Sir Albert Howard in India

By Louise E. Howard

Chapter 7
Relations with Cultivators and the Treatment of Labour

General Relations with Cultivators

One of Sir Albert Howard's most genial traits was his capacity for human relationships. This was no less important an asset to his work than his scientific attainments and proved of great value during his years in India.

He was launched on a career of research at a time when agricultural science was being started as a comparatively new subject from several university centres and was concerned to prove its position as a branch of learning. The need for contact with the world of practice was rather wilfully ignored, and there was a fairly complete gulf of separation, for which blame was often wrongly put on the farmer. At any rate, it was assumed that in countries where formal education was lacking, the population would be ignorant, obstinate, and averse to knowledge.

Not even as a young man during his first appointment in the West Indies did Sir Albert subscribe to this foolish doctrine. As has been stated in another writing (Soil and Health, Sir Albert Howard Memorial Number, Spring 1948, pp. 6-7), he was in friendly and natural relations with the sugar planters among whom he lectured, advocating 'close and cordial co-operation' between scientist and planter, with even some sharing of research tasks. His own descent from a farming family of high reputation locally has already been referred to, as well as his intimacy with the Kentish hop growers, whose great experience and knowledge could not fail to impress even the most advanced investigator.

On arrival in India he met different circumstances. There was certainly here predominantly an illiterate population. Moreover, there were many faulty practices. He notes how very backward, for example, was the cultivation of fruit all over India; an early visit to Kashmir in 1910 to advise on the hop industry showed the cultivation of that crop as 'exceedingly defective'; he was surprised that even a small saleable crop could be produced under the conditions seen. (Report of the Imperial Economic Botanist for the Year 1910-11, p. 6.) Again, the utter confusion of the varieties of grains and almost every other crop was certainly baffling to a man accustomed to the orderly agriculture of Europe. The first picture was to confirm the general opinion, which viewed the Eastern cultivator as entirely dependent on the Western scientist for any advances which he might be able to make.

What was Sir Albert Howard's final view on such a question? As will appear in the course of this chapter there is in his writings a great deal of criticism on much that he observed among the Indian cultivators, criticism definite and decided; but there is also from the outset an obvious strain of that profound respect for the accumulated wisdom inherited from generation to generation which eventually convinced him that there was much to learn from the East: does he not call the Indian peasants his 'professors'? As he gradually shook himself free from the influence of the conventional schools of science, he realized what vast treasures of knowledge had been gathered in cultivation under difficult and often desperate conditions by those whose very existence was at stake.

In actual fact his views were directed to each problem as it occurred, and these problems not only differed greatly but were differently handled by the planters and peasants. As it happened, his early examination of fruits, tobacco, and indigo showed up surprisingly faulty methods. But when it came to the great staple crops like the cereals, there was quite a different picture; there might, in wheat growing, be confusion of varieties but, except for plant-breeding purposes, this was not altogether a disadvantage (the robustness of the wheats was possibly kept up by cross-fertilization; see Chapter 2); the cultivation of rice was extraordinarily perfect and even by the time Sir Albert left India the Western scientists could not state how it was done.

The explanation (this explanation is not derived from Sir Albert's writings) of these widely different standards of achievement among the cultivators of the East is surely obvious. In dealing with crops necessary to his existence the peasant is compelled to do his best; economic necessity may, indeed, sometimes push him too hardly and he tries to grow the wrong crop in the wrong place simply because he needs it so badly. (See Chapter 2.) But where the conditions are at all reasonable, he evolves great perfection of method in producing what matters to him so intensely. If, however, he has to deal with a non-essential crop, i e. grown for gain, his practice is much less certain and can be very faulty and careless. Such crops do not sustain life: they merely bring in money: the peasant is content to make a little cash in the easiest possible way, for a little money seems, in some parts of the world, a great reward.

Thus when Sir Albert arrived in the East, he found both good and bad. It is interesting to see how the faulty practices came to be forgotten in the overwhelming impression made by the general excellence of Eastern agricultural practice.

Tools and Implements

Sir Albert was always keenly interested in the tools used by the peasant. At first sight the great expenditure of human labour lavished on all cultivation operations in India with the help of very primitive tools appeared extravagant in the extreme; the introduction of more modern and efficient implements seemed an obvious direction in which Western science could help. In Wheat in India (pp. 77-86) there is a detailed review of many attempts made to introduce reaping, threshing, and winnowing machines on European models long before the Pusa Research Institute was created, and the reasons are given why almost every effort had failed, so that the experimental farms had speedily become 'museums of all kinds of European implements which were for the most part quite useless in a country like India'; a few years later he was commenting sardonically on the fact that he found, while on leave, small handy implements exhibited at Bristol for the use of the British smallholder but at Allahabad only large heavy machines shown to the Indian peasant. (Report of the Imperial Economic Botanist for the Year 1912-13, p. 16.) The poverty of the cultivator, to say nothing of the availability of abundant human workers, made such suggestions futile.

The existing system could not be radically changed, but it might be developed in useful ways. This must never exceed what the cultivator could afford, and, in a way, also what he was used to. This principle Sir Albert kept in mind to the very end, though he did not always limit himself to what the poorest could manage, but catered very largely for the fairly well-to-do man; his standard seems to have been the possession of a yoke of oxen; when more power was needed, the presumption was that the second yoke would be borrowed from a neighbour. Thus the maximum draught contemplated was four animals. This was sufficient to draw the kans eradicator, which has already been referred to in Chapter 1. Better implements would actually increase the efficiency of the animal team; thus the five-tine spring cultivator would increase efficiency threefold, and bring down the great cost of the cultivation of tobacco, though it was not a power machine beyond the planter's purse. (Ibid. for the Year 1915-16, p. 8.) When Mrs. Howard introduced some simple machines for slicing and paring in the drying of vegetables, she was careful not to have them driven by electricity or other power, but by an adapted bullock gear. The contouring of fields, again, was an operation entirely within the capacity of any ordinary well-to-do cultivator, and was, in fact, widely copied in many Provinces and Indian States.

At the same time Sir Albert was conscious of the disadvantages which the general backwardness of the population entailed. A passage has already been quoted in which this point is put (see Chapter 1), and the fact deplored that many excellent improvements fail simply through lack of the small amounts of capital needed to launch them; that meant that progress was most regrettably slow and the improvement of Indian agriculture most difficult. His own successes -- and they were startling -- could not blind him to the immensity of the problems to be overcome. Quite at the end of his career he was still stressing the fact that poverty, indifference, and illiteracy were formidable obstacles and that a rise in general standards of education was a crying need, without which little could be done. (Indian Agriculture, Chapter V, 'The Human Factor'.)

In the course of his twenty-six years' work in the country, however, some changes occurred. The following passage was written during the First World War, which was affecting the economy of the country.

Possibly Sir Albert was still rather too eager, even at this time (1916) in the cause of innovation. The history of his opinion on the most important of all the instruments of husbandry, the plough, is illuminating.

He starts in 1911 with categorical advice as to the need for replacing the old wooden country ploughs of India by small iron ploughs of a modern kind. The object would be to open up the soil more efficiently in the hot weather in order to get the sterilizing effect of the sun on the harmful soil bacteria, giving scope for the more rapid multiplication of the more beneficent organisms when the rains broke. It was argued that when the cultivators had been taught by example the greater efficiency of the iron instrument, a great market for them would be bound to arise. (Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, 31st October 1911, 'The Improvement in the Yield and Quality of Indian Wheat', p. 198.)

Ten years later he has a far better understanding of the question. The passage has so much bearing on the modern No Ploughing controversy that it is here given at length.

This principle, that whatever the Western scientist offered must fit into the general economy of the country, was also kept to the fore during the last piece of work in India, the experiments connected with the working out of the Indore Process. Throughout these investigations every implement used is an Indian one and Indian vessels of volume are adopted. The work was, of course, designed for India, but not every scientist would have taken the trouble both to work with indigenous tools and to record quantities in that way. It was sensible. Appropriate was also the demonstration, again at Indore during the first of the cultivators' meetings, of a strong and simple new bullock gear, by means of which any good cultivator could use his two pair of oxen to run a fodder cutter, threshing machine, or feed grinder; this, it is stated, would be 'a poor man's engine' if no other could be afforded, thus showing the peasant, by the ordinary working out of a mechanical device, how to make the best out of what he already owned. (Notes on the First Cultivators' Meeting, 11th-13th November, 1929, unpublished document.)

Receptive Capacity of the Indian Cultivator

In spite of the Indian cultivator's lack of formal education Sir Albert formed a high opinion of his ability to profit by what was shown to him. He started, after all, from a base line of familiarity with a number of facts. His knowledge of the soil may be described as unique; the Indian vernacular vocabularies for describing the state of the soil are far richer than anything we have evolved in our Western languages. Thus, in Wheat in India, in reference to the Punjab:

The list continues, to give the terms used for the different waterings of land, whether rain moistened, canal moistened, moistened by rise of the rivers, etc. In the succeeding pages a great number of terms are mentioned (some classifying soils by amounts of organic matter they contain) for other parts of India. Clearly the subject interested Sir Albert and convinced him at the outset of his work that the Indian cultivator's knowledge of his craft of husbandry was no superficial knowledge, but detailed, comprehensive, and very exact. (These soil classifications of India go back at least to the time of Akbar and were used by Government for purposes of the district revenue settlements every thirty years.)

Of the cultivator's industry there could be no question. There is mention on one occasion of a practice of ploughing fields fourteen times in a season. What was perhaps more surprising was the accuracy of eye shown in the capacity to level and contour without the aid of instruments. (See Chapter 3.) This was compensation for the absence of literacy.

But was the peasant also shrewd and intelligent? Would he have the wit to adopt any promising innovation? Sir Albert was fond of quoting the popularity of the bicycle and the sewing-machine (see above), which had spread through India 'with the rapidity of a prairie fire', to prove that the Indian peoples might be relied on to accept what was worth while. The condition for success was, however, that any proposition should be launched in the right way. Suggested improvements should be clear cut and definite and not too frequent; the point is made in plant-breeding that a constant stream of new varieties, very similar to each other, only confuse the cultivator and defeat their own object.

A second essential was to bear in mind the real difference between Experiment Station conditions and those in a country at large.

Thirdly, and the point seems obvious, it was essential to show results in the concrete. The cultivator must see crops in the field, the same sort of crops in the same sort of fields as he himself had to cultivate. This idea was brought forward early in 1910, when Sir Albert took the initiative in proposing a new type of demonstration at Pusa. He suggested that, instead of contributing to a forthcoming agricultural exhibition at Tirhoot, the whole exhibition could be much more effectively brought to Pusa. This was refused for 1911, the year proposed, but in 1912 a renewed suggestion won the day and the grounds of the Botanical Area at the Pusa Institute were lent, Sir Albert acting as secretary to the show. Tobacco and wheat were exhibited in the field, and, together with demonstrations on green-manuring, the value of pure seed, and of hot-weather cultivation, constituted five topics for instruction; plots belonging to two neighbouring ryots were also used for show purposes, the idea of sharing experimental efforts with the farmer, which Sir Albert had desired in the West Indies, thus taking effect. Lectures were given, repeated for late-comers, repeated again in the vernacular, and improved implements shown at work. Success was immediate. Fifty sets of a new spring-tine harrow were at once ordered by visiting farmers. The experiment was repeated in following years.

Invitations to address the Bihar Planters' Association followed and two addresses were given in 1913 and 1914. From this time on relations with the wealthier zamindars and the ruling classes in India became very influential and paved the way for the later arrangements with the Rajput and Central Indian States in setting up the Institute at Indore.

As time went on, the confidence of the growers was given more and more unstintedly. The new wheats, for instance, could not be grown fast enough to supply the seed in demand -- there was 'instant appreciation' of their superiority; the Pusa system of field drainage was eagerly copied; the recommendations on the cultivation of tobacco and indigo widely accepted; the new receptacles for the carriage of fruit bought up in bulk at Quetta; as for the sun-dried vegetables, the demand was twenty times the supply. (Report of the Imperial Economic Botanists for the Year 1918-19, p. 64.) It was true that patience was sometimes needed. It has already been noted how much work had been involved in launching the returnable fruit crate in face of the opposition of the Indian railways and its relatively high cost, but by 1919 the supply was being gladly bought up by the dealers at five to eight rupees, though had these crates been offered seven years earlier it was safe to say not one would have been purchased (ibid., p. 65); a gradual education in the possibilities of the fruit trade had had to precede. Such matters are a commonplace in any country, but it is hardly surprising that Sir Albert could never be got to agree, on the basis of his own experience, that the Indian peoples were unreceptive. In looking back on the past in later years he was at pains to contradict so false an impression. Often the time-lag was swept away by their eagerness.

The Formulation of a Definite Policy for Propaganda Work and Labour Relations

In spite of the great name gained for the Pusa wheats and the immense influence of the Pusa work generally, neither Sir Albert Howard nor his wife were finally satisfied that the fundamental question of relations with the population was being handled with sufficient vigour and enlightenment. They determined that transfer to their own Institute at Indore should be made into an opportunity for unique developments.

These developments took three directions: the training of students and of agricultural officers, the latter for local work; the holding of Cultivators' Weeks for conveying useful results to neighbouring farmers; and the adoption of the best possible conditions for the labour actually employed at the new Experiment Station, together with the arrangements for training such workers to be sent forth as leaders and teachers in their own communities.

The training of students was embodied in the constitution of the Indore Institute. Such training had also been given at Pusa. As will be set forth in the final chapter of this book, Mrs. Howard was particularly interested in the right way of handling such teaching. In the course of the first four years at Indore nine post-graduate research students completed their course and sought appointments in the various agricultural departments in India. What was more specialized were the grants and student-ships arranged by the various contributing States or by certain Indian benefactors for training staff for work in the States themselves. A number of agricultural officers were thus taught and there was also an interesting scheme for giving a month's course in general rural development to all the thirty-three tehsildars of the amins of the Indore State, five of these attending at a time. In these and other ways the contributing States were glad to look on the Institute as a great teaching centre in the closest possible liaison with their own officers and agricultural departments. The teaching was most popular and the visitors' quarters provided always occupied. (See Chapter 1.)

The aims were wide and went beyond the problems of cotton, beyond even the principles of agricultural science, to embrace, as already stated, general village welfare. Sir Albert was an enthusiastic advocate of the ideas of the late Lieut.-Colonel Brayne, who wished to see the scattered and divided work of the many authorities looking after the population concentrated in one co-ordinated effort, applied locally to specified areas and thence extending, in fact, the exact principles which have since been applied on a huge scale in the Tennessee valley work and in other parts of the world. (Great success has been achieved by such team work in Africa; see 'Team Work in Africa', by Fergus Wilson, O.B.E. , in Corona, Aug. -Sept. 1951.)

A second initiative was the holding of the Cultivators' Meetings. To some extent these had been foreshadowed in the 1912 and other exhibitions at Pusa mentioned above, but the actual model were the famous Cultivators' Weeks of Coke of Norfolk in the late eighteenth century in England. The arrangements were very carefully thought out, and organized groups were brought to the spot to see everything with their own eyes. Groups of visitors, 200 at a time, came for two days from eleven of the contributing States. They were in charge of officers, were housed and transported; none of the bewildering distractions of the large agricultural show were present, and everything was kept business-like, simple, and cheap. There were a series of definite demonstrations, what one might almost call lessons, six each day, on very varied subjects, cultivation methods, well-irrigation, crops, manures including composting, cattle food. The first meeting was held in 1928, and then annually.

The meetings were an unqualified success; 'flattery thick as butter' greeted the Director on the conclusion of the second occasion when one was held; they more than fulfilled the purpose for which they had been designed.

In the third place, as Director of the Indore Institute, Sir Albert Howard was an employer of labour. Field and harvesting work was carried out by a regular force of 118 persons, men and women, supplemented by temporary workers. What should be the policy of the Institute towards these workers?

The answer was bold -- an 'experiment', as it is called. Sir Albert's boyhood on his father's farm has already been mentioned; on the relations between employer and employed, he had good recollections. It was his business, as the farmer's son, to carry round the food and drink given in those days to the workers in the field; he described to me once the extraordinary care which was bestowed on carrying out this duty; there was an art in varying what was offered, especially for the hot work of hay-making, and home-brewed cyder, beer, small beer, tea, etc., were all provided in turn, at the farmer's discretion, whose reputation rose and fell with the skill he showed in providing for his workers what was so necessary for their comfort. On this point the standing of his own family was particularly good as excellent, generous employers. I have every reason to say that these fine recollections, gathered from the last years of the best period of nineteenth-century farming in England, were of profound influence throughout Sir Albert's life.

The scene was now very different. The first need was to recruit from the Indian villages 'an efficient and contented body of workers' in spite of the competition of neighbouring mills and factories. The initial attraction was to be regular and above all effective payment of wages. Something had to be done to ensure that there was no cheating of the workers, either by illicit deductions or by the more insidious method of inviting running debts at a canteen or store.

An outstanding, indeed, an unprecedented, achievement was the shortening of the working day from the usual ten hours to six in the hot weather and to seven and a half over the rest of the year. This was successful beyond all expectation and indeed so remarkable in the treatment of labour in the East at that period that Sir Albert was well justified in referring to it as 'a miracle' in the paper which he was invited to contribute to the official journal of the International Labour Office at Geneva.

Further points attended to were good, if simple, housing; really practical arrangements for securing a clean water supply; and medical arrangements, which were given free; for the women a nurse was provided in cases of childbirth.

Finally, a most interesting system of training for efficiency and promotion carrying higher pay was instituted.

The idea of passing a body of workers recruited from the neighbouring populations through an Experiment Station as trainees, to become on leaving the most appropriate and natural leaders in their own villages and communities, goes a long way back, and was apparently derived from an early trial made of this method at the Raipur Experimental Farm in the Central Provinces under the inspiration of Mr. A. D. Clouston. This had come to Sir Albert's notice while he was at Pusa, and he had even at that time seen the possibilities and had prophesied that the Agricultural Department of India might come to be more efficiently manned by training boys of the cultivating classes rather than by recruiting students from the Agricultural Colleges; detailed proposals had actually been put before the Government of Bihar. (Report of the Imperial Economic Botanist for the Year 1912-13, p, 27.) The idea remained and now received its application at Indore.

In summing up this 'experiment' Sir Albert states briefly:

On this question of relations with those whom throughout his life Sir Albert was deputed to serve, his attitude may be called at once original and determined. Both he and his wife gave much thought to it and never assumed it to be a question which would solve itself: they deliberately considered ways and means and applied them. This was largely the secret of the success which attended their work almost from the first moment when they arrived in India. They were, in this field, pioneers.


Wheat in India, 1909, Section I, Ch. XI: 'The Trials of Implements and Machines'.

Indian Agriculture, 1927, Ch. V: 'The Human Factor'.

The Application of Science to Crop Production, 1929, pp. 49-50: 'The Sale of Implements and Machines.'

Notes on the First Cultivators' Meeting at Indore, 11th-13th Nov. , 1929 (unpublished document).

The International Labour Review, Geneva, Vol. XXIII, No. 5, May 1931: 'An Experiment in the Management of Indian Labour'.

Next: 8. The Position of the Scientist

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