Revenue Farming Reconsidered: Tenurial Rights and Tenurial Duties in Early Modern India, ca. 1556-1818

In: Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient
Sudev Sheth Harvard Business School

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The meaning of land revenue farming in Indian history has eluded consensus. Some view it as an administrative aberration indicating weak state control, while others see it as a strategy for consolidating authority. This essay traces the historical development of iqṭāʻ and ijārah, two Perso-Arabic terms frequently translated from the sources as ‘revenue farming estate’. I then suggest that existing perspectives do not capture the broader structure and significance of various entitlements to land revenue. Instead, I suggest that entitlements be schematized according to how regularized the right was, whether it was permanent, and how duty-bound the right holder was. In this formulation, revenue farm refers to a complex of rights and duties secured by contract in which a sovereign transferred the temporary exploitation of a holding for rent in advance. It was one of four tenurial complexes under which entitlements fell, the others being estates from bureaucratic assignment, hereditary occupation or possession by grant/gift, and tributary or chieftaincy.

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