Migration and its Impact on Agriculture: Economic Fabric in Early India (Part One)

In absorbing knowledge, the discerning public today is presented with a limitless platter of documents, data, and research analyses to pick and choose from. In all compartments of human interface, the documentation base has reached an unprecedented high. For the researcher, the dangers in such a situation of information overspill are obvious: he is constantly hit with “word pictures” from all directions, and more often than not it is the researcher’s insight that helps absorb the good information and filter out the residue.
For the economic historian, however, such vivid descriptions of economic activity are either missing or enmeshed with irrelevant information, and his job becomes quite mind-numbing. While India is chalking its own path of modernity and breaking new ground in all aspects of economic endeavor—infrastructure, agriculture, industry, trade, the demand and supply equation, and fiscal policies—this post presents a random selection of word pictures that depict activities related to agriculture, irrigation, and migration of farmers at various milestones of Indian civilization.

Migration of Farmers and Agrarian History

India in circa 1500 BCE was a predominantly agrarian economy; 3500 years later, agriculture is even now the largest economic sector in the sense that it still accounts for about 60% of employment in the country, although its share in India’s GDP has been steadily declining (while it was ±17% in 2007–08, this share is likely to decline to 13.7% in FY13). The government is constantly devising new ways and methods to augment agricultural production, just as farmers are engaged in hitting on the right crop to produce. Our hunt for word pictures begins in the Vedic period, to which the first written records belong.


A Rigvedic hymn vivifies the importance of the produce of the land, and agriculture was obviously the mainstay of the Vedic people. The hymn also shows that the Vedic Aryan was well-acquainted with the art of sowing. In fact, several rituals were associated with sowing activity in those times. Besides sowing of seeds and ploughing, Vedic texts also mention other agricultural processes such as proper land usage, irrigation, harvesting, threshing, winnowing, and storage of grains. As we move forward a few centuries to circa 300 BCE, the literature sheds its predominant religious/ spiritual tenor and becomes even more graphic in the description of agricultural practices. The Arthashastra casts a clear picture of the importance of rainfall and irrigation in agriculture, various crops and the cropping pattern, and the harvesting and gathering procedure. Today, when there is a global concern over climate change and changing pattern of the monsoons, it interesting to compare the geographical distribution of rainfall in circa 300 BCE with that of the 21st century.

Region Rainfall recorded in the Arthashastra Rainfall in modern times
Jangala (unidentified, possibly referred to forest land) 16 dronas = 100 cm
Avanti (Malwa, mod. west Madhya Pradesh) 23 dronas = 140 cm 75-100 cm
Asmaka (south of the Vindhyas, in the Deccan plateau 13.5 dronas = 85 cm 40-75 cm
western countries (west coast of India) “immense quantity”
>200 cm


While accepting that the measurement system in early India might only be taken to be indicative, it is still apparent that rainfall patterns have remained largely unchanged over time. A normal monsoon in those days is remarkably close to the pattern today. Thus, the Arthashastra clearly shows the importance of not only adequate amount of rainfall, but also its proper timing and distribution over various parts of the territory. All these three factors are equally important for agriculture, and even a 10% variance in the monsoons can cause havoc with agriculture.


Speaking of irrigation technology in early India, the Baburnama (memoirs of Mughal ruler Babur, 16th century) provides a vivid description of the irrigation devices used in various parts of India. Interestingly, as Irfan Habib writes, the Persian wheel had by this time become the principal means of lifting water for irrigation in northwestern India and the trans-Jamuna region.

agri3           agri2


(Left) Figure 2.  ‘Saharanpore with a Persian wheel for raising water,’ from ‘Views by Seeta Ram from Mohumdy to Gheen Vol. V’ produced for Lord Moira, afterwards the Marquess of Hastings, by Sita Ram between 1814-15. Print at The British Museum Online Gallery

(Right) Figure 3. The Persian wheel on a chilly morning on the Ganges Plain. Photograph: Bret Wallach, © The Great Mirror, 2009 

The wheel continued to be used for irrigation through the Mughal and British periods, and Babur’s graphic description of the wheel, based on his personal observations, is a perfect fit even for the system followed in the 19th century (Figure 2), and the system followed modern times (Figure 3). It is worthwhile to emphasize the major factors that have contributed to the produce of the land through history.

Migration of Farmers

Besides the dependence on monsoons, availability of land in plenty, and irrigation technology, the migration of cultivators was another critical factor. The Baburnama refers to the migration of entire villages, the ease with which new settlements were established, and the setting up of the required economic “infrastructure” in no time. In today’s context, migration is almost entirely to the cities to support urban industry and infrastructure (and of course eke out a living), but in early India setting up new agrarian settlements was a frequent phenomenon. Babur’s reference to migration and new agricultural settlements is not surprising because, even in the 5th century CE, we hear of migrations of farmers and various other occupation groups. The major factor that worked in favor of migration in early India was the availability of land in plenty, unlike the situation today where it is at a premium or not available at all.

Migration of farmers and its impact on agriculture in early India are thus well-evidenced in literature. It will surely be a worthwhile proposition to look at such evidence for other indicators of the economic fabric in early India and juxtapose such indicators with those in modern times.