Friday, March 20, 2015

The Great Hedge of India

The Great Hedge of India – Largest Fences in History of the World

One of the historical achievements which still stands today and is very popular is the Great Wall of China. We also have something that can be compared to it, which is the Grand Hedge, though not popular. It may not be well known but it starts from Maharashtra’s Barhanpur which passes through Madhya Pradesh through Uttar Pradesh via Punjab, Sindh provinceof Pakistan ending almost in the border of Kashmir.It is considered to be a living fence which is grown from shrubs that are tied together to prevent anybody from crossing it and is almost 12 feet in height. It is one of the largest fences ever in the history of the world which runs across a 4000 km of vacant space of land, villages, cities, agricultural land and desserts. In 1872, at its height, it had 14000 full time British officers who guarded and maintained this fence and it became a symbol of British-Indian Government’s authority for about three fourths of a century, though none have mentioned much regarding this structure. There does not seem to be any record regarding it in the official records of independent India and no sociologist or economist had heard about it till the year 1995.

Details of `Great Hedge’ by Roy Moxham 

Mr Roy Moxham, a travel writer as well as a record keeper of the London Library had bought some of Major General W. H. Sleeman’s -`Memoirs of a British Soldier’ from an old book shop in London which was published in 1993. Sleeman, who had travelled across India as a British Army officer in 1850s,had several records and descriptions of kings, chieftains, holy, cities, temples, robbers and taxation system of the British Indian Government at that time where a mention of the great living fence is found.

He had examined the British records most of which were from post 1870s and there was no information about the great fence. Being a librarian for historical document by profession, Moxham searched in the well- maintained British Library in London for information on the survey details of the fence with regards to its establishment and maintenance. Thinking of it as insanity initially on the part of the British, Moxham gradually got to know of the horrible exploitation behind it all. With further research, he has described it in his book known as `The Great Hedge of India’. It was also known as the Customs Hedge.

Object – Control Salt Trade 

The object of the fence was to control the salt trade within the country. Custom duty being the major source of revenue for the British Government at that time, they started building this to bring about the salt distribution under their control and levy taxes and since then gained ground in India, in 1803. It got completed in various stages within 40 years and in 1843, it was completed and was under the control of the Inland Customs department. Salt was produced the most in Gujarat’s Kutch peninsula and in this region there were no major rivers that met the sea with abundance of sun for most part of the year, hence the salt was in plenty there. Salt lakes like the Sambar dried up naturally into salt beds in summer and salt from Gujarat went to the northern states. Long salt trade routes for this purpose were made.

Besides Gujarat, Maharashtra as well as Orissa coast also produced salt which also went to the northern states and the Himalayan regions via land route. In present day Pakistan, the Himalayan regions have the largest salt mountains in the world and for the Himalayan regions which included Tibet, it was this salt that was being transported and to block the same, the hedge was created.

Clive – Established comprehensive System of Taxation 

Salt trade was also under the control of the Mughals though their taxes were nominal and they did not attempt to control the distribution of salt and the British tried to accomplish it through the Custom Hedge. At first, the British annexed Bengal since it was difficult to produce salt there due to the inflow of the Ganges and salt was scarce there.
People here extracted salt by evaporating it and then by boiling it with the use of firewood which was done by people living at the lowest sections of the society which was also very costly for them. The Bengali Brahmins were unable to consume it since it had been boiled which was similar to cooked food and hence they obtained the sun dried salt from Orissa.

In the Battle of Plassey, Clive had won over the Nawab of Bengal and had established a comprehensive system of taxation over the whole of Bengal and multiplied the taxes on salt factories which became an important source of revenue. This gave rise to the salt being expensive from that coming from Orissa and it became essential to tax heavily on the salt coming from Orissa. Thus the British enabled to establish custom check post along the banks of the Mahanadhi in the Orissa-Bengal border where the first check post was in Orissa’s Sonapur and from here the customs fence was created till Chandrapur

Living Fence – Thorny Bushes

Gradually, British authority spread towards Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and hence extended their check posts till Burhanpur. The British realized the profit through custom duty on salt and were prepared to invest a lot on it. It became difficult to keep the vast region of Madhya Pradesh’s plain under customs control and hence the development of a massive fence in the form of the customs hedge was formed till Burhanpur. In 1923, at the same time, George Saunders, the customs commissioner of Agra established a hedge from Mirzapur till Allahabad through the banks to the Ganges as well as the Yamuna.

 In 1842, G. H. Smith established a hedge from Allahabad till Nepal and from there till the Sindh and went on setting up customs checkpoints all along the roads as well as connecting the checkpoint with this hedge . Thus the development of the hedge was established. The hedge at first was made of dried wood and bamboo and deep trenches had been dug up on each side of the hedge though it became difficult to protect the hedge where each year they were either destroyed by rotting or catching fire. It became an expensive affair for its maintenance.

When Hume came to power as Commissioner of Customs and during his tenure of three years, he analysed the cost of maintenance of the hedge and discovered that converting it into a living fence would be expensive, it would also be unnecessary to maintain it within a few years. He thus created a living fence by locating thorny bushes which tend to grow easily to a height and then planted them which gave rise to `The Great Hedge of India.

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