The Waste Products of Agriculture -- Their Utilization as Humus

by Albert Howard and Yeshwant D. Wad

Appendix D
An Experiment in the Management of Indian Labour

By Albert Howard, C.I.E.

(International Labour Review, Geneva, 18, 1931, p. 636.)

One of the outstanding problems of the present phase of colonial development in Asia and Africa is that of the best and most scientific methods for the organization of work in large-scale agricultural undertakings. The author of this short article, who is a well-known authority on tropical agriculture and has for thirty years contributed to the scientific improvement of agriculture in the East as Imperial Economic Botanist at the Government of India Research Station at Pasa, at Quetta, and latterly in the State of Indore, describes a small-scale experiment from which many lessons may perhaps be drawn. The experiment has been tried in the State of Indore under the stimulus of having to obtain an adequate labour force to carry on the work of an agricultural experimental station in competition with the rival attractions exercised by work in neighbouring factories. No doubt the conditions are not entirely on all fours with those of plantations carried on under competitive conditions, but they are sufficiently similar to give the experiment a living and practical interest. As the author points out, the financial basis is provided mainly by the cotton industry in India and by the Indian States members of the Institute of Plant Industry, without any call for assistance by the Government of India or by Provincial Governments. As the article shows, the best results have been obtained under a scheme which provides for a six to seven and a half hour working day, paid leave, medical attendance, good housing, and opportunity for promotion for the labour employed. [Ed. International Labour Review]

The foundation of the new Institute of Plant Industry at Indore in Central India in October 1924, provided the opportunity of breaking new ground in at least four directions, namely:

  1. The best method of applying science to crop production. (This aspect has been dealt with in The Application of Science to Crop Production, an Exp[eriment carried out at the Institute of Plant Industry, Indore, Oxford University Press, 1929.)
  2. The general organization and finance (including audit) of an agricultural experiment station.
  3. The most effective way of getting the results taken up by the people; and
  4. The management of the labour force employed.

The present article deals with the last of these items: with the methods by which a contented and efficient body of labour can be maintained for the day to day work of an agricultural experiment station, largely devoted to the production of raw cotton.

The Institute and its Organization

The Institute of Plant Industry at Indore is supported by an annual grant of Rs. 1,15,000 from the Indian Central Cotton Committee and by subscriptions, amounting at the moment to Rs. 47,550 a year, from twenty of the States of Central India and Rajputana. (In addition to these sources, the Institute makes use of the produce of the experimental area of 300 acres, of the royalties on its publications and of a number of miscellaneous items of income, including the fees earned for advice to individuals and bodies outside the Society.) During the financial year 1929-1930, the income from all sources was Rs. 1,79,080, the expenditure was Rs. 1,75,041. The management of the Institute is vested in a Board of Governors, seven in number, elected by the subscribers, the Director of the Institute being Secretary of the Board. It will be seen that the main source of the funds available for the payment of labour is derived from the Indian Central Cotton Committee (a statutory body representing the growers, the cotton trade and the officers engaged in research on cotton) created for implementing the Indian Cotton Cess Act of 1923: an Act which provides for the creation of a fund for the improvement and development of the growing, marketing and manufacture of raw cotton in India. This cess is now levied at the rate of two annas per standard bale of 400 lb. on all cotton used in the Indian mills or exported from the country. The money available for the payment of labour at the Indore Institute is thus largely drawn from the cotton industry itself. At no period in the history of the institution has any financial assistance of any kind been asked for or obtained from the Government of India or from any of the Provincial Governments.

At the beginning, great difficulties were experienced in obtaining an efficient labour force. The Institute lies alongside the city of Indore, an important manufacturing and distributing centre with a population of 127,000. Nine large cotton mills (with 177,430 spindles, 5,224 looms, an invested capital of Rs. 1,67,97,1O6, and utilizing 68,000 bales of cotton a year) find work for 12,000 workers. In addition there are a number of ginning factories and cotton presses. The Institute therefore had to meet a good deal of local competition in building up its labour force. It was dearly useless attempting to recruit workers at rates below those readily obtained at the mills or in the city. Further, it soon became apparent that if the Institute was to succeed the Director would have to pay attention to the labour problem and devise means by which an efficient and contented body of men, women and children could be attracted and retained for reasonable periods.

Consideration of this problem led the Director to the conclusion that it could be solved by providing for the regular and effective payment of wages, for good housing, reasonable hours of work, with regular and sufficient periods of rest, and for suitable medical attention.

The application of these principles soon met with success. An adequate labour force has been built up, partly from men recruited locally and from the Rajputana States and partly from the wives and children of the sepoys of the Malwa Bhil Corps, the lines of which adjoin the Institute. A permanent labour force of about 118 is now employed throughout the year. In addition, a certain amount of temporary labour is employed for seasonal work.

The precise manner in which the principles above mentioned have been carried out in practice may now be described.

Conditions of Labour at the Institute

Payment of Labour

Wage rates for men on the permanent staff range from about Rs. 12 to Rs. 20 a month, while men on the temporary staff are paid 7 annas a day, women 5 annas, boys 3 to 6 annas, and girls 3 to 5 annas. After the rate of wages has been settled in each case, care is taken that: (1) the payment of wages is made at regular intervals; and (2) the wages are paid into the hands of the workers themselves and there are no illicit deductions on the part of the men who disburse the money.

Regularity of payment is a matter of very great importance in dealing with Indian labour. At Indore, workers on daily rates receive their wages twice a month -- on the 18th and the 3rd, in each case at 2:30 p.m. The permanent labour is paid monthly on the third working day of the following month. To ensure that all payments are actually made according to the attendance registers all disbursements are made in the presence of two responsible members of the staff. Both of these men have to sign a statutory declaration that the payments have actually been made. The signed statements come regularly before the Director for signature, and are in due course placed before the auditors. In making payments the envelope system is used, the payee making a thumb impression in ink in the register or signing his or her name. These arrangements have been found to prevent any illicit deductions on the part of the staff. The payments are made in public; the rate of everybody's pay is known; the signing of a proper declaration in the register makes it possible to institute criminal proceedings at once for any irregularity; the Director is always available for inquiring into any complaints. That none have ever been made proves that the labourers actually receive their pay in full at regular intervals. Payment is made in coin; no attempt at payment in kind has ever been made; no shops for the sale of food exist on the estate and nothing whatever is done to influence the workers as to how they should spend their wages.

Hours of Labour

After the regular payment of wages, the hours of labour come next in importance. Indeed in India rest and wages are to a certain extent interchangeable as the workers regard any extra rest as equivalent to an increase in pay. At first, the Institute observed the ten hours' day so common in India, but this was soon given up. It was found during the hot months of April, May and June that both the labour and the cattle required more protection from the hot sun. An experiment was therefore made to reduce the hours of labour during the hot months to six daily, beginning work at sunrise and ending the day at sunset. The actual working hours of the three hot months were arranged in two shifts -- four hours in the morning and two in the afternoon with a six hours' rest during the heat of the day, i.e. from I0 a.m. to 4 p.m. At the same time the work was speeded up and both labour and supervising staff were given to understand that the six hours' day in the hot months could only be enjoyed if everybody worked continuously and conscientiously.

The first result observed was a marked improvement in the health and well-being of the men and animals, probably due to the operation of two factors: the health-giving properties of the early morning air and avoidance of excessive sunlight. With the improvement in general health there was a corresponding reduction in cases requiring medical assistance. To everyone's surprise, it was found possible to speed up the work very considerably. The experiment of shortening the hours of labour was then extended to the rest of the year; working hours were reduced from ten to seven and a half.

These working periods, six hours in the hot weather and seven and a half during the rest of the year, refer to the time actually at work; an extra half hour daily is spent in travelling to and from the place of work. In no case does the working period exceed seven and a half hours except for about a week at the sowing time of the monsoon crops. During this period, both man and beast do not obtain much more than two hours off duty for food during the hours of daylight. A full ten hours' day at high pressure is then the rule, as all realize that the sowing of cotton and other crops is a race against time. As soon, however, as sowing is over, the workers enjoy an extra day's rest on full pay. The sowing of the monsoon crops is the only agricultural operation in Central India for which anything more than a seven and a half hours' day is necessary.

For three years the agricultural operations of the Institute have been conducted on the short hours system. The result has been successful beyond all expectation. The miracle of speeding up Indian labour has been achieved and shorter working hours have led not only to contentment but also to an increased output of work. This result has only been achieved, however, by careful and detailed planning of the work to be done each day. The daily work programme is drawn up by the Assistant in charge of the farm during the previous afternoon and submitted to the Director as a matter of routine, so that at daybreak each day the Assistant knows at once what has to be done and no time is lost in deciding what tasks have to be performed. The taking of the attendance and the allocation of labour to the various tasks occupies less than five minutes. In less than ten minutes after assembly, the various gangs are at work in the fields. A great point is made of getting down to the job at once. Punctuality is now the rule, and it is becoming rare to have to deal with late arrivals.

While it is important to start work with the sun, it is equally important to allow the labourers to reach their homes by sundown, particularly during the rains when snakes abound. Indian workers like to reach home in daylight -- a point of great importance in obtaining their willing co-operation. Finally, it is very interesting to note that the policy of the square deal on the part of the Institute towards its labourers as regards hours is now being answered by a natural desire on the part of the workers to give the Institute a square deal. Less supervision is becoming necessary; everybody realizes that a reduction in hours is only possible if real work is done.

Leave and Holidays

The Institute is closed, except for work of extreme urgency, on Sundays and on twelve important festivals during the year. In addition to these sixty-four days, the permanent labourers are allowed one day's casual leave and one day's sick leave every month provided they work twenty-five full days during the month. In cases of injury while on duty, they are allowed full pay up to a maximum of seven days. In the case of temporary labour, all holidays and leave, except the extra day allowed after the sowing of the monsoon crops, are given without pay.


As regards living accommodation, the demands of Indian labour are very modest. A roof which does not leak during the rains, a dry earthen floor, a room which can be locked up, a partially closed-in verandah which serves both as a kitchen and a store house for firewood, are all that is expected. At Indore the one-room cottages are arranged in blocks of six around an open courtyard in which four trees have been planted to provide shade. The quarters are fumigated and whitewashed once a year when any petty repairs to the roofs and brickwork are attended to.

After a storm-proof room, the next essential is a supply of good drinking water and a separate well for washing. The water used for drinking is raised by a simple wheel pump; the well is provided with a masonry coping about two feet high; no drinking vessels are allowed to be dipped into the water. In this way the risk of cholera is greatly reduced. Once a simple wheel pump is installed, the labourers and their wives never attempt to lower a bucket by means of a rope.

Provident Fund

So far no provident fund for the workers has been instituted. The existing provident fund only applies to the permanent staff of the Institute drawing Rs. 30 per month or more. Till the completest confidence between the workers and the management has been achieved, any suggestion of keeping back the pay of a labourer for a provident fund is likely to be misunderstood. It was decided to start a provident fund for the educated staff and gradually to extend its benefits to the labour force if and when a demand comes from the workers themselves.

Medical Arrangements

The workers and staff employed at the Institute obtain free medical attendance. In addition, the workers and the staff drawing less than Rs. 30 per month obtain free medicaments. The workers are examined weekly by the doctor so that any precautionary treatment or any advice can be given in good time. In cases of childbirth the services of a nurse are provided free of charge. The personality of the Sub-Assistant Surgeon dealing with Indian labour is very important. The workers deal with an unpopular man in a very effective fashion -- they never make use of his services.

Certificates and Promotion

An experimental station, like any employer of labour, needs some system by which the labour force can automatically renew its youth. The annual export of trained labour to centres at which improvements are being taken up is one of the important functions of the Institute. For these reasons, therefore, a supply of promising recruits must be arranged. To bring this about some system of promotion for proved efficiency had to be devised. At first this took the form of an annual promotion examination for the ploughmen. As they increased in efficiency and could manage and assemble their implements and also plough a straight furrow, their pay was increased by Re. I per month. This system is now being superseded by the certificate plan. All the permanent workers in the Institute are eligible for special training so that they can earn efficiency certificates for such operations as: (1) cultivation and sowing; (2) compost making and the care of the work cattle; (3) improved irrigation methods, including the cultivation of sugar-cane by the Java method; (4) the manufacture of sugar (Plate XIV). A certificate of efficiency (with suitable illustrations) signed by the Director can be awarded for proficiency in all these items. Each certificate which is awarded annually will carry with it an increase of Rs. 1 per month on the basic pay. When a member of the labour force has gained all four certificates, he will become eligible for transfer to other centres on higher pay. In this way the Institute holds out hope and places it within the power of any man to increase his starting pay in four years by about thirty per cent. It also enables an ambitious labourer to save enough money in a few years to purchase a holding and to become a cultivator. This is now taking place. Every year a few of the labourers return to their villages with their savings to take up a holding on heir own account. Others are deputed for work in the Contributing States on increased pay. The vacancies are automatically taken either by younger members of the same family or by volunteers on the waiting list of temporary workers.

Plate XIV. Certificate of Efficiency for the making of Compost


It is possible that the system described in this article is only fully realizable on a farm working under model conditions. Nevertheless, there are a certain number of elements in this experiment which the writer feels are of universal validity in dealing with primitive labour. From the point of view of the worker it is perhaps most essential that he should feel that he is receiving a square deal. From the point of view of the management the best results are obtained by scrupulous attention to pay, by short hours of intensive work, by proper housing and medical care, and by interesting the worker in the undertaking through giving his work an educational value.

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