Every time a new government comes to power, the expectation is that they will fix the main pillars of the economy and introduce creative laws to convert society into one in unison with the rest of the world.

Since 1947 there have been sparks of progress, only to fade away within years to head in the other direction. With less than one per cent of our national wealth being spent on the education of the poor, corruption set in quickly. Slowly bureaucracy became masters of scuttling progress. The only way forward is, as the property magnate Malik Riaz famously said on TV: “I simply grease the file from the top to the bottom.”

When the British came they initially, because of the East India Company, indulged in cruel exploitation. But when the British Government took over in 1858, some semblance of honesty was introduced. They concentrated on modernising agriculture, for it provided the main taxes. New canals and waterways were dug and barren land opened up. In the cities roads and pavement were made and keeping the cities clean was a priority, as was education, however warped their total approach was. But then colonisers have their priorities.

What about the Sikh days? How come conditions were so fine that Punjabis did not want to migrate to British held area? How come that in Lahore the literacy levels were higher than the rest of British India? How come it was compulsory for every woman to own and read a basic alphabet book before she got married? How come the spices and shawls and indigo were exported to Persia, Arabia and even Europe? The lessons on the approach of Maharajah Ranjit led to the Punjab having the most modern army in the sub-continent, which Lord Roberts claimed was “the finest in Asia.”

These are questions we must study and understand, for these changes happened in our land and in our city. In my research I have been going through the works of Prinsep, N.K. Sinha, Fauja Singh and Garrett, with a special interest in trying to understand just what did Maharajah Ranjit Singh do to convert a virtual wasteland into a prosperous economy guarded by a strong army with settled borders and peace internally. They are the basic issues that we face today, even though there are a lot of things he did not do, which ultimately harmed him. A lot of people cried foul at every step, as they do at today’s rulers, yet it makes sense to see just what did the Sikh ruler do that we are not doing. Yes, the economy today is definitely much more complex, but the broad basics remain the same.

For industry he had inherited the Mughal era ‘karkhana’ system, which had become obsolete. Years of Afghan terror had brought them to a halt. So he immediately, within a week of taking over, handed all state-owned ‘karkhanas’ under Fakir Azizuddin with each having a ‘dorogha’ heading it. He then immediately called for modernising them, with each ‘karkhana’ having a European to head it. For example General Court headed the ‘Eidgah Karkhana’, General Ventura heading the shipping company assigned to manufacture steam boats to carry goods up the rivers and Dr Honigberger to head the gunpowder company to make top quality explosives at Baroodkhana.

New ‘karkhanas’ were set up in Lahore, Multan, Amritsar, Leiah (Layyah) and Shujabad. The finest educated workers were sent to European countries for learning new skills. Some excellent mining engineers opened up the salt mines at Khewra and we see even British institutions had Punjabis coming to further educate themselves. Though critical establishments connected to the military remained in state control, sectors like textiles, leather, wooden goods, pottery and paper-making remained in private hands. It was an amazing mix for its times.

Political stability and security played the crucial role in providing an enabling environment. The fear of constant Afghan invasions and massacres receded, peace pacts with the British led to further stability. All officials were strictly instructed to assist traders and manufacturers. Added to these were the three Indus Navigation Treaties signed in 1832, 1834 and 1839 with the British which cemented the boundaries of the Punjabi State. The major port of Lahore, located at Khizri Gate (now Sheranwala) further transported goods from inland.

The grain markets of Lahore, Multan, Peshawar, Rawalpindi and D.G. Khan provided grains to faraway countries of Central Asia. Trade was basically in raw materials, and in the reign of Ranjit Singh the state ran a surplus. The rate of taxes was very low and during famines all taxes were abolished, with hoarding becoming a serious crime. This made sure that food was never missing from Punjab’s markets, or the mouths of the poor.

The foundation of Ranjit Singh’s economy was agriculture, and his system taxed it twice a year, that being at the end of ‘Rabi’ and ‘Kharif’ when the crops headed for the markets. Tax officials consulted the actual cultivators, the ‘muqaddams’ and the village ‘chaudhris’. The ‘zabt’ system worked wonders for cash crops and the ‘batai’ system for grain crops. Here the ability of one plough was used as a measurement system. The revenue collectors were called ‘kardars’ and ‘amils’. The maharajah moved fast to check the excesses of the Mughals through their ‘ijaradars’.

According to Baden-Powell the maharajah followed a “pro-tenant” policy which worked wonders from his tax collection point of view.

As Amritsar became a major trading city, a lot of Khatri traders migrated there from Lahore. According to Vogel both Lahore and Amritsar attracted a lot of traders from British India and also from faraway countries. The death of Maharajah Ranjit Singh saw the rise of Amritsar as a trading centre away from the political strife and intrigues of Lahore. He claims that by the time the British came in 1849, Amritsar had become one of the “richest cities of Northern India”. Strife had depleted his capital city of Lahore of new investments.

But then what prevented Ranjit Singh’s empire from further growth? His total blindness to building good roads meant that his river trade was more important. In a way he failed to grasp the needs of mobility of the people. He did not grasp the connection between labour mobility and investment. It had in a way become an obstacle to progress, just as today the dilapidated railways system and a crumbling airline system, as also the bizarre absence of transport within large cities, have become modern bottlenecks stifling the economy.

As the Sikh Army was the most modern in the Punjab of the Sikhs (1799-1849), in a way it also stood in the way of the rest of society modernising. Though in his late years the maharajah saw the leading role of education, he never really brought about an educational revolution. This meant that essentially the Punjab remained a medieval society. In a way, even today, it remains in the grip of a medieval tribal-feudal set of political rulers.

But no matter what the pros and cons of the rule of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the fact remains that he rebuilt Lahore to be among the finest city of the sub-continent. Sadly, the last 10 years of Sikh rule after his death saw the rapid destruction of the old walled city: The pride of the maharajah. Today it stands a city without its original walls and the powerful traders destroying whatever is left within it. What is needed is a 20-year plan to rejuvenate the old walled city and its fort, with strict laws to back such a plan. One lives in hope!

Published in Dawn, November 3rd, 2019

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