Sunday, July 01, 2012

The circle of prosperity

Household Worlds, a weekly journal conducted by Charles Dickens, has in one its editions in the year 1850 an article (page 590-596) that describes how managing India had been rendered simpler by the steam-ships, how India itself was at peace thanks to the British getting rid of the thugs and roadside robbers who used to harass the natives,  and then introspects, “ Have we done all we could for the welfare of the natives under our charge?”

While we have been brought up on stories that talked of British designs to strip India off its wealth and carry it back home, this article provides a different perspective. For the British East India Company, commerce was the principal interest. Yet, the export of cotton from India was seen not just as a means to get the vital raw material for the factories of England but also as a step to enable the Indian farmer to realise more revenue from his land, and have the wherewithal to buy manufactured goods from Britain to improve his quality of life. 

I’m not sure if the article was written by Charles Dickens himself, but here’s an extract.

India is at peace : no longer removed from us by the uncertain length of a sailing voyage, thanks to the enterprise of Waghorn, the steam-engine of Watt, and the locomotive of George Stephenson, we have recovered — shortened to thirty days—the ancient overland route between Europe and Hindostan; at no distant date we may expect to see the Isthmus of Suez give way before the pressure of advancing commerce, capital, and science, and to have cargoes forwarded from the Thames, the Mersey, and the Clyde, by the direct route of the Red Sea without transshipment. 

In the midst of the feelings of national pride and self-gratulation, which such a retrospect cannot fail to inspire, conscience, or common sense, or both, ask a plain, practical question, which we shall have some difficulty in answering satisfactorily: "Have we done all we could for the welfare of the native population under our charge ? ". Have we used the best means in our power to discover the wealth, develop the resources, and profitably occupy the industry of the inhabitants of these vast and fertile dominions? It is true that the Indian husbandman can now pursue his occupations without fear of seeing his fields laid waste, his children carried into captivity, by the invasion of hordes of Mahrattas or Pindarries, or by accidents of foreign or domestic warfare. Organised robber bands, which, under the dominion of the most powerful Indian princes, levied black mail, have been put down; and even the secret association of Thugs has been unable to resist our intelligence and power. Life and property are secure; and, in spite of occasional mistakes of the Local Government, there is every reason to believe, from the comparison of the taxes levied, and the prices of corn and of wages, in the reign of the Emperor Akbar, in the sixteenth century, (the Emperor whose wisdom, justice, and charity are to this day the theme of Hindoo and Arab minstrels,) with those obtaining under the British rule, the condition of the Indian peasant has in no case deteriorated, and in many instances improved.'

But this is not enough. We still find large populations, in the midst of vast parts of fertile, uncultivated land, naked and all but starving; we find famine decimating the inhabitants of one district; while in another, distant but two or three hundred miles, grain rots in the field for want of a market. We find the consumption of British manufactures, compared with the population open to us, insignificant and scarcely increasing; the supply of those articles of raw material most needed, and for the growth of which the soil, and the climate, and. the habits of the people are well fitted—such as wheat, sugar, hemp, and cotton —so far stationary, and with respect to cotton actually receding. To amend this deplorable state of affairs is not less our interest than our duty.

The great mass of the Indian population are poor; but intelligent, willing to labour, and anxious to purchase British manufactures, if they had the means. Our only hope of extending our exports to India rests upon being able to increase our purchase of their agricultural produce.

Quite specifically, the article argues,  it was important to ensure movement of cotton grown in the hinterland to the port in Mumbai for export to England. In 1850, the transportation of cotton was being done on the backs of bullock and this was creating the bottleneck as  the article explains later.  

The cotton in question is all brought down to Bombay on the backs of bullocks : for want of roads no other mode of conveyance is practicable. The expense, the loss of time, the damage by accidents of weather, and loss in bad packing, are enormous under the most favourable circumstances; but in some seasons, no sufficient number of bullocks are to be had; those employed are decimated by disease and drought. The merchants frequently find themselves compelled either to break their contracts, or to see their profit consumed in the cost of carriage. If tie discouraged merchant discontinues for a year his purchases, the natives in the interior find themselves saddled with crops of coitus which they cannot sell at any price: they cannot even consume it themselves, or feed cattle on it, as if it were grain. Hence, they abandon the growth of a crop which is not sure of a market 

At present it is calculated that one million eight hundred thousand bullocks traverse the few routes practicable across the Ghauts, in carrying the traffic between the interior and Bombay, of which one hundred and eighty thousand convey cotton. These animals travel in single file, at the rate of three miles an hour, over tracks worn by the feet of their predecessors, depending for food and water on what can be picked up on the way, sometimes delayed by torrents swelled with the melting of the mountain snow, sometimes struggling through morasses, sometimes driven mad by heat and drought, sometimes struck down in thousands by an epidemic, and left to rot on the roadside, polluting the air and poisoning the water, to the grievous damage of the droves that follow in their track.
Under such opposing circumstances, it is not extraordinary that our commerce with India makes slow progress. The grand instrument for effecting a peaceful, profitable, social, commercial and agricultural revolution in India, will be the railroad —that divining rod of the nineteenth centuiy —which not only discovers treasures, but creates them.

If these railroads could be constructed between the cotton-producing districts in the interior and the port of Bombay, the present minimum cost of conveying cotton by bullocks, (with all the risk and uncertainty,) of fourpence per ton per mile, would be exchanged for a fixed charge of twopence three farthings per mile, with security, certainty, and capability of delivering any quantity. As the Hindoo peasantry can afford to sell cotton of a quality equal to that which forms seventyfive per cent, of the English consumption, at from one penny farthing, to one penny three farthings per pound ; as land and labour are both plentiful in that district; a large increase of cotton cultivation would be certain, thousands would be able to live well and clothe well, who are now half-naked and halfstarved.

The chief tax in India is the landtax, the rent, in fact, paid to the Government. Wild land, cultivated, would become subject to tax, and thus, without an increase in the expenses of Government, Indian revenues would increase. But, not only revenues, imports would increase, too ; out of every ninepence of British manufactures consumed in India, fourpence consists of cotton goods. Thus then we arrive by railroad at a perpetual circle of prosperity. 

Commencing with a large growth of cotton, which affords the British manufacturer a constant ample supply of the staple on which the livelihood of some million and a half of our population depends, comes employment for shipping; while, buying what we so much need, we create in the cotton cultivators new customers for the goods, of which they supply the raw materials, as well as for the mixed goods of Yorkshire, and the hardwares of Sheffield and Birmingham. But it is not only cotton cultivators that will benefit from the construction of railroads in India j sugar, rice, indigo and grain, would all find employment for labour and a market ; and salt, so much.needed by the vegetarian Hindoos, would be distributed in the interior, much to the benefit of the Government revenues.

So, the circle of prosperity that was envisioned was: enable the Indian farmer to grow more cotton, create the rail infrastructure to move the cotton to Mumbai cheaply and efficiently, increase his income with which to buy manufactured goods from Britain andincrease the tax revenue for the Govt from the farmers to administer the country better.

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