Sashi Tharoor On Britain’s Rape Of India

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Or, perhaps, an explanation of why Sashi Tharoor is wrong about Britain’s economic rape of India. The problem being that what India had during the days of the Raj was Malthusian economic growth. Just like many other places around the world over that time period, some of them colonies others of them not. Just like everywhere that doesn’t have an industrial revolution has Malthusian growth in fact:

We should note that everything here is about the sub-continent, not just that area now called India. Tharoor tells us that when Clive took over Bengal (to use a usefully indeterminate phrase) the Indian economy was 23% of the world’s, by the time Mountbatten left it was only 4%.

Entirely true, but wholly, entirely even, misleading. The implication of the statement is that the Indian economy shrank over those centuries, something which is not in fact true. What did happen is that the global economy grew faster than the Indian one.

The American economic historian Brad Delong has made estimates of the size of that global economy over time. Of course, these are adjusted for inflation so that we may usefully compare them.

And the economy in 1750 — not quite Clive’s correct takeover date but close enough — was, for everyone, everywhere, some $130 billion. Again, note, this is after adjusting for inflation. When the British left that global economy was some $3tn (it’s now perhaps some $80tn).

At this point, we can try doing a little bit of basic mathematics — 23% of $130bn is $30bn among friends, that was the size of the Indian economy in 1750. 4% of $3tn is $120bn. The Indian economy was larger when the British left than it was when they arrived — that is not impoverishing a place.

We can approach the same question through another, entirely independent, set of figures, those of Angus Maddison — GDP per capita in 1750 for India (again, the area of the Raj, again, inflation-adjusted) was some $890. In 1947, it was perhaps $830. That is poorer.

But the population had risen from 180 million to 380 million. That is, the aggregate economy of India was well over twice the size when they left as when the British arrived, even if income per person was slightly lower.

Yes, the two estimates are different for this isn’t an exact science. Both are telling us the same thing though — the Indian economy grew over the time of the Raj.

Now, whether India could have done better without the Raj, that’s an interesting question. But to claim that there was no economic growth under it is simply wrong.

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Bloke in Germany
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Bloke in Germany

Hm. So what you’re saying is, if I have understood the extremely confusing last paragraph correctly, GDP per capita (what individuals really care about) did not grow in India between 1750 and 1950. That’s quite some “achievement”, failing to escape the Malthusian trap as much of the rest of the world, including the economy of the colonising country did, during those two centuries. At the very least, the accusation that Indian growth was held back by Britain isn’t exactly dead in the water on this basis. Whether a non-colonised India would have fared better, whether a hypothetical post-1948 India that… Read more »

Boganboy
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Boganboy

The question as always is what would have happened had things gone differently. Since alas we don’t have paratime travel, we have to guess. Lets assume that the British attempt to reform their Indian empire didn’t cause the Indian mutiny. Perhaps this would have resulted in a rapid adoption of 19th century modernity. Or perhaps not. This does at least suggest that the Indian people did not want the radical changes that industrialisation would have brought. Another possibility is that the Mughal empire did not fall, and managed to shrug off British and French attempts at conquest. The failure to… Read more »

Chester Draws
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Chester Draws

Lots of countries not colonised did worse than India over the period.

Iran, for example. Thailand. Paraguay.

Not many outside Europe did much better.

Chester Draws
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Chester Draws

I would also point out that the Mughals were a colonizing foreign group. They had a different religion and culture to the native Indians.

Spike
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Spike

No mention of Hong Kong? Apart from the one big advantage of empire, that the occupiers have no interest in picking winners and losers among the native clans, this occupation brought a series of Governors-General whose model was the free market rather than the safety of a big bureaucracy. Surely this individual variation makes more of a difference than occupation versus no occupation.

Phoenix44
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Phoenix44

To be honest, who cares? Unless you are trying to say that people who had nothing to do with should, for some reason, bear the guilt for something, it’s a discussion economic historians can have without bothering the rest of us.

And if we are pointing the finger, the obvious place to start is with socialism, which by any measure you want to look at, kept far to many developing countries in poverty for decades.

jgh
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jgh

The Old Testament insisted the people were guilty for the actions of their ancestors, Yea! Unto the fourth generation. During the Enlightenment we grew up, and asserted that people were solely responsible for their own actions. Now we are again insisting that people are guilty for the actions of their ancestors, people they never knew, never had any connection with, never had any power over. How “progressive”!

Boganboy
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Boganboy

It’s too boring to believe something just because they proved it right a long time ago. So naturally the wrong idea has to come back into fashion again.