Indigo Factories in Bihar

 THE main indigo districts in Bihar were the north of the Ganges River, and comprise Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga, Champarun, and Chhapra.Indigo was also cultivated in the districts, on the south of the river, Purnia, Munger, and Bhagalpur, but only to a very small extent as compared with the northern area. 

Origin of Indigo in Bihar

The first record of indigo being grown by Europeans in Bihar is dated about 1778.The chief pioneer of the industry appears to have been a Mr. Alexander Noel (after wards Noel & Co.); and it is also on record that Mr. Grand, a servant of the East India Company, whose widow subsequently married Talleyrand, was interested in indigo in Bihar.

The first European factories to be built were mainly in then district of Muzaffarpur, and among the oldest ones were Kanti, dating back to 1778, Dooria 1780, and Singhia 1791. The last-named was perhaps the first concern in the Province to be owned by a European, as it appears to have originated as a salt petre factory of the Dutch East India Company.There were about 12 European indigo concerns in existence in the Muzaffarpur district towards the end of the eighteenth century, while in Darbhanga, Champaran, and Chhapra the first factories were not erected before the beginning of the nineteenth century. 

Watercolour of an indigo factory by William Simpson dated 1863. In the 19th century, Bihar was the biggest producer of indigo in the world. Indigo was treasured for its rich blue colour and because it was one of the most colourfast natural dyes. .

During the first part of the nineteenth century indigo was the most popular crop with the cultivator. The reason for this might probably be found in the fact that in those early days money was scarce, and indigo was one of the few crops which could be turned into ready cash. That the industry has been a real boon,especially to the landlord, in Bihar was undeniable, as it brought a large flow of outside capital into the Province.

A very good criterion of the age of an indigo factory is in the size of the manager's bungalow, all the older factories having huge residences generally built on the most elementary architectural lines, giving the maximum of space with the minimum of accommodation or comfort. It is very evident that when these bungalows were built bricks and mortar were cheap. Throughout the nineteenth century the concerns in Bihar steadily increased, and in 1896, the year preceding the advent of synthetic indigo, there were about 112 working, with a total output of about 80,000 maunds in a good season. In 1845, however, several large indigo concerns appear to have abandoned this plant in favour of sugar-cane, but the experiment did not last long, as in 1850 these concerns again reverted to indigo.

The Bungalow of Dholi Indigo Concern,A photograph of 1890

THE MANAGEMENT AND SYSTEM                                           

An indigo concern consisted of a number of factories grouped under the supervision of one manager, with usually a European assistant at each factory, or outwork, as it was termed. Some concerns consisted of as many as seven or eight outworks, but the average was about three or four.

This system of grouping a number of factories under one manager was economical in working, but it had its limitations, and it was doubtful whether a single manager could efficiently supervise more than three or four. The concerns in Bihar were privately owned, and the shares in these companies were calculated on the anna system, which meant that a concern consisting of sixteen " One Anna Shares," which are sometimes subdivided into " Pie Shares."

Indigo was cultivated under, two systems, one of which was by direct cultivation of land held by the factory and known by the vernacular name of Zerat, while the other is called Assamiwar, and under it the tenants contracted to sow a certain area of their holdings in indigo, and the factory contracts to pay a fixed price per acre irrespective of the condition of the crop. A modification of the Assamiwar system was known as khuski, whereby the cultivator contracts to sow a certain area with indigo, and to sell the green plants from this area at a fixed price per maund to the factory.

The indigo factory of Laheria sarai, A photograph of 1890

Indigo factories can, however, under the Bengal Tenancy Act, acquire occupancy rights over certain lands, and a considerable area was held under this form of tenure. There was also a form of lease known in the vernacular as makurry, which was a lease in perpetuity and cannot under any circumstances be broken, Up to the end of the nineteenth century the only variety of indigo cultivated in Bihar was Iniigofera sumatrana. which was introduced into the Province some 250 years ago.

The cultivation and preparation of the lands for sowing were conducted from October to the end of February, the lands being hoed and cross-ploughed many times, all clods being thoroughly pulverized.

 In March the indigo was sown,and it was ready for manufacture by the end of June or the beginning of July.

Two cuttings were generally obtained from the plant, and these were taken from July to the end of September, the yield of finished indigo being greatly affected by the character of the monsoon, a heavy monsoon being unfavorable to the production of indigo, and also to the growth of the second cuttings. The heaviest yield was obtained from the first cuttings, and in good years, when the monsoon was light,50 per cent, of the amount obtained from the first yield might be expected from the second cuttings, but in unfavorable years of heavy rainfall the latter were often a complete failure.

                     MAKING OF INDIGO                                                          

The methods employed for extracting the finished indigo from the green plant were very simple and also very ancient. In the old days the 

manufacture was performed by hand labour alone, but later on machinery had been introduced, although the actual process remained the same. The machinery employed in the factory was simple, and consisted of two or three pumps and an engine for working the paddle-wheel in the oxidizing vats. The green plant, when brought from the fields, was placed in the steeping vats, and the latter were then filled with water. The correct steeping of the plant was one of the most important operations in the manufacture of indigo, and the time usually allowed was about 12 hours. 

After the steeping operation was completed the liquid was run off into another vat, known as the " beating vat," and there it was oxidized by the simple process of agitating the liquid so as to mix it with air. This agitation was in former days performed by hand-beating with wooden paddles, but later on a paddle-wheel was revolved in the vat by machinery. Oxidization generally occupied about 0ne and half hours, after which time the liquid turned from a bright green to a dark blue colour with a purple or reddish tinge.It was then allowed to settle, and the indigo tacula precipitate to the bottom of the vat; the top water was then drawn off, and the indigo was collected and pumped into large boilers.The boiled indigo was then run on to a straining table, and when nearly all of the water has been strained off the residue was collected and put into presses and the remaining fluid pressed out. The hard slab of indigo was then removed from press and cut into cubes of 3 inches square, which were placed on racks to dry,the final drying operation occupying about three months. After the cakes were dry they were packed in large wooden chests, each containing about three and quarter maunds of indigo.

In 1904 a new variety of indigo was introduced from Java, known as Indigofera arrecta.

This type came originally from Natal, and was really an improved variety of the wild indigo of that country;but owing. to the difficulty in obtaining seed its cultivation was extended rather slowly, and it was not until 1906 or 1907 that it was grown to any extent in Bihar.

                                 THE STAR  FACTORY                                     

One of the best indigo factory at Dalsingh Sarai had a vat capacity of 22,000 cub. ft., while each building of a similar character at the five outworks had a measurement of 10,000 cub. ft. A considerable amount of experimental work, chiefly with regard to the production of first-class indigo seed of the Java species, was formerly done at Dalsingh Sarai , since March 19 13,been carried on by Government officials in the botanical section of the Agricultural Research Institute at Pusa. The method of manufacture, known as the " Coventry "process, gave to the product the exact proportion of red in the colouring, and such excellence had been attained in this direction that Dalsingh Sarai was known throughout the indigo world as the colour factory.

The Star Factory of Dalsinghsarai

A silver medal was awarded at the Paris Exhibition in 1900 to an exhibit sent from Dalsingh Sarai concern, and a certificate of merit for the best indigo was obtained at the Bihar Industrial Exhibition, 1907.

Glimpses of indigo factory,vats and medals awarded to indigo factory at Dalsingh Sarai, photographs of 1908


But, the human face of this industry, specially in Champaran was very inhuman. Although, the indigo trade had since declined owing to the invention of its synthetic variety by Germany, the tinkathiya, 3/20th cultivation system, was kept alive by the planters, by which, Some adventurous Englishmen had induced the Raja of Bettia to lease out his land to them for long terms of years at a low rent for planting indigo.

The planters let out the land to the tenants on a fixed rental with the provision that each of them would cultivate indigo on 3/20th of the land given to him.The cultivation of this crop required hard labour and it also exhausted the soil. The indigo crop was sold at a nominal price to the planter. In addition,all sorts of extortion were made on one plea or another.No Indian, whatever his status, could ride a horse or hold an umbrella in the presence of a planter.

In Lucknow session of congress, Raj Kumar Shukla, a peasant from Champaran,met Gandhiji and acquainted him with the woes of the peasants there, caused by the tyranny and rapacity of the British indigo planters. Shukla requested Gandhiji to go to Champaran and see things for himself. Gandhiji visited Champaran in1917 and opposed the tinkathiya system.

Gandhiji`s first victory

According to the law, Gandhiji faced a trial, but truly speaking Government was to on the trial. Later on, the Government appointed a Committee of Inquiry.Gandhiji was appointed a member. The Chairman of the Inquiry Committee was the Chief Commissioner of Central India. Gandhiji's suggestions were incorporated in the report.The report was a sober document based on undisputed facts.It was followed by requisite legislation. The kisans of Champaran did not get any radical concessions but there was some improvement in their lot.

However, in about less than a year the planters had wound up their business and gone back to their homes.


    BEHAR AND ORISSA (1917)-
    Their History, People, Commerce, and Industrial Resource 
    Compiled by SOMERSET PLAYNE,The Foreign and Colonial Compiling and Publishing Co.27 pilgrim street, LONDON, E.G.