When agricultural crops are produced for the market it is called commercialisation of agriculture. Some crops, like indigo, cotton, sugarcane, are made only for sale but some crops are made for consumption as well as sale like foodgrains. The Mughals and the Delhi Sultans preferred to collect land revenue in cash, therefore, the peasants had to sell their crops in the market. The commercialisation of agriculture, thus, was not new to the Indian economy in the British period. However, its nature and impact were new.
The rapid industrialisation in England was one important reason for the change in the crop pattern in India. The English factories and mills needed cotton, indigo, sugarcane, wheat, tea, tobacco, etc. The British made the policies and development to suit their commercial interest. Railways and road network were developed along with ports so that they could easily export the agricultural raw material from India. With the invention of the steam engine (1769) and opening of Suez Canal (1869), transportation of agricultural raw material became much easier. To make it further attractive, the British Government reduced heavily the freight rate from agricultural produce including wheat and rice. Many peasants were encouraged to grow cash crops when they saw the possibility of earning a good profit through them. At some places, the peasants also cultivated cash crops to pay land revenue as they feared they might themselves consume the food crops.
The pattern of commercialisation varied from crop to crop. The tea plantation was directly managed by the whites who kept the labour force in a miserable condition. At other places, and for other crops, the well-off peasants themselves cultivated cash crops. The peasants of eastern Bengal cultivated indigo, the peasants of Deccan cultivated cotton, the peasants of UP cultivated sugarcane and the peasants of Central Provinces cultivated opium. The English traders at some places gave advance money to the peasants to grow the crop of their choice, at other places they took to land on lease and hired landless labourers on wages like in tea garden.
The commercialisation of agriculture left a deep impact on the Indian economy, agriculture, crop pattern and on the condition of the peasants. Heavy investment was required to grow cash crops. For instance, high yielding seeds of cotton, for bigger thread, required better irrigation facility. This forced the peasants to borrow money from planters and money lenders (the Mahajan) who trapped them and charged heavy interest on the principal amount borrowed from them by the peasants. They regularly cheated the peasants. The growing trend of cultivating cash crops resulted in a shortage of food crops, making it costlier. Due to the pressure of rent and land revenue, the peasants, at many places, cultivated commercial crops and higher-priced food grains like wheat, which meant a shift away from poor men’s food crops like bajra, jowar, pulses, etc. This aggravated the situation in famine years.
The commercialisation of agriculture linked the Indian market with the international market. The widely fluctuating prices, in the international market, often affected the prosperity of the Indian peasants. Deccan riots (1875–1879) stand as a testimony to this fact. The linking of the Indian market with the international market also meant a shortage of raw material in the domestic market for the local manufacturer, who found it extremely difficult to purchase it. If available, it was costlier than the usual market price. Thus, the commercialisation of agriculture became one of the reasons for de-industrialisation in India.
The role of various agents and intermediaries increased due to the commercialisation of agriculture. They brought the crops from rural areas to the cities, then to the port cities for export. Even the prices were dictated by them and the peasants never got the actual price of their produce. However, in case of crops like sugarcane, the role of intermediaries was limited as sugar mills were situated nearby and unlike cotton or indigo, such crops could not be stored for a long period. The intermediaries were not seen even in those areas where the road network was good and peasants were, relatively in good condition.
Even, the Government’s land revenue policy was reckless. It was noticed, many times, that, when the cash crop market was in an upswing, the demand for land revenue also increased, adding further to the woes of the peasants. For rich peasants, cash crop was a matter of choice but for medium and marginal peasants, it was nothing short of forced commercialisation. In fact, the commercialisation of agriculture is a misnormer in Indian context as there was no free market for labour, agricultural tools, manures (fertilisers), and loans; there was free-market only for crops. So the term ‘commercialisation of crops’ instead of the term ‘commercialisation of agriculture’ describes better the situation of agriculture in India during the British rule.