A Story of Economic Upheaval: India Under Colonial Rule
Amiya Kumar Bagchi
ECONOMIC HISTORY OF INDIA FROM EIGHTEENTH TO TWENTIETH CENTURY by Binay Bhusan Chaudhuri Centre for Studies in Civilizations, 2008, 853 pp., 2650
June 2008, volume 32, No 6

The period between 1750 and 1950 witnessed an unparalleled development in human history. A small horde of invaders from a promontory of the Eurasian continent subjugated and systematically de-humanized the vast majority of mankind. That majority included the populations of China and India, the two most populous and hitherto the most commercialized countries of the world. Writing an economic history of India spanning the period from around the 1750s down to the end of the twentieth century is a daunting enterprise, for several reasons. First, the population is large and varied in economic organization, ways of living and relating to the state and the market. Second, the period spans 250 years—a period that has seen many dramatic changes in economic organization, technology, political fortunes and has been dotted with many wars, famines and pestilences. Third, much of the material going into this history remains to be properly collated and analysed. Fourth, there is much false propaganda masquerading as knowledge making the unwary reader take utter falsehoods as gospel truth.

It is laudable that the Project of History of Indian Science and Culture also included the task of writing a history of the material correlates of ‘Science, philosophy and culture’. The current volume is volume VIII, Part 3 of the ‘History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization’ under the general editorship of D.P. Chattopadhyaya. The volume is unwieldy to handle and costly as well for a researcher, who may not be interested in all the aspects covered, and even for students who might want a single-volume history of the period. It would have been far better to have divided it up into separate monographs, with Chaudhuri as the general editor.

Still, a volume that seeks to provide a connected account of the economic history of India from the early colonial period to the very end of the twentieth century is welcome. The articles on the colonial period are mainly devoted to the history of industry, trade, organization and the working class. However, there are papers devoted to agricultural development during the post-Independence period.

The volume opens with an evocative paper by David Ludden on the spatial, temporal and ecological framework in which he would like to situate the history of South India, but given the constraints of a paper even in such an oversized tome, he cannot satisfy the reader’s appetite. Still, his emphasis on the porosity of any through region, especially in periods of accelerated globalization is a salutary reminder of the limits of regional history, even though such history is an essential corrective to viewing Indian history as an undifferentiated aggregate in motion. The volume ends with an iconoclastic and convincing demonstration by Utsa Patnaik that the theory of comparative advantage put forward by Ricardo and elaborated by umpteen generations of pro-imperialist and neoclassical economists to justify the international division of labour under formal and informal imperialism is just absurd. Britain or the Netherlands could not have produced the cotton or the sugarcane in substitution for beer or wine, as Ralph Davis had pointed out in 1979. The exploitation of colonies was ‘export-led’ as I had argued in 1982. Patnaik brings up the story to the end of the 1990s and shows that in India as well as in other developing countries, a clear inverse relation has emerged between the level of exports of primary products and food availability: the decline in nutritional levels of the majority of Indians especially under the neo-liberal regime dating from the early 1990s is not a happenstance but a systematic result of government policies.

Utsa Patnaik’s general perspective on food security is complemented by two carefully constructed analyses of Indian agricultural growth since independence. After pointing out that crop production had stagnated during the colonial period, Manoj Kumar Sanyal documents the growth of agricultural output that exceeded population growth for the period up to the 1990s. He carefully distinguishes the phases of policy changes in agriculture, and brings up the role of land reforms and their non-implementation in most states of India in making the distribution of landholdings more skewed and also depressing the rate of growth of crop production in most of the East and Central Indian states. Sanyal also reviews the debates concerning appropriate policies to follow in the agricultural sector. Debashree Chatterjee carries out a detailed analysis of the relative contributions of growth in area and productivity for different crops, and documents the alarming decline in the rate of productivity growth in most crops. Since the scope of increasing the gross area under crop production has become severely limited, new research and extension of the knowledge to the farmers have become imperative if we want to avoid mass starvation, especially in view of the virtual abolition of the public distribution of food grains in most states of India. The papers by Sanyal and Chatterjee both underscore the culpability of the neoliberal regime in slowing down public investment in agriculture and by downgrading lending by public sector banks to small farmers and in poorer regions, rendering credit prohibitively expensive for most farmers.

There is no comparable analysis of the state of agriculture in the colonial period in this volume, but recently another volume has been published in the same series under the sole authorship of Binay Bhusan Chaudhuri. Of the chapters on industrial or more generally non-agricultural growth in colonial India, the one by Saugata Mukherji on non-agricultural production stands out in terms of the clarity and cogency of the argument and the lucid summary of the historiography he has provided.

Mukherji puts his analysis firmly in the framework of the nature of the state: the colonial state, with the imperative of remitting a large fraction of the potentially investable surplus had its own compulsions, just as the turn to neoliberalism in Indian industrial policy had its own logic very different from the state-guided policy of a truly developmental state. Mukherji shows how an India governed by a colonial state that also happened to be the pioneer in industrial revolution and greatly depended on exports of its burgeoning manufacturing sector to attain a hegemonic position had to undergo a phase of massive de-industrialization, a phase that lasted down to the late colonial period. It is only the difficulties to the imperial hegemony caused by the rise of the industrial power of Germany, the USA and other competitors in the North Atlantic seaboard—difficulties that were underscored by the long stalemate of World War I—that forced Britain to make certain small concessions to the demands of the Indian nationalists. Mukherji’s masterly summary of the gyrations of the policy regime will be greatly appreciated by students of Indian industrial history.

The companion piece by Dietmar Rothermund is a rather strange and baffling composition. Rothermund had earlier done distinguished work on the economic consequences of British colonial policy, and he even refers to the relevance of colonialism in the beginning of the chapter. But then he gets seduced by a peculiar hypothesis, namely, that it is the very fineness of skills of Indian artisans that prevented the advance of industrial revolution in India. If he had examined the history of industrializing countries in Western Europe, he would also have found very fine skills among artisans in the phase of transition to modern factory industry. But in those countries, the government fostered literacy and the acquisition of new skills through deliberate training, the state provided protection and other kinds of patronage to nascent industries and the countries derived benefits from their formal and informal colonies.

The supporters of neoliberalism are also deniers of the harmful effects of colonialism, because they think that the state is irrelevant except where it is an intervening state. Ignorance of history is one of their strong suits, and then they commandeer the services of so-called historians who deny the massive de-industrialization of India, China or many other developing countries under the global imperial regime and wipe the slate clean of the tens of millions of corpses dying of famine. Rothermund also joins the Denial of De-industrialization and Famine Club, by labelling the evidence of de-industrialization as an ideological hang-up, and by saying that its occurrence was confined to Bengal and Bihar, and did not affect South India. Both he and Smritikumar Sarkar in his chapter refer approvingly to Specker (1988), without realizing that Specker’s evidence amounts only to the counting of looms: there is abundant evidence that in many weavers’ homes around the middle of the nineteenth century and even up to the 1880s, these looms had become only ‘heirlooms’ kept as a marker of better days and waiting for a turn in the fortune that would allow the owners to ply them again. It is not surprising that Rothermund should have regarded the phase of economic development in India from 1951 to the beginning of the 1990s as one of stagnation caused by state intervention. On the contrary, there are only two major structural breaks in India’s growth record since 1947, one in the 1950s when the decline in per capita incomes in the colonial period was succeeded by the upward movement in incomes and the second phase in the 1980s when the benefits of the state-supported Green Revolution in agriculture had a synergistic influence on the growth of other sectors. If Rothermund had paid any attention to the industrializing East Asian countries, he would have understood that many of the policies followed by South Korea and Taiwan were even more interventionist than the Indian government’s policies, but they had carried out thorough pro-peasant land reforms and were far more effectively nationalist in pursuing their policies.

Rothermund has many interesting things to say about particular industries, but his evaluation of the reasons for their success or failure must be placed against, shall we say, his temporary blindness?—regarding the role of state policies. Parimal Ghosh, in his chapter on the history of the Indian working class from 1850 to1946, brilliantly demonstrates that it is possible to work in the role of the colonial state along with those of caste, community, region, occupation and gender in narrating the changing fortunes of ordinary Indians. Workers in machine-based industries, mines and plantations came from rural areas, regions with a majority of Adivasi populations, regions dominated by zamindars or other rural magnates who exerted a considerable amount of non-market power. The locations of factories, mines or plantations they moved to were heavily guarded by the colonial state and its minions as prime sites for profit-making. They were highly unsanitary, with high rates of morbidity and mortality and the workers did not earn even a living wage from their gruelling work or their having to live like pigs in overcrowded rooms in slums or ‘coolie’ barracks. But most of those people had no alternative to accepting those conditions. For factory workers who could shuttle between country and town, the social reproduction of labour was effectively assigned to their home locations. For indentured workers in Assam plantations, even that option was not there: as one group of workers died, the recruiters sent in another group. It was only when the rigours of the indenture system were relaxed a bit so that plantation owners provided the workers with tiny plots of land in a bid to bind them down. Ghosh gives an analysis of the locations of origin of workers region by region and their fates and struggles are also regionally differentiated.

The regional perspective is overlaid also by industrial specificities. Since Ghosh has had to depend on mainly secondary works for sketching such a vast canvas, his narration comes out with a better view in industries and locations for which outstanding secondary work on the region, community, or occupational links of the workers, such as those of the Bombay textile mills, the Kolar gold field, and the jute mills of Bengal exists.

Kumar Suresh Singh has written a very general paper on the impact of colonialism on so-called tribal societies. But given the very great diversity as between, let us say, the Bhils of Gujarat and the Khasis of Meghalaya and as also given the fact that the Chhotanagpur plateau, with its majority of Adivasi peoples, was a principal recruiting ground for the Assam-Terai plantations and the Raniganj-Giridhi-Jharia mining belt, students will have to look for a more focused and at the same time more analytically differentiated work to grasp the fate of tribal economies under colonialism.

I finally come to the two chapters of the book which could have done with better editorial supervision of contents and arrangement. The first one is by Shubhra Chakrabarti, ‘Colonized trade: Major shifts in India’s trade and commercial organizations, 1700-1860’, and the second is a 248-page chapter by Smriti Kumar Sarkar, ‘Social organization of artisan production in India: Changing role of the market, technology, and merchant-creditor: 18th to 20th centuries’. While both these scholars assemble an enormous amount of empirical material, there is no real sense of the direction of change or the relative importance of different factors in causing particular kinds of changes. If the point being is made that no real change in methods of organization of trade or artisanal production can be discerned, that point has also to be argued out. Very often a fashionable opinion is taken as the truth, and no attempt is made to test that opinion against the evidence that may be there in another part of the same paper. The reasons for the emergence of European, and later, Indian agency houses are, for example, misspecified in Chakrabarti’s paper, although she has referred to works that could have rectified this. Similarly, Sarkar fails to bring out the conjoint roles of the decline of the export trade in Indian textiles, the invasion of the Indian market by machine-made British goods enjoying the benefits of one-way free trade and the endemic demand compression in the colonial economy that lowered the earnings of those artisans who stuck to their old occupations and who turned to coarser goods to satisfy an impoverished domestic market. It is a pity because similar materials could have been used to construct an illuminating narrative, rather than a jumble of facts and opinions.

If economic history has to attract students and serious scholars, we must keep in view some great exemplars in terms of clarity and attractiveness. First of all, there is no such entity as pure economic history. It is necessarily implicated, indeed implicitly or explicitly embedded, in social history. Class, community, gender and ascribed ethnicity necessarily influence the material circumstances of the life of a worker and his/her family or kin group. Secondly, the narratives of those lives cannot be just strewn around but must somehow portray the transformations brought about by their lived experience. Thirdly, measurement of some aspects of those lives must enter into the composition of the narratives. They include changes in levels of employment and loss of occupations, mortality and where possible fertility rates, real wages, costs of mobility and so on. Just as mere cliometrics cannot be the sole body of economic and social history, similarly haphazard description of some aspects of people’s lives may miss out important ways in which their lives change over decades or centuries. Judged by these criteria, several of the chapters would fail to attract the ambitious scholar to the task of writing India’s economic and social history since the advent of formal British rule.

References Davis, R.. 1979. The Industrial Revolution and British Overseas Trade, Leicester: Leicester University Press. Bagchi, A. K.1982. The Political Economy of Underdevelopment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Specker, K. 1988. ‘De-industrialization in nineteenth century India: the textile industry in Madras Presidency, 1810-1870’, in C. J. Dewey (ed.): Arrested Development in India, New Delhi: Manohar. Amiya Kumar Bagchi is at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata. 

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