A Policy of Credit Disruption: The Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900

September 5, 2019 | Blog
Home > A Policy of Credit Disruption: The Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900

by Latika Chaudhary (Naval Postgraduate School) and Anand V. Swamy (Williams College)

This research is due to be published in the Economic History Review and is currently available on Early View.


Farming, farms, crops, agriculture in North India. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

In the late 19th century the British-Indian government (the Raj) became preoccupied with default on debt and the consequent transfer of land in rural India. In many regions Raj officials made the following argument: British rule had created or clarified individual property rights in land, which had for the first time made land available as collateral for debt. Consequently, peasants could now borrow up to the full value of their land. The Raj had also replaced informal village-based forms of dispute resolution with a formal legal system operating outside the village, which favored the lender over the borrower. Peasants were spendthrift and naïve, and unable to negotiate the new formal courts created by British rule, whereas lenders were predatory and legally savvy. Borrowers were frequently defaulting, and land was rapidly passing from long-standing resident peasants to professional moneylenders who were often either immigrant, of another religion, or sometimes both.  This would lead to social unrest and threaten British rule. To preserve British rule it was essential that one of the links in the chain be broken, even if this meant abandoning cherished notions of sanctity of property and contract.

The Punjab Land Alienation Act (PLAA) of 1900 was the most ambitious policy intervention motivated by this thinking. It sought to prevent professional moneylenders from acquiring the property of traditional landowners. To this end it banned, except under some conditions, the permanent transfer of land from an owner belonging to an ‘agricultural tribe’ to a buyer or creditor who was not from this tribe. Moreover, a lender who was not from an agricultural tribe could no longer seize the land of a defaulting debtor who was from an agricultural tribe.

The PLAA made direct restrictions on the transfer of land a respectable part of the policy apparatus of the Raj and its influence persists to the present-day. There is a substantial literature on the emergence of the PLAA, yet there is no econometric work on two basic questions regarding its impact. First, did the PLAA reduce the availability of mortgage-backed credit? Or were borrowers and lenders able to use various devices to evade the Act, thereby neutralizing it?  Second, if less credit was available, what were the effects on agricultural outcomes and productivity? We use panel data methods to address these questions, for the first time, so far as we know.

Our work provides evidence regarding an unusual policy experiment that is relevant to a hypothesis of broad interest. It is often argued that ‘clean titling’ of assets can facilitate their use as collateral, increasing access to credit, leading to more investment and faster growth. Informed by this hypothesis, many studies estimate the effects of titling on credit and other outcomes, but they usually pertain to making assets more usable as collateral. The PLAA went in the opposite direction – it reduced the “collateralizability” of land which should have  reduced investment and growth, based on the argument we have described. We investigate whether it did.

To identify the effects of the PLAA, we assembled a panel dataset on 25 districts in Punjab from 1890 to 1910. Our dataset contains information on mortgages and sales of land, economic outcomes, such as acreage and ownership of cattle, and control variables like rainfall and population. Because the PLAA targeted professional moneylenders, it should have reduced mortgage-backed credit more in places where they were bigger players in the credit market. Hence, we interact a measure of the importance of the professional, that is, non-agricultural, moneylenders in the mortgage market with an indicator variable for the introduction of the PLAA, which takes the value of  1 from 1900 onward. As expected, we find that  that the PLAA contracted credit more in places where professional moneylenders played a larger role – compared to  districts with no professional moneylenders.  The PLAA reduced mortgage-backed credit by 48 percentage points more at the 25th percentile of our measure of moneylender-importance and by 61 percentage points more at the 75th percentile.

However, this decrease of mortgage-backed credit in professional moneylender-dominated areas did not lead to lower acreage or less ownership of cattle. In short, the PLAA affected credit markets as we might expect without undermining agricultural productivity. Because we have panel data, we are able to account for potential confounding factors such as time-invariant unobserved differences across districts (using district fixed effects), common district-specific shocks (using year effects) and the possibility that districts were trending differently independent of the PLAA (using district-specific time trends).

British officials provided a plausible explanation for the non-impact of PLAA on agricultural production: lenders had merely become more judicious – they were still willing to lend for productive activity, but not for ‘extravagant’ expenditures, such as social ceremonies.  There may be a general lesson here:  policies that make it harder for lenders to recover money may have the beneficial effect of encouraging due diligence.



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