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Effects of Colonization in India

Some people still have the illusion that the British Raj was not all that bad. But in reality is that the British Colonial rule as against the interests of the common people of the Indian sub-continent and it destroyed the education system, economy, ancient monuments and livelihood of the people.

One can trace the education system in India to third century B.C. Ancient days, the sages and scholars imparted education orally. After the development of letters it took the form of writing. Palm leaves and bark of trees were used for education. Temples and community centers often took the role of schools. When Buddhism spread in India, education became available to everyone and this led to the establishment of some world famous educational institutions Nalanda, Vikramshila and Takshashila. These educational institutes in fact arose from the monasteries. History has taken special care to give Nalanda University, which flourished from the fifth to 13th century AD, full credit for its excellence. This university had around 10,000 resident students and teachers on its roll at one time. These students included Chinese, Sri Lankan, Korean and other international scholars. It was in the 11th century that the Muslims established elementary and secondary schools. This led to the forming of few universities too at cities like Delhi, Lucknow and Allahabad. Medieval period saw excellent interaction between Indian and Islamic traditions in all fields of knowledge like theology, religion, philosophy, fine arts, painting, architecture, mathematics, medicine and astronomy. The British bring English education to India but the old education system was destroyed. The literacy rate in British India were only 6% in 1911, 8% in 1931 and crawled to 11% in 1947. In 1935, only 40 in 100,000 were enrolled in universities or higher education institutes.

It is true that the British built modern cities with modern conveniences for their administrative officers but these were exclusive zones not intended for the natives. In 1911, 69 per cent of Bombay's population lived in one-room tenements and in 1931 it had increased to 74 per cent. The same was true of Karachi and Ahmedabad. After the Second World War, 13 per cent of Bombay's population slept on the streets. As for sanitation, 10-15 tenements typically shared one water tap.

But in 1757 Clive of the East India Company had observed of Murshidabad in Bengal: "This city is as extensive, populous and rich as the city of London..." Dacca was even more famous as a manufacturing town, it's muslin a source of many legends and its weavers had an international reputation that was unmatched in the medieval world. But in 1840 it was reported by Sir Charles Trevelyan to a parliamentary enquiry that Dacca's population had fallen from 150,000 to 20,000. The percentage of population dependant on agriculture and pastoral pursuits actually rose to 73% in 1921 from 61% in 1891.

In 1854, Sir Arthur Cotton writing in ‘Public Works in India’ noted: "Public works have been almost entirely neglected throughout India... The motto hitherto has been: 'Do nothing, have nothing done, let nobody do anything....." John Bright in the House of Commons on June 24, 1858 said, "The single city of Manchester, in the supply of its inhabitants with the single article of water, has spent a larger sum of money than the East India Company has spent in the fourteen years from 1834 to 1848 in public works of every kind throughout the whole of its vast dominions."

Ancient India was famous for its canal system which controls flood water and provides irrigation for the agriculture land. Under the colonial rule it was destroyed because of the lack of maintenance. In 1838 G. Thompson noted in ‘India and the Colonies’, “The roads and tanks and canals which Hindu or Mussulman Governments constructed for the service of the nations and the good of the country have been suffered to fall into dilapidation; and now the want of the means of irrigation causes famines." In 1858 Montgomery Martin noted in ‘The Indian Empire’, “…omitted not only to initiate improvements, but even to keep in repair the old works upon which the revenue depended." The Report of the Bengal Irrigation Department Committee in 1930 reads: "In every district the Khals (canals) which carry the internal boat traffic become from time to time blocked up with silt. Its Khals and rivers are the roads end highways of Eastern Bengal, and it is impossible to overestimate the importance to the economic life of this part of the province of maintaining these in proper navigable order ... As regards the revival or maintenance of minor routes, ... practically nothing has been done, with the result that, in some parts of the Province at least, channels have been silted up, navigation has become limited to a few months in the year, and crops can only be marketed when the Khals rise high enough in the monsoon to make transport possible". Sir William Willcock, a distinguished hydraulic engineer, noted “Not only was nothing done to utilize and improve the original canal system, but railway embankments were subsequently thrown up, entirely destroying it. Some areas, cut off from the supply of loam-bearing Ganges water, have gradually become sterile and unproductive, others improperly drained, show an advanced degree of water-logging, with the inevitable accompaniment of malaria. Nor has any attempt been made to construct proper embankments for the Gauges in its low course, to prevent the enormous erosion by which villages and groves and cultivated fields are swallowed up each year."

Even some serious critics of colonial rule grudgingly grant that the British brought modern medicine to India. A 1938 report by the International Labor Office on ‘Industrial Labor in India’ revealed that life expectancy in India was barely 25 years in 1921 and had actually fallen to 23 in 1931. Mike Davis noted in ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’ that life expectancy fell by 20% between 1872 and 1921. Infant mortality in Bombay was 255 per thousand in 1928.

Several Indians when confronted with such data from the colonial period argue that the British should not be specially targeted because India's problems of poverty pre-date colonial rule, and in any case, were exacerbated by rapid population growth. Of course, no one who makes the first point is able to offer any substantive proof that such conditions prevailed long before the British arrived, and to counter such an argument would be difficult in the absence of reliable and comparable statistical data from earlier centuries. But some readers may find the anecdotal evidence intriguing. In any case, the population growth data is available and is quite remarkable in what it reveals.

Some people believe that the poverty and famine caused during colonial rule was partly caused by population growth. But in reality the population growth in India was less half o that in Europe. Between 1870 and 1910, India's population grew at an average rate of 19%. Average population growth in the same period in Europe was 45%. In the first half of the 19th century, there were seven famines leading to a million and a half deaths. In the second half, there were 24 famines (18 between 1876 and 1900) causing over 20 million deaths (as per official records). W. Digby, noted in ‘Prosperous British India’ in 1901 that "stated roughly, famines and scarcities have been four times as numerous, during the last thirty years of the 19th century as they were one hundred years ago, and four times as widespread." In ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’, Mike Davis points out that here were 31(thirty one) serious famines in 120 years of British rule compared to 17(seventeen) in the 2000 years before British rule. The export of food grains had increased by a factor of four just prior to that period. And export of other agricultural raw materials had also increased in similar proportions. Land that once produced grain for local consumption was converted to plantations for the cultivation of lucrative cash crops exclusively for export. Even during the famine years the British colonial rulers continued to export food grains from India to Britain.

Annual British Government reports repeatedly published data that showed 70-80% of Indians were living on the margin of subsistence. This is in contrast with the following accounts of Indian life prior to colonization. Tavernier wrote in ‘Travels in India’ about 17th century India, “....even in the smallest villages rice, flour, butter, milk, beans and other vegetables, sugar and sweetmeats can be procured in abundance ....” Manouchi, chief physician to Aurangzeb (17th century) wrote: "Bengal is of all the kingdoms of the Moghul, best known in France..... We may venture to say it is not inferior in anything to Egypt - and that it even exceeds that kingdom in its products of silks, cottons, sugar, and indigo. All things are in great plenty here, fruits, pulse, grain, muslins, cloths of gold and silk..." The French traveler, Bernier described 17th century Bengal as "The knowledge I have acquired of Bengal in two visits inclines me to believe that it is richer than Egypt. It exports in abundance cottons and silks, rice, sugar and butter. It produces amply for its own consumption of wheat, vegetables, grains, fowls, ducks and geese. It has immense herds of pigs and flocks of sheep and goats. Fish of every kind it has in profusion. From Rajmahal to the sea are an endless number of canals, cut in bygone ages from the Ganges by immense labor for navigation and irrigation."

The poverty of British India stood in stark contrast to these eye witness reports and has to be ascribed to the pitiful wages that working people in India received in that period. A 1927-28 report noted that "all but the most highly skilled workmen in India receive wages which are barely sufficient to feed and clothe them. Everywhere will be seen overcrowding, dirt and squalid misery..." Also in 1922, an 11 hour day was the norm and in 1934 it had been reduced to 10.

Perhaps the least known aspect of the colonial legacy is the early British attitude towards India's historic monuments and the extend of vandalism that took place. Instead, there is this pervasive myth of the British as an unbiased ‘protector of the nation's historic legacy’.

R.Nath in his 'History of Decorative Art in Mughal Architecture' records that scores of gardens, tombs and palaces that once adorned the suburbs of Sikandra at Agra were sold out or auctioned. He wrote, "Relics of the glorious age of the Mughals were either destroyed or converted beyond recognitionOut of 270 beautiful monuments which existed at Agra alone, before its capture by Lake in 1803, hardly 40 have survived". David Carroll wrote in ‘Taj Mahal’, "The forts in Agra and Delhi were commandeered at the beginning of the nineteenth century and turned into military garrisons. Marble reliefs were torn down, gardens were trampled, and lines of ugly barracks, still standing today, were installed in their stead. In the Delhi fort, the Hall of Public Audience was made into an arsenal and the arches of the outer colonnades were bricked over or replaced with rectangular wooden windows."

Lord William Bentinck went so far as to announce plans to demolish the best Mogul monuments in Agra and Delhi and remove their marble facades. These were to be shipped to London, where they would be broken up and sold to members of the British aristocracy. Several of Shahjahan's pavilions in the Red Fort at Delhi were indeed stripped to the brick, and the marble was shipped off to England. Plans to dismantle the Taj Mahal were in place, and wrecking machinery was moved into the garden grounds. Just as the demolition work was to begin, news from London indicated that the first auction had not been a success, and that all further sales were cancelled -- it would not be worth the money to tear down the Taj Mahal. Thus the Taj Mahal was spared.

Perhaps the most important aspect of colonial rule was the transfer of wealth from India to Britain. In his pioneering book, India Today, Rajni Palme Dutt conclusively demonstrates how vital this was to the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Several patents that had remained unfunded suddenly found industrial sponsors once the taxes from India started rolling in. Without capital from India, British banks would have found it impossible to fund the modernization of Britain that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In addition, the scientific basis of the industrial revolution was not a uniquely European contribution. Several civilizations had been adding to the world's scientific database - especially the civilizations of Asia, (including those of the Indian sub-continent). Without that aggregate of scientific knowledge the scientists of Britain and Europe would have found it impossible to make the rapid strides they made during the period of the Industrial revolution. Moreover, several of these patents, particularly those concerned with the textile industry relied on pre-industrial techniques perfected in the sub-continent. In fact, many of the earliest textile machines in Britain were unable to match the complexity and finesse of the spinning and weaving machines of Dacca.

Some euro-centric authors have attempted to deny any such linkage. They have tried to assert that not only was the Industrial Revolution a uniquely British/European event - that colonization and the phenomenal transfer of wealth that took place was merely incidental to its fruition. But the words of Lord Curzon still ring loud and clear. The Viceroy of British India in 1894 was quite unequivocal, "India is the pivot of our Empire .... If the Empire loses any other part of its Dominion we can survive, but if we lose India the sun of our Empire will have set." Lord Curzon knew fully well, the value and importance of the Indian colony. It was the transfer of wealth through unprecedented levels of taxation on Indians of virtually all classes that funded the great "Industrial Revolution" and laid the ground for "modernization" in Britain. As early as 1812, an East India Company Report had stated, "The importance of that immense empire to this country is rather to be estimated by the great annual addition it makes to the wealth and capital of the Kingdom....."

Few would doubt that Indo-British trade may have been unfair - but it may be noteworthy to see how unfair. In the early 1800s imports of Indian cotton and silk goods faced duties of 70-80%. British imports faced duties of 2-4%. As a result, British imports of cotton manufactures into India increased by a factor of 50, and Indian exports dropped to one-fourth. A similar trend was noted in silk goods, woolens, iron, pottery, glassware and paper. As a result, millions of ruined artisans and craftsmen, spinners, weavers, potters, smelters and smiths were rendered jobless and had to become landless agricultural workers.

Another aspect of colonial rule that has remained hidden from popular perception is that Britain was not the only beneficiary of colonial rule. British trade regulations even as they discriminated against Indian business interests created a favorable trading environment for other imperial powers. By 1939, only 25% of Indian imports came from Britain. 25% came from Japan, the US and Germany. In 1942-3, Canada and Australia contributed another 8%. In the period immediately before independence, Britain ruled as much on behalf of its imperial allies as it did in its own interest. The process of "globalization" was already taking shape. But none of this growth trickled down to India. In the last half of 19th century, India's income fell by 50%. In the 190 years prior to independence, the Indian economy was literally stagnant - it experienced zero growth.

Those who wish India well should re-read the history so the nation isn't brought to the same situation once again in this era of globalization.