Thursday, 3 April 2014

From Rhineland to the Madras Presidency- How They Found Raiffeisen

For no good reason, the other day I happened to remember the long kerosene queues outside the Nicholson Cooperative Stores in Bedford. The man from the store would have the metal kerosene barrel dispenser on the roadside and would be measuring out each card holder’s ration.  Sad to say, we would just walk past not in the least concerned about the trials and travails of the people standing there. One celebrity who took pride in standing in queue was the Field Marshall. 

Once in a long while, my siblings and I were asked to pick up something or the other from this store, which I did with ill grace. The store had nothing to recommend it by because it was dark and dingy inside, quite unlike the other stores in Bedford. Once when he heard the rather disparaging comments I was making, my father told us that my grandfather was one of founding members of this cooperative store in Coonoor. I didn't quite understand how significant that was.

Recently, as I was researching something different, I came across a rather interesting story about the Cooperative movement in India and why the store was called Nicholson Cooperative.  To get a full picture, we will have to take a step back in history.

Nineteenth century India was a dismal place, I think. Famines and epidemics ravaged the land while the British Administration struggled quite ineffectively against these ills; overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the tasks involved. Agriculture was largely dependent on the monsoons (as it still is) and when the rains failed, starvation and famines ensued. 

There were famines in 1861, 1873 and 1876. Farmers who had borrowed heavily from the moneylenders were in a bind and a great majority of them forfeited their lands to moneylenders. The oppression was so severe that in many parts of the country, farmers became violent, so much so that the money lenders in Poona and Ahmednagar were attacked. The Government took a number of steps, including setting up a Famine Commission, none of which were very effective.

It is at this time that there was talk of setting up an agricultural bank in the Bombay Presidency. This was turned down by the Government of Bombay as it did not want to take on the duties of the ‘soukar’.
 
In 1892, the Governor of Madras, Lord Wenlock (remembered because the Downs  in Ooty is named after him) directed Frederic Augustus  Nicholson, then Collector of Madras to study the problems of the farmers and to submit a report on this.

Nicholson, who was earlier the Collector of Tinnevelly (Tirunelveli), had already proved his knowledge of the subject through a series of articles on agricultural finance in the Madras Mail between 1890 and 1891. He was also acknowledged as an expert in agrarian economy in the Madras Presidency. The report took five long years in research and writing and was finally published in 1895. By that time, Lord Wenlock’s governorship was nearing the end of its tenure. So the report was finally presented, to Lord Wenlock’s successor and the Madras Board of Revenue

One would imagine that it would be welcomed and appreciated for its depth and research. But it proved to be otherwise. The Nicholson’s report, which was rather repetitive, faced opposition verging on abusive from the Government. The Madras Board of Revenue made patronizing statements about the “408 closely printed quarto pages” of the report which “showed an absence of definiteness in conception”.

No doubt, Nicholson found all this criticism disappointing.  When he was asked to sum up the burden of the 408 page report in a few words, Nicholson is said to have muttered two words, “Find Raiffeisen”.

So who or what was Raiffeisen?

Raiffeisen was the burgomaster of Heddesdorf, a village near Neuwied in Germany. He was not a rich man, but an inspired Christian. After the famine in 1848 had caused great distress to farmers in Germany, he experimented with various kinds of agrarian cooperatives to eliminate the moneylenders and middlemen. By 1864, he had the model of a cooperative funding society. This model gained popularity all over Germany and spread to Austria and Italy. 

The Raiffeisen societies were self governing associations of borrowers who contributed to the capital of the society and who made use of further capital which the society attracted. These societies were limited to a specific locality or village. The aim of the societies was to instill a feeling of confidence, self help and thrift to the farmers who were suspicious and enfeebled. This was the model which Nicholson wanted to transplant from the villages on the Rhine to the Madras Presidency. 

Though discarded in Madras, copies of Nicholson’s report circulated in other parts of India. It was greeted with enthusiasm. The phrase “Find Raiffeisen” was soon topic of conversation in the clubs, on the polo fields, in the drawing rooms across the country and from there it spread to the bazaars and the highways. The poor farmers talked about the farmer’s banks while they sheltered from the sweltering heat under the shade of the banyan trees and around the campfire on moonlight nights. And soon the Indian National Congress, which was often accused of not caring for the common man, took up the cause. By 1904, cooperative agricultural credit societies and cooperative banks were to be established in many districts.
Nicholson could well be the pioneer of the cooperative movement in India.


Nicholson Cooperative is today a part of the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation and is located in Cash Bazaar in lower Coonoor