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The Great Hedge of India

Back in the 19th century, eastern India was separated from the west by an impenetrable belt of trees made up of mostly thorny plants such as the Indian plum and prickly pear, as well as bamboos and babool trees. They formed a man-made barrier, more than a thousand kilometers long, that snaked all the way from Layyah in Punjab (now in Pakistan) to Burhanpur, on the banks of Narmada.

The Great Hedge of India

Photo: Richard Barnes/Shutterstock.com

The Great Hedge of India was planted by the British in the 1840s to strengthen the Inland Customs Line that the colonial rulers set up to exploit one of the most basic ingredients of every Indian food—salt. Historically, salt was produced on the west coast of India along the Rann of Kutch, a vast salt marsh on the northern extreme of India’s coastline on the Arabian Sea. On the east coast, salt was obtained extensively along the coast of Orissa. Because salt production was restricted to the coastal areas, nearly ever empire that ruled across the country, dating back to Chandragupta Maurya’s time (1st century BCE), enforced a salt tax on imports of this commodity into the interior of the country, as a way to increase the state’s revenue.

By the late 18th century, the British East India Company had a stranglehold on India’s salt trade. The salt works were leased out to the highest bidders, who in turn had to sell salt to the Company at a fixed rate. The East India Company then sold the salt in the open market at greatly inflated prices that very few could afford. This forced many people to stealing from warehouses and others to smuggling salt from the princely states which remained outside of direct British rule. In order to curb this salt smuggling, a series of custom houses and barriers were constructed across major roads and rivers in Bengal to collect tax on traded salt as well as duties on tobacco and other imports. Eventually, this Inland Customs Line extended all the way into Punjab in the north.

The original custom line was constructed out of thorn bushes, cut and piled up high. Some of them took root and by 1868, there was already a green barrier 290 kilometers long. Allan Octavian Hume, Commissioner of Inland Customs from 1867–70, took note of this fact and realized that it would be far more economical to maintain a live hedge than a dry one. Hume, who was also a botanist, began experimenting with different types of shrubs taking into consideration the different soil and rainfall conditions. The hedge was composed mainly of Indian plum, babool, karonda and Euphorbia. In arid places where nothing else would grow, hardy plants like prickly pear was used. Where the soil was poor, ditches were dug and filled with better soil. Embankments were built in areas that were prone to flooding. Trenches were built to bring water from nearby wells.

The Great Hedge of India

Before long, the hedge had grown into a formidable barrier 12 feet high and 14 feet thick at places. Hume’s successor, G. H. M. Batten, strengthened the barrier by building stone walls and ditches where the land was too barren for the hedge to grow. At its greatest extent, the hedge was at least 1,300 kilometers long. Maintaining the hedge turned out to be quite a task. In 1869 alone, the customs men dug 2 million cubic feet of earth and carried over 150,000 tons of thorny material for the hedge. For all the time and effort that went into building and maintaining the hedge, it was only partially successful. Smugglers forced their way through the hedge with herds of salt-laden camels or cattle. Others threw sacks of salt over the hedge. According to records, between 1877-78, more than six thousand smugglers were apprehended illegally crossing the barrier. An even bigger hurdle was to trade and free travel across the subcontinent.

By the 1870s, the hedge had become a nuisance. Lord Mayo, who was the Viceroy from 1869 to 1872, took the first steps towards abolition of the line, instructing British officials to take control of salt production so that no revenue was lost when the custom line was taken out. A series of financial reforms were introduced that equalized tax across the country and made smuggling unprofitable. Finally, the Inland Customs Line was abandoned in 1879.

The price inequality in salt due to the salt tax led to salt deprivation in millions of Indians living across the Hedge. In regions where price was higher, people consumed less than half of what the average person took west of the line. According to the British government’s own records, the barrier directly affected salt consumption, reducing it to below the level that regulations prescribed for English soldiers serving in India. Salt deprivation might have contributed to many diseases worsening health and hindering recoveries. After the Inland Customs Line was abolished, salt consumption grew by 50 percent between 1868 and 1888 and doubled by 1911.

Although the hedge was abolished, salt tax itself did not go away. It remained a controversial subject throughout India’s long fight for independence. The salt tax was finally abolished in October 1946 by the Interim Government of India, just ten months before India gained independence.

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