The Horrendous Memories of the Raj: Colonial Rule and the Indian Economy

Before British rule in India, India was a self-sufficient and robust economy. It was popularly known as the ‘golden eagle’ signifying the wealth it had accumulated. India had already established itself on the world map as the largest exporter in the world with a global trade share of more than 27%. By the late 17th century, almost the whole of India (as we know it in its present form), along with Pakistan and a part of Afghanistan, was united under the name of the Mughal empire and became the largest economy and manufacturing power in the world, producing about a quarter of the global GDP. India was the world leader in manufacturing, producing 25% of the world’s total output until the mid-18th century. It was the world’s biggest producer of textiles, agricultural products, and precious metals and stones, including diamonds. The fact that industrialisation was on the doorstep of the Indian economy cannot be denied. Although primarily it was an agrarian economy, many manufacturing activities started picking up pace in pre-colonial India, and the exchange of ideas and technology with the western world had been free-flowing.

All these developments in the Indian sub-continent lured and attracted the British to capture India and use it as a cash-cow to fulfill the needs of their home country. The British came to India with the motive of colonisation. Their plans involved using India as a feeder colony for their own flourishing economy back in Britain. This exploitation continued for about two centuries, ending at last in 1947 after endless dark days of persecution, plunder and exploitation. The British took steps that ensured the development and promotion of the interests of their home country. They were in no way concerned about the course of the Indian economy.

India experienced deindustrialisation and cessation of various craft industries under British rule, which along with fast economic and population growth in the West, resulted in India’s share of the world economy declining from 24.4% in 1700 to 4.1% in 1950, with its share in global trade declining from 27% in 1750 to 2% in the 1900’s.

Indian weavers and textile industries were well-known all over the world. They made superior and very fine quality cloth, it was actually known to be the ‘lightest woven-air’. The British came right in, smashed their thumbs, broke their looms, asserted tariffs and duties, and shipped the raw material from India to Britain. They shipped back industrially mass-produced stitched garments back to India, flooding the world’s market with what became the products of the dark and satanic Victorian era. This meant that the weavers and handloom workers in India went from being acknowledged worldwide for their work to being beggars and hence, destroying the forever thriving cloth and textile industry of India, in which it held its utmost pride. The Indian textile industry still hasn’t been able to fully recover from the effects that colonisation had on it.

The British always emphasised the positives that took place during their reign. One such thing in which they took pride was that they built the railways in India. To this, the argument stands that a lot of other countries didn’t need to be colonised in order to build its railways. Railways were built just to serve the British purpose. They were used to transport troops and raw material from the hinterland to the ports to be shipped to Britain. The needs of the Indian public were incidental and there was no consideration to match the demand and supply of the railway services for the general public movement. The fact is that the building of railways was just another gimmick or as one might say a trick implemented by the British to ensure an extravagant return to its own people. They supplied all the equipment, controlled the technology, and promised the British investors vast returns on their investments in railways which were eventually paid out of the Indian taxpayers’ money, as pointed out by Shashi Tharoor. All this resulted in causing the cost of building 1 km of railways to inflate and become almost double of what it took to build in Canada or Australia.

Moving forward to the First World War, India and the rest of the British dominions had no control over Indian defence and foreign policy in 1914. So, when the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on August 4, India and the rest of the British colonies were automatically at war with the Central Powers. Though India was suffering from recession, poverty and hunger at that time, the country supplied not only manpower but also 170,000 animals, 3.7 million tonnes of supplies, jute for sandbags, and a large loan (the equivalent of about £2 billion today) to the British government.

World War II was even worse; more than 2.4 million Indian men served in that war and out of Britain’s total war debt of £3 billion (in 1945 money), £1.25 billion was owed to India and was never really paid back.

The Indian economy frequently faced the occurrence of famines too during British rule. Commercialisation of agriculture hampered the production of food grains by transferring land from the cultivation of food crops to non-food crops like industrial raw materials. Moreover, the destruction of Indian handicrafts increased the pressure of population on land. All these led to the frequent occurrences of famines in India causing untold misery and suffering for the Indian cultivators and general people. Anywhere around 15 to 29 million Indians died due to British-induced famines in India during colonial rule.

Even after all the miseries and horrendous exploitation incited by the British on India, they never accepted nor did they apologise for the wrongdoings that happened during that period. Today, after 73 years, India stands strong at a global stage as the 5th largest economy in the world, way ahead of its colonial rulers. Although India still has a lot to achieve in the field of sanitation, healthcare, education and other pillars of the economy, it has done a tremendous job till now and has risen above all the exploitation and plunder they suffered for 200 years as a British colony.


Manav Gupta

I am a person who loves to read about science and economics,all the new developments in the world or any ongoing chaos. I am a strong believer of "knowledge is the key to success".

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