The British Engineered India’s Poverty

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UK is generating a lot of enthusiastic support from many, as expected. I don’t waste time on following the hoopla. It’s all a sideshow that wastes real resources that India can ill afford but gets done because those who enjoy the pomp and circumstance don’t bear the costs. Indian taxpayers — which we must remember are not just those who pay income tax but it includes even the poorest of the poor — pay for the politicians, bureaucrats and their hangers-on to live it up. It is another symptom of the deep malady that inflicts India: Colonial rule.

Rulers Changed, not the Rules

All this present bonhomie between the two nations — the colonizer and the colonized — conceals the fact that the British raped India. There’s no polite way to put it. They raped, pillaged and looted India. And that’s not the worst of the tragedy. The worst bit is that although the British left, Indians did not become free. I claim that if India was not free before Aug 1947, then India continued to be just as not free even after Aug 1947. Read the constitution of India and you will find that it is at its essence a set of rules which empowers the government (and its immense bureaucracy) to rule Indians.

The racial composition of the rulers changed. There was no change in the fact that the government was still the master and the people were its servants. The rulers changed, not the rules.

The British made those rules. Therefore they were good for the British rulers and bad for Indians. That the rules the British made for ruling India were bad is really an understatement. But from the point of view of the colonizers, the British, it was the most rational thing to do. Put yourself in the position of a colonial ruler. What kind of policies and rules would you put in place?

The most rational set of rules for a colonial power is to have extractive and exploitative rules. What’s the point of colonizing if not to extract and exploit? You don’t colonize a far-away foreign land with hundreds of millions of people on a lark. You do it for profit. And to do that, you have to be ruthless. Your goal is not development. Your goal isn’t even to cause misery. The misery and poverty that follows is a side-effect, an unintended consequence even.

“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

Let me give you just two examples. The Bengal Famine of 1943. It was almost entirely due to the British that around 4 million people starved to death. Countries offered to donate food and help. For example, Canada wanted to give 100,000 tons of wheat. And the United States made a similar offer.

But Mr Winston Churchill (Mr David Cameron’s predecessor, Prime Minister 1940-45 and 1951-55) refused to have the food sent to India. He said, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” The famine was their own fault, he said “for breeding like rabbits.” At the same time that people were starving, food was being exported out of Bengal to support British troops.

(Reference: Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II. The Ugly Briton.)

Dirty Business

Mr Churchill’s hate for Indians was not remarkable at all. It was the general attitude of the English. Judging by the things that they did, it is easy to see that the English despised Indians. In a sense, they had to probably hold their noses as they went about stealing from India. Their disgust was overcome only by avarice.

There were a few thousand British expatriates in India to run the colonial government of India. These expats had to be induced to be in India and were given a “hardship allowance”. Britishers in the Indian Civil Services (the IAS is the new name for it) were the highest-paid civil servants in the world. Those high salaries for paid for by the “beastly people with a beastly religion”. Thieving from filthy people is a dirty business but someone has to do it, and for that they need to be paid more than usual.

The theft that India suffered under the British is hard to estimate. It will probably run in trillions of dollars in today’s terms. But here’s just one very tiny example.

Grand Theft, not Petty Larceny

The SS Gairsoppa was a British merchant ship. It left Calcutta bound for England in 1941. It’s cargo? Among other things such as tea, it carried 240 tons of silver for the British mint. German u-boats sank it in the Atlantic. It was discovered 70 years later in 2011. That silver was valued at over $200 million in 2012. As per international maritime law, finders keepers.

(Reference: New York Times.)

The main thing to remember here is that India is not just poor, it has been impoverished. India has been made poor.

A rapacious colonial government can only make rules that benefit itself, and not the people it rules over. The tragedy of India is that India inherited the rules that the British had made — and that is a major part of the problem of underdevelopment that India faces today.

The British laid the foundation for India’s poverty, and the post-independence governments of India built on that foundation a nation that hosts the world’s largest number of illiterates, the largest number of desperately poor people, etc. And those in government have a wonderful time.

It’s all karma, neh?

6 thoughts on “The British Engineered India’s Poverty

  1. Dear Mr. Dey:

    Who should one blame more for the disaster that is modern India, the bureaucrats of the Indian Administrative Service, Indian Foreign Service, and Indian Police Service or the dynacrats of the Mandal and Masjid schools of political thought?

    The bureaucrats were supposed to be the steel frame of Indian governance, but they have invariably toed the line drawn for them by the politicians. The only times the bureaucrats have found steel in their spines are when they needed to protect their turf, perks, and promotions.

    One never had any hopes from the hereditary members of parliament, given the base quality of their families and therefore upbringing. But, considering that the bureaucrats are supposed to be drawn from the cream of Indian academia, on the face of it, one would have had high expectations from those in the IAS, IFS, and IPS.

    But, let us remember that the yardstick for success in the Indian education system is rote learning. And, the ingredients for success in governance, such as tenacity, common sense, and integrity, cannot really be taught or measured. The problem, then, is the selection process for bureaucrats.

    The problem is also the culture of these institutions. The self-serving mix of sycophancy, territorial behavior, and paperwork propagation that characterizes these bodies has been strengthened since 1947. Those who join these institutions must willy-nilly buy into their culture or perish.

    Perhaps, wholesale retrenchment of individuals and infusion of fresh blood from outside are required for the reform of these institutions.

    Thank you.

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  2. Hi Atanu,

    What about Mughals ? Were they more benign ?

    What about the local princes of petty fiefdoms ? Were their subjects well fed ?

    Reading some history here and there, it appears that these princes had bigger armies than they needed. While they immersed in wine, women and BBQ (and later in English stuff like Whiskey, Tennis, Cricket and diamond studded Rolls Royce), their subjects remained malnourished and poor.

    What would have happened if British were to not set foot it India ?

    Even Vasco Da Gama reportedly sailed to Portugal with 60 ship loads of spices and precious metals from India.

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  3. Atanu, as an economist whats your thoughts about the idea that

    1.the british created the wealth by bringing in their better tech of the time and all and then looted that created wealth.

    2.Also one must give thought to where india would be right now if they were never to show up, probably a few decades backward at best.

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  4. Before you blame others, spend a wee while introspecting if there could be some blame found amongst INdians!? A tiny number of British could not have ruled such a large geography/populace of Indian, without large numbers of Indians giving them more than a helping hand.

    Wake up, and smell the roses! The British left a long time ago. There are many remnants of the British empire in worse state than India at that time. They are all light years ahead in infrastructure, and human-resource development. Why do Indians who scrape the bottom of the barrel in India, go on to do wonders when they leave India?

    Continuing to blame the past is at best myopic, and assuming that all Indian decision-makers are selfless blameless white-washed poster-children with no deceit or corruption.

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    1. Mr Joseph George:

      Please try to comprehend what I wrote. Here’s an outline of my argument.

      1. The British colonized India and looted it. That’s bad but people who get looted are also to blame since they allowed the loot.

      2. The British-made rules should have been discarded and new rules made for a free people. The Indians who took control from the British did not change those British rules. For this the blame is squarely on the Indians, not the British.

      Now with this handy-dandy guide to the post, perhaps you will re-read it and understand that I am not blaming the British for what happened to India post-1947.

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  5. Maybe the religion really is beastly, seeing how religion is a huge factor into the culture of a country? What people truly believe and value affect what actions they take. White men love to praise Hinduism for being so tolerant, but I think the people in India really do not believe in good and evil because left is right and up is down due to the denial of the law of non contradiction. Sure the people will protest at girls wearing short skirts but they don’t give a toss at the thought of cheating someone else. There is a little good in evil and evil in good and all that. Don’t you think that a lack of regard for objective reality has practical consequences? One can justify any evil deed by appealing to subjective interpretations. If you really believe that you construct the entire universe inside your consciousness, rather than observe a reality that exist independently of yourself that doesn’t care what you think, it has consequences.

    This is at least how I’ve come to understand how many Indians do not have any regard for the common good or other. As long as they are subjectively happy all is well, regardless of whether the rest of the country is a pigsty.

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