Custom as Natural: Land, Water and Law in Colonial Madras
Aditya Ramesh | 2018
In 1865, the Madras government enacted a legislation, the Irrigation Cess Act, designed to allow it to extract revenue from water as separate as that from land. However, as emphasized by many commentators, this pithy legislation was far from comprehensive in its definition of government powers over water. Faced with resolute opposition from zamindars to any further legislation that would centralize control over water resources as well as powers to levy fees over water use to the government, the Madras state was forced to confront zamindars in court over the interpretation of the Irrigation Cess Act. In 1917, the Privy Council, the highest court in the land, delivered a landmark judgement in resolution of a dispute between the Madras government and the Urlam zamindari. The Urlam case, this article argues, lends a new perspective to historiography on custom and the environment in colonial India. The Privy Council judgement rendered custom a physical, historically reified, and ‘natural’ quality, simultaneously within and outside the encounter between labour and nature.