History of Agriculture in India

An Indus Valley Civilization toy Bull Cart with human figurine and vessels made from terracotta
History of Agriculture in India
The early signs of agriculture in India can be traced back to the Neolithic age in India, some 9000 years ago. Since then India has seen several phases of development in agriculture. India is one of the earliest cultivators of wheat, barley and rice, and more interestingly, India is still one of the leading cultivators of wheat and rice. India is first to spin and weave the cotton and grow spices for commercial purpose. Moreover, India is also the first to identify and use plants for their medicinal values and thus the advent of Ayurveda. After going through each and every step of development of agriculture in India, one can say, the story of events in India is another name for the story of agriculture in India.

Neolithic Age
It is speculated that the practice of agriculture was first developed in the Eastern part of India and then spread northward to North-West India. However, Jean-Francois Jarrige, a prominent Indologist, opined that the practice of agriculture in India came from Mesopotamia as there is a cultural continuum in the Neolithic sites of India (Mehrgarh) and Mesopotamia.

Nonetheless, agriculture was well developed in Kashmir valley, Belan valley and other parts of the country by the 5th millennium BCE. The practice of growing cotton was well developed by this time. Also, the early signs to domesticate and grow rice and sugarcane in India were recorded during this period. The hemp was identified for its medicinal and narcotic use and hence for the first time, a plant was cultivated on large scale for such purpose. Mango was domesticated and became the fruit of the choice. Other fruits and crops that were domesticated during this age were ragi, horse gram, peas, dates and sesame.

Indus Valley Civilization

A large development in agricultural technology happened during the age of Indus Valley Civilization. The people of Indus Valley Civilization developed a sophisticated irrigation system around 4500 BC, which later helped them in the development of the first sewage system. They later developed one of the earliest artificial water reservoir around 3000 BC and a canal system by 2600 BC. They were supposedly first to use animal-drawn ploughs, until the discovery of animal-drawn ploughs in Poland.

Outside the Indus Valley Civilization region, the new agricultural developments came from Bihar, Odisha, and South India. Especially in South India, Moong dal was domesticated along with Madras gram and foxtail millet. Also, the earliest signs of spice trade came through this age. 

Vedic Age
The next wave of agricultural development came from the Vedic age. India saw exponential growth in the practice of horticulture and animal husbandry to the extent of reverence. The animals such as cow and buffalo and plants and trees such as lotus, tulsi, banyan and peepul gained the status of dietyhood and became part of cultural-religious makeup of India. It can be inferred from the fact that the Sanskrit word for village "gram" and war "Sangram" is originated from the Sanskrit word for cow, "gau". However, one can point the development in the field of medicine also contributed to this meteoric rise.

A total of 107 medicinal plants with their use and benefits are mentioned in the Atharvaveda alone. The authors of Veda has divided the plants into three broad categories: Ausadhi (herbs), Vrksha (fruit and flower bearing trees) and Virudh (which creeps on the ground or entwine). They further subdivided plants into Visakha (shrubs), Sasa (herbs), Vratati (climbers), Pratanavati (creepers) and Alasala (spreading on the ground). The grasses are separately classified as Trna, flowering plants as Puspavati, and fruit-bearing plants as Phalavati.

On another hand, the rise in the status of the cow can be understood from the fact that the authors of Vedas have described the health benefits of cow dairy products such as milk, ghee and curd in great detail. Along with cow dung (which was used fuel) and cow urine (purposedly used as anti-disinfectant), they glorified cow dairy products as Panchagavya.

In terms of technology, there was a transition from wooden and stone tools to copper and bronze tools, as Vedic age corresponds to the Bronze age in India.

Magadha (or Mauryan) Era
New and more scientific approaches to agriculture were developed during the Mauryan age. The Arthashastra, written by Chanakya, discusses the suitability of different lands for cultivation of crops. In addition, the seminal book also defines the breeding policy for animals. Similarly, author of the Sukraniti defines crops on the basis of geo-climatic conditions such as soil, rainfall and sunshine and author of the Agnipurana mentions revenue rates for different kinds of paddy crops.

Moreover, by this time, India has also developed one of the earliest aromatic rice, Basmati Rice and has started cultivating spices in large scale for commercial purpose. India was also part of the ancient Silk Road.

Early Common Era-High Middle Age
This age marks the rise of India as the Spice Capital of the World. India has established a trade relationship with the Arabs, the Greeks and rest of the world for the sale of spice and other luxury material goods. The spice trade of India finds mention in various archaeological records and texts.

In this age, the practice of cultivation of silkworms to produce silk, Sericulture, enters India from China. On another hand, India discovers the process of making crystallized sugar from sugarcane and in reversal, the process of making sugar enters China with the help of Buddhist monks.

Technologically, India improved its irrigation technology and developed a series of dams and water tank systems. For example, Kallanai Dam, which is one of the earliest and still functional dams in the World was made during this age.

Late Middle Age
With the ascent of the Mughals, India saw a large number of exotic crops being introduced to her soil. The founder of Mughal Empire, Babur, himself is credited with the introduction of Persian rose in India. Later, amaranth, chillies, sharifa, groundnut, custard apple, tobacco, potato, pineapple, papaya and agave were introduced by the Portuguese. Similarly, red kidney beans and french beans were introduced by the Spaniards. The tea was introduced by the Britishers along with other crops. Interestingly, coffee also found its way to Indian soil.

However, major developments in Indian agriculture came in terms of land and taxation reforms. The third Mughal Emperor Akbar introduced a monetary tax system based on a uniform currency, zabt, which replaced the old tribute system. In addition, Akbar and later Mughal rulers improved the irrigation system and trade conditions. The Mughal Empire at its peak accounted for 24 per cent of the world economy and seventy per cent of which alone comes from the agriculture sector.

British Raj
After the fall of the Mughal Empire, India saw the fall in the development of agriculture and its status as the champion of the world economy. The Britishers never let India grow at its full potential. They never focussed on developing a strong irrigation and trade system for India. Their repressive agricultural policies have undone any good work done by them and paved the way to the Independence movement of India. When Britishers left India, the agriculture sector of India grew only at the annual rate of one per cent for the last fifty years.

Post-Independence India
After its independence, India saw an array of special programmes targeted at improving the quality and production of food and cash crops. The Grow More Food Campaign (1940s) and the Integrated Production Programme (1950s) are prime examples of this policy. Later, Five-year plans of India were developed with similar goals to improve agricultural conditions. Moreover, programmes such as rural electrification and rural road development were initiated to aid existing agricultural programmes and help Indian cultivators. The tax was relaxed in the agriculture sector to bring new agriculturist and relieve the burden from old farmers. In addition, several food production programmes such as Green Revolution (food crops), Yellow Revolution (oilseeds), Silver Revolution (poultry) and Operation flood (dairy) on a mission mode were initiated to ramp up the food production in the country.

As of now, India's agriculture sector accounts for 16 per cent of national gross domestic production (GDP) and 10 per cent of its export. Moreover, it employs more than 50 per cent of India's populace.

More than that, India has become the world largest producer of fresh fruits, spices, nuts, millet, sorghum, bananas, lemon, jute, goat milk, buffalo milk, milk and pulses. India is also the second largest producer of wheat, rice, fresh vegetables, and other major food crops. Additionally, India is one of the leading meat and fish producer.