‘Opium’: a word redolent of a certain era. Think Mr Depp as Inspector Abberline. To be a wee reductive, the word paints at best a morally ambivalent and caliginous picture. And the setting for this picture? Why China of course, from the “Opium Wars” to phrases like “chasing the dragon”.
Nonetheless, our focus isn’t on South East Asia but on the Subcontinent. Although opium has a rich history there, I’m concerned with the role it played there during chiefly the 19th and, to a lesser extent, 20th centuries.
As is typical with this time period, opium is held up as yet another tool of coercion, wielded by the British on the long-suffering inhabitants of the Subcontinent. To give but a few examples, according to Ghosh Amitav (https://twitter.com/GhoshAmitav/status/1559230280841543681), opium was “the economic foundation of the British Raj, and one of history’s great crimes”. Meanwhile, Anand Ranganathan claims that “The Brits murdered 35 million of us, contrived twelve devastating famines, looted USD 45 trillion, reduced India to an opium economy, broke us in two, left us with a life expectancy of 32 years.” https://twitter.com/ARanganathan72/status/1558884514906001408
These canards are mainly propagated by far-right Hindu nationalists and their leftist useful idiots in the West.
Therefore, I shall briefly seek to answer two questions:
- What was the extent of opium cultivation?
- What was the place of opium in the revenue of British India?
The first question is easy to answer. While we don’t have annual figures for opium grown all over India we do have enough data to go on. The area under opium cultivation in Bengal stood at 90,000 acres in 1830, 176,000 acres in 1840 and finally peaked at 500,000 acres by 1900. These are minuscule figures given that in 1820 alone, it was estimated that total cultivated land in Bengal and Behar stood at 31,666,666 acres. By 1839 in the whole lower province some 40,000,000 acres were cultivated. The figures above—always well below 1 percent of cultivated land—reduce ever more as the years pass. By the late 1870s, Bengal had 48,000,000 acres under food crops and a further 6,000,000 under non-food crops. By 1899-1900 53,253,600 acres were cropped in Bengal, with food grains occupying 51,733,900 acres. If all of this isn’t sufficient evidence of the insignificance of opium with regards to food production in British India, we must note that during the three major 19th century famines which had noticeable demographic effects, non-food crops as a whole occupied a small percentage of cultivated acreage.
While Bengal did not solely produce all the opium of British India, it did produce the vast majority of it given that in 1900 500,000 acres were under poppy production in Bengal, while all of British India in the same period had 600,000 acres under poppy cultivation.
With the first question answered, let us now move to the second part of our enquiry. Namely, what was the place of opium in the revenue of British India?
The best figures we have for British India’s revenue date back to 1792. Thus we see that from 1792-1856, opium made up less than 9% of British India’s revenues. Bear in mind that the first of the so-called ‘Opium wars’ occurred in 1839-42. I point this out since it is a popular trope amongst Chinese and Indian nationalists to insinuate and outright declare that the first opium war was fought by a greedy conglomerate eager to make addicts out of a docile population who didn’t know any better.
The more creative of the lot label British India a narco state akin to certain South American countries of the 20th century, asserting that “the Raj transformed entire farming economies in Bengal and Bihar into opium-producing machines over the 18th and 19th centuries.” A look at the numbers above paints a more prosaic picture.
A similarly dull picture emerges when one looks at the figures for 1857-1920. In those years opium made up less than 12% of British India’s revenues.  After that its contribution to British India’s exchequer is negligible.
The tweet which I have linked above claimed that the British “reduced India to an opium economy”. That would be a surprise to the industrialists of British India given that less than half of India’s exports in the 1920s consisted of primary products and the proportion had been falling from before the Great War.
From 1811 onwards, opium made up no more than 22% of British India’s exports. It should be noted that the value of opium as an export commodity had been reduced to such irrelevance that the Cambridge Economic History of India Vol. II doesn’t even mention a percentage figure for opium after 1910-11 on pp.844. While exports aren’t everything, those who wish to draw the aforementioned perverse comparisons of British India to South America, should be aware that India was not nearly as trade dependent as the countries in Latin America were. None of this is surprising given the sheer paucity of foreign trade (relative to the large economy of the subcontinent), especially when one speaks of non-food exports, given that exportable goods came from just a few districts.
A supposedly “opium economy” (whatever that means) wasn’t India’s state of affairs when it was granted independence. India emerged from World War II as the world’s fourth largest industrial power. Indians at the time were aware of the country’s might. The Indian statement in an Asian Relations Conference held in 1947 expressed this sentiment in no uncertain terms: ‘India, of all the Asian countries, must do everything in her power to take the former place of Japan’. That it didn’t and continues lagging behind Japan, is the responsibility of the Republic and its political class, not the British.
 Alfred W. McCoy, Historical Review of Opium/Heroin Production.
 The Quarterly Review (1839), Vol. LXIII, January and March 1839, p. 398.
 Report of the Indian Famine Commission: Part II (1880), p. 112.
 J. Scott Keltie (ed.), The Statesman’s Year Book (1902), p. 153-4.
 For the list of these famines see Chimay Tumbe, Pandemics and Historical Mortality in India (2020), IIMA Working Paper 2020-12-03. For food crop acreage figures see, Report of the Indian Famine Commission (1880), Part II, p. 112. Also see. Agricultural Statistics of India, for the Years 1899-1900 to 1903-04, Volume 1 (1905), pp. 3-4.
 Parliamentary Papers, 1850-1908, Vol. 49, p. 123.
 F. Hendriks, On the Statistics of Indian Revenue and Taxation (1858), Journal of the Statistical Society of London, 21 (pp. 223-296), p. 283.
 `A ludicrous comparison, given that the narcotics trade made up 70% of Colombian exports and 7% of its GDP in the 1980s. See Roberto Steiner, Colombia’s Income From the Drug Trade (1998), World Development, 26 (6): 1013-1031.
 It was pointed out in 1890 by TN Mukherji, that the British spent the modern equivalent of £17,730,000,000 on alcoholic liquors. See JF Richards, Opium and the British Indian Empire: The Royal Commission of 1895 (2002), Modern Asian Studies, 36(2), p. 421. Apart from being bibulous the British themselves enjoyed large quantities of opium, with reliable statistics estimating between 600 to 1,600 grammes per 1,000 persons. See Frank Dikötter, Lars Laamann, Zhou Xun, Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China (2004), p. 17.
 J.F. Richards, The opium industry in British India (2002). The Indian Economic & Social History Review, 39(2-3), 149–180, Tables 2 and 3.
 Tirthankar Roy, The Economic History of India 1857-1947 (2020), 4th ed., Table 9.1.
 Tirthankar Roy, The Origins of Import Substituting Industrialization in India (2017), Economic History of Developing Regions, p. 3.
 K.N. Chaudhuri, Foreign Trade and Balance of Payments (1757-1947), in D. Kumar and M. Desai (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of India (1983), Vol. II, Table 10.10 & Table 10.12.
 Roy (2017), p. 3.
 Tirthankar Roy, In India in the World Economy: From Antiquity to the Present (2012), p. 188.
 Stephen P. Cohen, India: Emerging Power (2001), p. 33.
 Tirthankar Roy, The Economy of South Asia (2017), pp.190-1.
 Ibid., p. 191.