The Inland Customs Hedge of India
It was all about tax and salt. In the unforgiving heat of India it was estimated that an adult needed an ounce a day to survive and whilst there were plentiful supplies of the mineral in Eastern India, other parts were poorly served. One of the most egregious taxes imposed on the natives by the East India Company and then the British Raj was the salt tax which made the mineral prohibitively expensive. And where there is tax, there is an incentive to evade it, principally through smuggling.
So concerned was the East India Company about smuggling and the impact on its revenue that from 1803 a series of customs houses were built across the major roads and rivers of Bengal to collect taxes. But this was not altogether successful as the crafty locals would just go round the posts. In 1834 G H Smith developed a more substantial structure, running from Agra to Delhi and consisting of customs posts at mile intervals linked by a raised path with gates every four miles to allow movement from one side to the other. 6,600 employees staffed the line and there were border patrols operating a couple of miles or so behind the line. There were cells where smugglers were detained – these were known as chowkis, from which our word chokey
Control of most of India passed from the East India Company to the British government following the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and in 1869 they ordered that the various customs lines be integrated into a single structure, running some 2,504 miles from the Himalayas to Orissa. To give some sense of the profitability of the salt tax some 12.5 million rupees were collected in 1869-70 and by 1877 it was worth 29.1 million rupees.
One of the problems facing the British administrators was the absence of natural material with which to build the wall. But you don’t get to rule an empire without showing some ingenuity and this ia where Allan Octavian Hume came in. To supplement the earth and bricks, dry hedging had been used, principally from dwarf Indian Plum. Some of it had taken root and Hume’s brainwave in 1869 was to plant a hedge. That year he began experimenting with various types of local bushes. The key requisites were that they would grow in the various soil conditions and that they were thorny. He came up with a mix of Indian plum, babool, karonda and various species of euphorbia.
Around 800 miles of hedge was planted, never less than eight feet high and four feet wide and often up to twelve feet tall and fourteen feet thick. In Hume’s own words, it was “in its most perfect form.. utterly impassable to man or beast.” Of course, some tried, by driving their camels straight at the hedge or throwing the bags over the hedge and there were clashes. Two administrators tried to arrest 112 smugglers in 1877 and died in the attempt. Bribery and corruption was rife. But the main bug bear was that the hedge disrupted trade and free movement. Who’d have thought it?
Once the Brits had secured control of salt production and introduced a refinement of the salt tax which varied between regions, thus making smuggling uneconomic, there was little need for the hedge. In 1879 work stopped on building and maintaining it and when India gained independence in 1947 the last remaining remnants of the hedge were ripped up.
The customs hedge had a significant impact on India. It is estimated that millions of Indians died because of their inability to afford salt and it stoked up resentment against the Brits, something that Gandhi was able to exploit with his first piece of civil disobedience, his salt satyagraha. On the plus side, the customs line provided the only surveyed straight line in the area and so it was used for the route of a number of roads. But if you are searching for the hedge, you will be sorely disappointed.