pitt’s Act of 1784? That act was amended in 1786 so as enable him to overrule the decision of the majority of his council, if necessary.

Reforms under Cornwallis would spread out in 3 major areas:

  1. Administrative Reforms – You already read about it, above.
  2. Judicial Reforms – Suffice to know that he was ably assisted by Sir William Jones in reorganising the civil & criminal court.
  3. Police Reforms – Remember the old hindi movies with Ranjeet playing the odd ball police guy who used to extort nicities out of the hapless heroine, well, that DAROGA was Cornwallis’ creation!

In the words of Marshman, ‘the daroga enjoyed almost unlimited power of extortion and became the scourge of the country”.

Questions, suggestions and comments

  1. Kavi Gautam

    How can we say Indian zamindars had no love for land and people. Plz xplain @confused

    1. Er S

      Actually that line is not meant to be taken that way. All he means is that the system was exploitative to the peasant.
      If you want an in depth analysis then here it goes –
      1. In the initial decades, the Zamindari System was exploitative as the tax was kept higher to compensate for the future gains.
      2. Both the zamindars and peasants suffered. There were new classes like the jotedars that emerged which challenged the authority of zamindars
      3. The situation of the zamindars and peasants got better due to increased agricultural productivity. Better than their counterparts in Ryotwari System.
      4. The indulgence in practices like Absentee Landlordism led to the exploitation of the peasants and increase in middlemen.

  2. Jayansh Singh

    Some of the merits and demerits of the Permanent Settlement system –

    Merits :

    1. It freed the government from the problem of fixation of revenue every year
    2. Farmers began producing rich crops on their lands, increase in trade and commerce activities which in turn made Bengal region most prosperous at the time
    3. Less manpower required in the revenue department so their services can now be utilized elsewhere
    4. Newly-appointed zamindars were sycophants of Britishers who supported them during the war of independence

    Demerits :

    1. Peasants were exploited by the landlords
    2. Although the revenue demand was fixed, the rent to be realized by the landlord from the cultivator was left unsettled(the most striking feature of Permanent Settlement)
    3. Landlords had to sell their lands if they failed to deposit the revenue in British treasury within time
    4. Loss of revenue to the British government as the rate fixed was on the lower side
    5. Rise in anti-British feeling among the Indian people

    1. Rini Sen

      Great points Jayansh. One more point which I am referencing back from NCERTs…

      The major issue of failure of this scheme was not totally Zamindars exploiting the farmers.
      It was the concept of Absentee Landlordism :
      Basically as urban centers became more prosperous, the actual land owning Zamindars shifted to cities and leased their lands to middlemen. These middlemen further leased their land. Hence the farmer suffered and there was hardly any investments.

      1. Jayansh Singh

        Thanks Rini. Yes, Absentee Landlordism or Subinfeudation was a major demerit. That would be an extension of point no. 3 under demerits. Landlords used to sublet their zamindaris in order to avoid eviction, which further weakened the system and made it ineffective.

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