Reasons behind India’s poverty

While we have made reasonable progress since independence, a substantial part of our countrymen continue to live in poverty. I have been asking myself, Were we always like this? This essay seeks to provide some answers by looking at the Indian economy from 1000 to 1947 a.d. Within this article, I have tried my best to do justice to what most of you might agree is a very complex subject.  

1. Indian Economy 1000 to 1300 A.D.
Agriculture was well cared after during this period. It appears that scientific agriculture systems were followed. The Cholas constructed a huge dam across the Caveri River, later renovated by the British. Fruits, cardamom, sandalwood, saffron, cotton, indigo etc were grown in various parts of the country. Manufacture of leather was greatly developed. Pearl fisheries and ornaments were popular. Textiles business, stone cutting, the art of working metals were very successful. 

International trade was flourishing. Malabar was a sort of clearing house between East and West. Broach and Sindh were important ports. As in the past, industrial and commercial guilds played an important part. The condition of agriculture and trade indicate a high level of prosperity prevailed at the beginning of this period. Marco Polo described the land of Malabar as the best of all the Indies. 

During his various invasions, Mahmud Ghazni drained India of enormous wealth and manpower resources (totally 60,098,300 dirhams). He plundered and looted every place that he conquered, the quantifiable amounts being Somnath 20,000,000, Kanuaj 20,000,000, Mathura 98,300 and Multan 20,000,000 dirhams. 

Map of Calicut, 1572
Map of Calicut, 1572

2. Indian Economy 1300 to 1526 A.D. 
The textile industry continued to flourish with Gujarat being the largest exporter. Cotton and silk items from Cambay found their way into Western Europe, South Africa, South-East Asia. Bengal excelled in abundance and variety of its finer textiles. Malabar was famous for its cotton fabrics. Work in gold, silver, precious stones; ivory work was very popular in Cambay, Vijayanagar and Malabar. Inland trade was very active. There was a vibrant trade with the Arab world and East Africa. 

The Delhi Sultanate was amazingly affluent with extraordinary splendor in the court of Muhammad bin Tughuluq. Immense bouty was obtained by Malik Kafur from his devastating campaigns of South India between 1309 and 1311. 

Various accounts indicate that there was a wide diffusion of material prosperity in the country with exceptional prosperity in Gujarat. Vijayanagara in the South is described by a traveler as the best provided city in the world. Bengal was prosperous too. The economic prosperity of Delhi was shattered by the invasion of Timur in 1398.
Besides plundering the North, a historian very correctly said that Timur had inflected more misery on India than ever had been inflicted by any conqueror in a single invasion. 

3. Economy 1526 to 1707 A.D.
The Indian economy was predominantly agricultural. “The country was full of food and products,” quoting Babur’s memoirs. Cotton was widely grown. In almost every village there were looms for manufacturing cloth. Cotton cloth was exported to Burma, Arabia and the east coast of Africa. Sericulture has been known in India from remote ages. Silk pieces were exported to Indonesia, East Africa, Philippines, and Holland. Indigo was used for dying cloth and washing it crystal white. It was grown in large parts of the country and exported to Europe. 

Sugarcane produced in Bengal was exported to Arabia and Persia. The country had large forests cover because of which people used to take shelter there after revolting. Akbar therefore, reclaimed forestland for cultivation. The Dutch purchased large quantities of Gum Lac for export to Persia. Ships were built for use by locals. Gold was found in the Northern mountains. Diamond mines were found in Golconda. India, particularly the Malabar region was rich in spices, one of the reasons why the Portuguese tried to discover the sea route to our country. Tobacco was unknown to India till the 16th century and was brought to India by the Portuguese. 

The nature of India’s trade was the same as in earlier periods. Amongst the largest items of export were Cotton and Pepper. She traded with all of Asia and parts of Europe. Lahari Bandar was the chief seaport in Sind from where cotton cloths were exported. Some of the other ports were Cambay, Dabhol, Goa, Vizag, Hooghly, and Calicut. India maintained a balance of trade in her favor during the Mughal age.  

The quality of manufactured articles had improved during this period and higher technical skill had diffused to some of the industrial centers of the country. The artisans continued to produce stereotype articles in their cottages. Net net India was in a state of overall prosperity as has been articulated by various Muslim and Christian visitors. Despite recurring famines they were confined to local areas. However, during this period the average standard of living was low. The condition of the masses was unsatisfactory, the fault lying with faulty distribution and governmental extortion. 

In their hearts the Mughal Emperors wanted to recapture their Central Asian homeland. Their dream ended in 1647. Three futile sieges on Quandhar (for strategic importance) cost the Empire crores of rupees. Having lost control over Afghanistan, the age long trade and commerce between India and Persia/Central Asia suffered forcing diversion of trade from the North to the seaports of South India. This was a source of great advantage of the Europeans and tremendous loss to the Mughal treasury. 

The ferocity and frequency of wars took its toll on the economic, spiritual prosperity of the people. Regular conquest, reconquest, a standing army cost money and eventually had to be funded by the common man. At the time of Aurangzib’s death peace and prosperity no longer existed. The laboring populations suffered from violent capture, forced labor and starvation but also from epidemics. 

4. Economy 1708 to 1818 A.D.

A brief summary 
The British conquest of India, starting 1757 compensated her for the loss of her American colonies, which till then had been a great supply of cotton and foodgrains. With the technological inventions of 1760, Britain created a capitalist class to take advantage of the new inventions, which led to the industrial revolution. 

With the conquest of Bengal, the Company’s servants edged out competition and weavers were forced to deliver their goods at a price decided by the company. The land revenue system was reorganized giving Zamindarscontracts for collection of revenue. The company’s servants made colossal fortunes, mostly by unscrupulous means. Since 1793, the condition of the agriculturists in Bengal greatly deteriorated. (One of the reasons the Marxists continue to be in power in West Bengal for nearly 25 yrs is the far-reaching land reform that they implemented in the state.) 

In most of the South, the Ryotwari system was introduced where settlement was made for a period of 20 to 30 yrs. As a result revenue was pitched high initially and was periodically revised upward squeezing the farmer. He had to borrow to pay revenue and when he defaulted his land got sold. Thus made land a tradable commodity. 

The Indian economy began to be modernized as a result of the British conquest. On one hand it lead to the disintegration of the old social order which provided security in times of need and scarcity and on the other it increased hold of the foreign capitalist over the Indian economy. With the state establishing direct contact with the farmer, it dealt a great blow to age old village community and competition took precedence over custom. 

Mechanical and technological inventions in England began to revolutionize the cotton industry starting 1760. The machinery could not be used without the use of Capital. This came from the loot by the Company servants in Bengal. Macaulay said, “Treasure flowed to England in oceans”. This helped industry and agriculture for a credit system based on Indian metal sprang up in England and farmers who could borrow imported cattle.

Thus the foundation of England’s economic prosperity was made possible by the flow of Indian treasure and a ready made market for goods produced in UK. There may be a dispute regarding the degree of India’s contribution in the making of the Industrial Revolution but none can deny India’s contribution. 

When the European merchants first arrived, the Indian traders served as their brokers and cashiers lending them money. As time passed these traders got ruined due to monopoly established by the English company on the ordinary trade. Many merchants gave up trade and acquired estates. Village communities began to disintegrate in the 18th century as a result of the increasing vogue of farming out government revenues. For various reasons, a land less laborers, a class of people, not altogether new to India, multiplied and came into prominence. 

The Portuguese carried out a profitable trade in slaves through the 16th and 17th centuries. Although traffic in slaves was banned in 1789, rural slavery continued. The 18th century saw a complete revolution in the price structure. An intolerable increase in the burden of revenue on agriculturists was the depreciation of the value of, from 40 to 30 dams, silver in terms of copper as the revenue was assessed in copper but paid in silver. This lead to an appreciation of copper, which was equal to a fall in the prices of agricultural produce and a diminution of agricultural income, measured in terms of copper. Thus the farmer had to share more of his produce to pay revenue and interest to creditors.

The Mughal practice of assigning jagirs to a host of civil/defense officials instead of paying cash led to greater exploitation of the peasant class. Taking advantage the British decided to debase the coinage leading to a great loss to the population. 

In the 16th and the 17th centuries, India was the magnet of the world’s precious metals. European nations had nothing of substance except gold to give for all that they imported from India. By the end of the 18th century, trade suffered a decline. Lack of peace was one of the reasons. The Maratha system of exercising their supremacy over provinces by extracting revenue without proper administration was wasteful and expensive. Their armies destroyed whatever they could not carry. 

The Indian shipping industry was hit by the Portuguese, Dutch and English in that order. While the Indian cotton industry was hit by the ban on import of cotton into England, it lost hold over traditional markets like Persia due to loss of naval power. By imposition of various discriminatory duties, the ship building industry was killed.

The economic decline of the country started around 1650. Reduction/exemption of duties to the Brits and the Dutch was the beginning. Import of printed calicos and silks was banned into England in 1720. The English industry thrived on import of plain Indian calicos. It was in 1799 that a duty of GBP 67-10-0 was imposed on plain white clothes. The gradual rise in the prices of Indian cotton towards the end of the 18th century deprived India of a competitive advantage. The export of Indian silk and cotton to Europe was around GBP 2.5 million ie beginning of 18th century. The import of British cloth into India began to rise from about 1813. 

Indigo was an important export item. There were about 400 factories in Bengal and Bihar. And stuff worth GBP 3.6 million was exported. But indigo cultivation led to great oppression of the cultivating class by the Brits.

Every time an Indian ruler lost a war he was forced to pay the British war expenses or buy peace. Where else did the money come from than the ordinary man eg Shuja-ud-daulah paid the Brits Rs 50 lacs as war exps for the Battle of Buxar.  

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries India maintained a favorable balance of trade.  Nadir Shah’s invasion of 1738 shook the financial and political set up of North India. Wealth accumulated during two centuries of Mughal rule appr Rs 100 crs was lost in a months’ time.  

5. Economy 1818 to 1905 A.D.
The Charter Act of 1813 was a landmark in the Indian economy. It abolished the East India Company’s monopoly over Indian trade and opened India to the British traders, exposed her to the effects of the Industrial revolution. The period saw the rise of the Managing Agency System in India. It grew on the ruins of the agency houses that financed the earliest British capitalistic enterprise. Started as family concerns eg Tatas they later on became pvt, public cos. 

The Charter Act of 1833 provided that a dividend of 10.5% must be paid out of the revenues of India to the company’s stockholders. The dividend + the home charges was greater than India’s revenues. A debt of GBP 69,000,000 was incurred for such payment.

R.C. Dutt considered excessive Home charges, excessive military expenditure, burden of heavy debt and remittances by European officers as responsible for Indian poverty. 

According to RCD, the home charges during 1901-2 was 17 mill pounds sterling divided into Interest on debt 3 mill pds, Railways (interest and annuities) 6.5 mill, Military 3 mill, Govt costs including Secretary of state costs 2.5 mill, Stores 2 mill etc. Home charges plus remittances by European officers = nearly 50% of India’s revenues. Wealth was therefore lost forever. 

Interest on public debt. The debt was used for internal wars in India, suppression of the 1857 mutiny, military expeditions to foreign countries. Which means that India had to pay for her own conquest. No such charge was levied on other conquests like Canada. Wars against Persia, Tibet, Burma, Afghanistan, Abyssinia, China, Malay Peninsula, Sudan, and Egypt were funded by India.  

Miilitary expenditure in India was very high as compared to other colonies. In 1913-14, Million Pounds   % to total revenue

Great Britian    28.2    14.5
India                18.      22.
Australia          2.5      10.
Canada           1.5       5.
South Africa    1.15     7.7

Railways – For 50 yrs the railways did not pay but were extended continuously. The expenses, interest and profits guaranteed to private companies exceeded revenue by 50 million pounds. However, they became profitable in the 20th century but the development was not even. The development of railways was concerned with transporting raw materials to ports for onward shipment to the UK, explains Bombay being so well connected by rail. Having said that, the railways contributed to unifying the country, breaking down social barriers and broadening people’s outlooks.

 However, it was the Indians who funded the railways and not the Brits. Between 1850-80, a sum of GBP 99,000,000 was raised in the English market under a GOI guarantee of 5 %. 

No attempt was made to develop local industry for Purchase of Stores. 

The civil and military administration expense was high due to the employment of Europeans at very high salaries. E.g. the President of the U.S. was paid $ 75,000 but the Viceroy of India got $ 83,000+ allowances. Cabinet ministers in the U.S. got $ 12,000 but Members of the Viceroys Council got $ 26,700. E.g. acc to a survey in 1892 the nos of Europeans were 2313 costing Rs 42,070,000 and Indians 60 costing Rs 1002,000. The entire costs were borne by India unlike in the case of other countries where it was borne by Britain. 

Costly administration + inefficient financial supervision meant a heavy dosage of taxation which fell esp on the poorer classes. According to William Digby author of Prosperous India, the flight of capital from India to England during the 19th century was GBP 6,080,172,021. At a current exchange rate of Rs 70 to a pound, it is Rs 42,5561 crores. In 1875, Salisbury, the secretary of state said, “As India must be bled, it must be done judiciously”. 

Duties on all cotton goods except those manufactured from finer counts of 30s and upwards were, at the behest of the cotton manufacturers of Lancashire, abolished, to the detriment of the local industry. The duty was 10% in 1860 and 5% in 1875. 

The condition of cultivators grew from bad to worse. According to R.C.Dutt “ the great famines of 1837,1857,1877,1897 are sad landmarks in the history of India – landmarks of desolation and disaster”.Repeated famines were caused by heavy land revenue and the oppressive manner in which it was realized, the ruin of trade and industry and flight of capital to England. The cruelties perpetrated by European indigo and tea planters are legendary. At the instance of foreign planters, an organized emigration of labor to the British colonies began from Bengal in 1838. The development of railways helped in the export of foodgrains causing shortages and increase in agricultural prices. 

According to D Naoroji, the per capita income was Rs 20 while most others put it at a maximum of Rs 30. It indicates widespread poverty in the country. 

Net Net, a commercial policy that pampered British trade at the cost of India, an industrial policy, which failed to protect the nascent industries, and a revenue policy that discriminated against the majority of cultivators should be held responsible for the poverty of India. At the end of the 19th century the Brits had almost lost the large amount of goodwill that they had at the beginning of the century. 

6. Economy 1905 to 1947
The Duke of Argyll, Secretary of State, said “ of chronic poverty and permanent reduction to the lowest level of subsistence amongst the vast population of India has no parallel in the Western world”. 

The 19th century is supposed to have destroyed the cotton industry. However, data released in 1905 indicates that hand looms accounted for 63% of the total production of cotton pieces in the country. Led by urban demand, the domestic market grew and seems to have absorbed imported and domestic production. World War I did open some new vistas for Indian industry, for a limited period though ie up to 1922. World War II opened a new phase in the industrial history of India. Starting the 1890s the textile industry got well established in western India. 

Till the advent of World War I, the Brits contribution was practically nil. No attempt was made to mobilize capital or develop heavy industry. The tariff policy was tailored to suit British needs. The appt of the Industrial Commission in 1916 symbolized the abandonment of the laisse faire policy. 

Commerce – in absolute terms there was a seven-fold increase in the volume of trade between 1869 and 1929. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 was responsible for an increase in trade. The balance of payments position for the years 1922-1939 indicates, Commodity balance + Rs 1492 crs, Balance of services – 1487 crs, Non-commercial transactions –222 crs indicating a net deficit of 217 crs. The balance of services included the famous Home Charges. 

Net Net, the economy history of India under the British rule, does reveal some gains with losses elsewhere. An overall increase in agricultural production is accompanied by a decrease in production in Bengal. What is worse that the aggravation of India’s agricultural problems created so many other disincentives to agricultural production. Industry developed but it was inadequate to take care of industrial employment. Industry capital formation was affected by the high cost of servicing foreign capital. An adverse balance of payments thanks to home charges did little to improve things. Finally, whatever gains in agriculture and industry were outstripped by increase in population. 

The marked changes in the history of Indian agricultural after 1947 inspite of many loopholes in government policy and experience with industry indicate that the Brits deliberately followed a policy of Guided Underdevelopment in the last two centuries. Its main result was to help establish “ a raw material based export economy”. 

In 1947, industrial development was limited, the export sector was isolated and development of agriculture was through expansion within the framework of traditional techniques and organization. India was thus a typical case of economic backwardness in the middle of the 20th century. 

9. Some advantages of British Rule.
Regular archaeological excavations beginning 1861, made the educated Indians get a vivid picture of past glory of ancient India and realize that Bharat was on par with Rome and Greece. The learning of English enabled the Indians to read about the strong current of nationalistic ideas that passed through Europe and South America during the 19th century. Said Bal G Tilak “English education has imparted to us knowledge of ancient and modern history. We have learnt how the Greeks, Romans lost their patriotism etc. Only those who have learnt have begun to realize the defects of British administration”. Ability to communicate in English has today, become a major advantage for the Indians. The Call Centre and medical transcription business have become increasingly popular. Notice how comfortable was the Miss Universe, Yukta Mookhey, speaking in English as compared to other participants. White skinned people across the world seem baffled at our comfort with the English language. 

The printing press helped growth of vernacular literature, spread education, connects India. Although not intended, the railways have played an important part in uniting the country. A train journey has become some sort of a melting pot. A berth of four could have people from different parts of the country, each sharing with the others, the beauty and uniqueness of the place that he comes from. Their importance can be judged by the fact that one of the reasons being cited for the lack of integration of the North East and Kashmir valley with the rest of India is the lack of an adequate rail network. 

A girl sits on a pavement waiting to receive alms at a street in Mumbai
A girl sits on a pavement waiting to receive alms at a street in Mumbai

We have none but ourselves to blame for this current state.  We have adopted a system of governance that is alien to us, study English literature that does not tell us about our culture, believe that whatever happens in the West is good – should be aped by us, continuously criticize our poverty without trying to understand why we find ourselves in this situation today, refuse to take hard decisions – protect our national interest. If India was a human being and went to Psychologists for treatment, the answer she would get is Lack of Self – Esteem. 

An example is the controversy on the Narmada Dam project. The people in the North must thank Ishwar that these activists did not exist when the Bhakra Nangal Dam was being constructed. As most of you might know, the dam was one of the reasons behind the Green Revolution of the late sixties without which self-sufficiency of foodgrains would have remained a pipe dream. Rehabilitation of people being submerged by the Sarovar dam is important and merits serious attention. But, is stopping construction the answer?  I would have been happier to see these very activists ensure that the government rehabilitates displaced people. The brilliance of an Arundati Roy could have been put to better use.

Unfortunately our countrymen continue to use their intelligence to, prevent things from happening, pull people down, and score political points, fraud the government. If only we learn to generate positive vibrations, enjoy the success of others, love our country, Bharat would be a much better place to live in. 

I am not advocating Swadeshi or Videshi but for Ram’s sake lets not short sell us.  

To know the state of our country in 1835 am reproducing Lord Macaulay’s address to the British Parliament on 2/2/1835. He said –

“I have travelled through the length and breadth of India and not seen one person who is a beggar who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, such people of high caliber, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country unless we break the backbone of this nation, which is her cultural and spiritual heritage, and therefore I suggest we replace her old and ancient educational system, her culture for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will loose their self esteem, their native culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation”.  

This essay is based on inputs from The History and Culture of the Indian People by the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan and England’s Debt to India by Lala Lajpat Rai. 

~ by Sanjeev Nayyar



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  • Sir, the above speech in the British Parliament by Lord Macaulay is a well known hoax. On the above said date of 2nd February, 1835 T.B.Macaulay was in India. I am unable to past a verifiable link here, however you can find the minutes of his meeting in India with a simple google search

  • There is no such thing as British rule. The Britishers were foreign intruders, not invaders. There was a time when France had a lot of control and influence over England for 100+ years, but the English never say that the French ruled over them. The so-called British rule was just the same as American presence in Afghanistan. But the Afghans will never and never say that Americans ruled over them for the last 30 years or are ruling over them. So, similarly, we should rewrite our own history by writing British intrusion rather than British rule.

  • We don’t have manufacturing sector in our country. We need a manufacturing base. Once we get that, the people of the country will find employment, and with stable employment there will be an increase from lower class to middle class. After that, the purchasing power of people will increase. Once the purchasing power of the people will increase, more investments are likely to follow. More investments obviously mean more money pouring in because more industries will be set up to spur growth, production, and consumption.

  • the model of manufacturing based economy is not feasible given so much mechanization…….the poor should be given adequate housing, sanitation and basic education and economic infrastructure…….also the country should seriously look into adopting agnihotra and natural organic agricultural food forests that the poor can help develop…..no heavily subsidised chemical fertilization and agribusiness based economy…..then build your infrastructure around these dense rural communities with all the modern amenities and infrastructure….people will be drawn to return to the rural areas and urban overpopulation will reduce……developing the entire rural region itself will spur so much manufacturing and construction that will drive growth for some time…..of course all this development has to be sustainable, renewal energy based and pollution free and not based on the current monster of urban planning (or lack of it).

  • History does not always reflects reality. Whatever may have happened in the past. But why we are still poor?
    Reason is simple. we vote on the election day and start our life as if nothing has happened. Select group grab power and do what is favorable to them. The day on which every one of us throw away hero worship and caste and religion poverty will vanish