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Incomes actually rose during the Raj

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August 30, 2005 15:35 IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's address on accepting an honorary degree at Oxford has been castigated by both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left for praising the British Raj.

Whilst the response of the former is predictable, given its Hindutva agenda, which seeks to wipe out the memory of all of India's past foreign rulers  --  Muslim and British  --  irrespective of their positive contributions, that of the Left is more puzzling.

For, more than most Indians, they are Macaulay's children (see my earlier column). The various versions of Marxism they espouse were learnt through the English language, which 'of all the legacies of the Raj,' the PM rightly noted, 'none is more important.'

Their ideology is a Western ideology, however currently defunct. Their critique of the Raj cannot be based on the political and intellectual legacies of the Raj the PM rightly praised.

These are 'our notions of the rule of law, of a Constitutional government, of a free press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research laboratories,' and the institutions of 'our judiciary, our legal system, our bureaucracy and our police, . . . derived from British-Indian administration.'

So their critique must be harking back to that old nationalist (and later quasi Marxist critique) of the economic effects of the Raj, first popularised by R C Dutt and then taken up by a host of followers. A mythology of the devastating effects of British rule on the traditional, static, subsistence economy of pre-British India was erected.

This canonical view was questioned by contemporary Indian economic historians, with the Cambridge Economic History of India, Vol 2, edited by Dharma Kumar, providing the detailed evidence. I myself wrote a two-volume work in the 1980s questioning the factual basis of this nationalist-Marxist view. (This has now been revised, updated, and abridged into a single volume The Hindu Equilibrium: India c 1500 BC-AD 2000, Oxford, 2005).

In this and the next column I want to summarise the economic legacy of the Raj -- warts and all -- based on these more recent findings, as that might help dispel the fog that still colours Indian perceptions, not least of the Left, and to show that many of the cherished beliefs of the Left are in fact part of the poisoned chalice the Raj left its successors.

First, the overall economic record of the Raj. The prime minister echoed part of the nationalist critique when he stated: "Angus Maddison has shown India's share of world income collapsed from 22.6 per cent in 1700, almost equal to Europe's share of 23.3 per cent at that time, to as low as 3.8 per cent in 1952."

What he did not state was that this reflected a relative, not an absolute, decline in India's standard of living. Estimates made from various sources in my In Praise of Empires (Palgrave, 2004; Tables 4 and 1) show that in 0 AD India's per capita income at $550 in the 1990 US$, was higher than China's ($450) and of the Roman Empire ($381).

Thereafter per capita income stagnated at this level till the fall of the Mughal empire in the 18th century, when it had fallen to $533, where it remained till the second half of the Raj.

Thereafter, it rose to $673 by 1913, and kept rising till 1930 (see Table, based on Alan Heston's estimates, which gives the per capita income in rupees at the 1946-47 prices).

The annual compound rate of growth of per capita income in the 60 years between 1868-69 and 1930 was 0.60 per cent. Modest compared to what independent India has achieved but which did end the millennial stagnation of India's per capita income till the coming of the Raj.

There was, however, a deceleration in the per capita income growth rate between 1902 and 1930 and then a decline in the last 15 years of British rule.

This can be entirely explained by the growth of population in the period from 1920 (1.22 per cent p.a.), as net domestic product increased rapidly at 1.55 per cent per annum between 1920 and 1946, and at an even higher rate of 2.6 per cent p.a. in the sub-period 1920-1930.

Thus, it is erroneous to believe that per capita incomes stagnated or even declined during the Raj, as has been asserted by nationalist (and Marxist) historians, economists and politicians.

The population growth, which began in the 1920s, was due to a dramatic reduction in mortality, with the death rate falling from 49 per thousand in 1921 to 27 in 1951.

This was due to the improvements under the Raj in water supply, inoculation, and vector control, which reduced mortality from plague, cholera, malaria, typhoid, kala-azar and other epidemics.

It also reflected the Raj's development of the Indian Famine Code in 1883 to reduce the mortality caused by the periodic famines which have plagued the subcontinent.

It charged the district commissioner to declare a famine when the rains failed in his district and which brought with it the obligation to organise work programmes and relief operations.

It was clearly based on the correct view (recently popularised by Amartya Sen) that famines were not due to an overall shortage of food but the lack of money to buy food when a drought led to a drastic decline in the demand for the labour on which the poor depended for their incomes.

The work for food projects initiated by the Raj under its Famine Code thus prevented the huge death rates associated with previous famines, and it was the failure of the Bengal government in 1943 to declare the area a famine zone, because of wartime exigencies, which led to the only large famine with over a million excess deaths in India in the 20th century.

The institutional means of staving off India's ancient scourges, which reduced its death rate, must also be counted amongst the most notable legacies of the Raj. Thus, the prime minister was right to assert (with Nehru and Gandhi) that "we did not entirely reject the British claim to good governance. We merely asserted our natural right to self-governance."

Hence the freedom struggle's slogan 'Self-Government is more precious than Good Government.'

But, could more have been done, and are the other specific charges, made by the nationalists and Marxists of the economic legacy of the Raj, sustainable? I take up this issue in my next column.

Deepak Lal