Empires Featured

THE BRITISH RAJ: An Assessment

Hindu College
Zareer Masani
Written by Zareer Masani

India exemplified a model of indirect governance that the British Empire perfected and which lingers on in UK multiculturalism today. The key was the collaboration of local elites, who ran most of the administration and graduated to its uppermost circles. Their support was crucial to the survival of empire, despite serious challenges like the 1857 Mutiny, and was based on the self-interest inspired by stable governance, the rule of law, efficient, uncorrupt administration, protection for property rights, economic modernity and representative institutions.


We begin with the historical context in which the Raj emerged and arguments about whether the East India Company was a source for colonial exploitation or benevolent modernisation. We consider both the commercial role of the Company and its evolution into a stable political order unifying the subcontinent under the British Crown.  We dismiss the superficial economic “drain” theory and examine the role of British rule in promoting India’s own industrial revolution by the mid-19th century.

We move on to the parallel and very successful evolution of Indian representative institutions from municipal to provincial level, despite phases of nationalist civil disobedience, culminating in failed imperial attempts to transfer power to a democratic, federal state and the consequent partition of the subcontinent.

We conclude with a summing up of the several, very positive legacies of the Raj to the rest of the Empire and its successor states and to the mother-country itself.


A favourite trope of those who decry the British impact on India is to glorify its previous Mughal Empire as a golden age of both economic prosperity and benevolent government.  Mughal India, we are told, accounted for roughly 25 per cent of world GDP in 1700, before British rule, falling to a minuscule 5 per cent when the British left in 1947.  What that glib comparison overlooks is the fact that India in 1700 also had 25 per cent of the world’s population, meaning that its per capita GDP, the real measure of prosperity, was relatively low, due to its poor productivity as a largely agrarian economy on the eve of global industrialisation, which exponentially multiplied world GDP.[1]

Indeed per capita income had been declining since 1600, when the Mughal Empire arguably peaked under its most illustrious emperor Akbar.  According to the Maddison Project, the major drop in India’s per capita GDP occurred between 1600 and 1750 and was stagnant thereafter till 1870.   In 1700, India’s per capita income was roughly half that of Britain’s at $729, compared with $1,540 for England.  It had fallen from $793 in 1600, showing a decline well before the break-up of the Mughal empire.  Per capita GDP fell further to $648 in 1800, just after the British took over, then went up to $673 in 1913, thanks to British India’s Raj-inspired industrial revolution, but dropped again to $619 in 1950 due to the world recession after WW1.

The reasons for India’s historically low productivity were manifold.  Textiles, India’s main export, were already declining in the 1700s, because its labour-intensive technology was unable to compete with Europe’s more technologically innovative handloom sector.  Underlying Mughal India’s technological stagnation was the fact that no agricultural surplus was being reinvested, because it was instead being creamed off by a rentier feudal class.  Because wages levels were low in India, producers preferred to increase output by hiring more workers rather than investing in new technology.

An estimated 80 per cent of the Mughal Empire was not administered directly but farmed out to feudal tax-collectors known as jagirdars.  In return for military service, jagirdars were only appointed for a few years at a time, with the result that their prime incentive was to extract as much from their districts as possible, as quickly as possible, with minimal long-term investment in new technology or irrigation.  The resulting decline in Mughal agricultural productivity pushed up both food and textile prices, thereby adding to the loss of foreign market share.  Although India now had to compete in rapidly expanding world markets due to the industrial revolution in Western Europe, Mughal India, unlike Europe, had neither autonomous cities nor a merchant class strong enough to offset these agrarian parasites.[2]

At the peak of the Raj, the British rulers were a very thin layer at the top of society who took about 5 per cent of national income. Their allies, the native princes and zamindars, took another 3 per cent. Eight per cent is a sizeable proportion for a ruling class to cream off, but, under the Moghul regime, the equivalent group had collected 15 per cent of national income in taxes and spent most of it on their own consumption.  The leading historian of Mughal India, Irfan Habib concludes that not only was the Mughal Empire “its own grave-digger”, but “no new order was, or could be, created by the forces ranged against it…”

The political collapse of the Mughal Empire resulted in an even less economically conducive state of affairs. Though not literally anarchy, it was a disintegration into regional warlordism with predictable results.  The collapse of imperial authority resulted in what economic historians have identified as a period of deindustrialization much before the dominance of the East India Company.[3]  Imperial decline and constant internecine warfare reduced agricultural land acreage and productivity, which drove up food prices, then nominal wages and then textile prices, in an inflationary chain reaction which cost India textile market share in Britain even before the latter developed factory technology, wrongly blamed for that decline.

Between 1750 and 1810, the loss of Mughal hegemony allowed new despotic rulers to revenue farm their conquered populations, seeing tax and rent demands increase to as much as 50 per cent of production (compared to only 5 to 6 per cent extracted in China during the same period) and levied largely to fund regional warfare. Combined with the use of labour and livestock for martial purposes, grain and textile prices were driven up, along with nominal wages, reducing the competitiveness of Indian handicrafts and impacting even the domestic textile trade.

The parallel, political death of Mughal India derived from a combination of factors, such as imperial overstretch, fratricidal wars of succession and finally the cataclysmic invasions of the Persian ruler Nadir Shah in 1739, followed by those of the Afghans under Ahmad Shah Abdali.  Scarcely less invasive were the raids across the subcontinent by the indigenous Maratha Confederacy, whose armies burned, plundered, raped and levied huge sums of protection money, while building little civil society in the regions they marauded.

The Company Sahib

Wrongly reviled by some today as evil and unscrupulous multinational raiders, the East India Company, which succeeded to unique imperial power as successor to the Mughals, was overwhelmingly preferred to its rival, indigenous warlords by most Indians who had the choice.  There were several practical reasons for this.

On the political level, the Company, mainly due to its primary commercial aims, interfered as little as possible with the Indian society it governed.[4]  The result was not a sharp break with the past: the Company raised revenue through much the same local tax administrators and kept the old Mughal tax rates.  Where it did diverge was in its growing sense of social responsibility and concern for human, and especially women’s, rights.

This may sound strange to those accustomed to the many, largely fictitious allegations of brutality against early Company proconsuls like Robert Clive and Warren Hastings.   A particularly egregious example is the claim by the polemicist Shashi Tharoor that Company troops broke the looms and even the thumbs of Bengali weavers after taking over the province.  He references a book which turns out to be by a Dutchman called William Bolt, who was deported from British India for diamond smuggling, therefore had a lifelong grudge against the Company and himself only said it was “rumour” that some artisans cut off their own thumbs. It’s a rumour dismissed as fake news by historians because the Company, still dependent on exporting Indian textiles, needed as many thumbed up weavers as it could get, while Bengali weavers were happy to work for anyone who paid them a decent wage.

Tharoor also references the ravings of Edmund Burke, so deranged by his hatred of poor Warren Hastings and the Company that he regurgitated entirely fictitious, pornographic accounts of Hastings even tearing the nipples off Bengali women, whom he paraded nude through their villages.[5]  What Burke’s crusade did produce in its seven-year parliamentary impeachment of Hastings was a meticulous examination of the Company’s colonial record unparalleled in the history of any empire before or since.  And although poor Hastings was eventually acquitted of all charges, his trial was a lasting and very powerful warning of what might befall an over-mighty British proconsul.

Despite its imaginary brutalities, the most radical innovation of the Company Sahib was to establish the rule of law, a concept unheard of under previous Hindu or Muslim rulers.  The Company imported wholesale the model of British law courts into all its urban centres, with a network of district magistrates in rural districts.  The laws they enforced, often against the Company itself, drew heavily on both Hindu and Muslim custom, using indigenous assessors, but treated equally all applicants, regardless of caste or creed, a huge change in India.

One example of such equality was introducing a uniform penalty for murder.  Under previous custom, a Brahmin could kill a lower caste Shudra with no death penalty, while a Shudra could be hanged even for cohabiting with an upper-caste woman.  As the 19th century advanced, the Company’s rule involved the Utilitarian social reforms of Governor-General George Bentinck, banning both female infanticide and Sati (the immolation of Hindu widows) and allowing the previously forbidden remarriage of Hindu widows.

The Company’s rule of law included importing a very British respect for private property, which won it the support of indigenous merchants used to the arbitrary exactions of Indian despots.  The Company not only created a single market in India, but integrated it into an imperial single market via its three major port centres of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay.  The result was a massive exodus of Gujarati, Marwari, Parsi and other merchants from the old banking centres like Surat and Benares to these new coastal hubs of trade.  Company rule brought modern banks, joint stock companies and even trade unions to those centres, establishing what are regarded as the pillars of any modern economy.

[6]  There followed uniform weights and measures, contract law, a uniform currency and postal system and eventually railways and telegraphs.

Economic modernisation might seem like enlightened self-interest for a commercial corporation, but what was less obvious was the enormously creative impact of Company rulers on their cultural and educational environment.  Contrary to Edward Said’s strictures, British Orientalists, many mere amateurs, rediscovered India’s classical heritage, after millennia of oblivion, through the Asiatic Societies they founded in Bombay and Calcutta and a volunteer army of British district officers, who scoured the countryside exploring and excavating ancient sites, often as hobbies in their own time.  The results are the wonders of Amravati, Ajanta, Ellora, Elephanta, Sanchi and many more that we enjoy today.

Sir William Jones, imported by Warren Hastings as a Supreme Court judge, was also an eminent Sanskritist whose research enabled him to date ancient India’s Mauryan Empire, while an official at the Benares mint, James Prinsep, was able to decipher the lost Brahmi script, which enabled him to re-discover the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka and his various edicts on newly excavated bronze pillars.  The Asiatic societies brought the print revolution to India with their learned tomes, including first editions in Bengali.  Orientalist rediscoveries also fuelled what was to become a major cultural renaissance, starting in Bengal, but radiating outward.  And it was closely related to educational policy, in itself somewhat radical for a trading company to undertake.  Apart from religious schools attached to Muslim Madrassas and Hindu ashrams, precolonial India had effectively no educational system.  It was an absence amply attested to both by contemporary foreign observers like the 17th century French physician Francois Bernier, who spent many years at the Mughal court, and by independent India’s leading education historian, Dr Aparna Basu.[7]

Indian nationalists like to claim that almost every pre-colonial village had a school.  What they don’t tell us is that such schools lacked pencils, paper and often even rudimentary slates, were taught by people with no formal qualifications and had no system of examinations.  Most children learned little real literacy in these schools and left at adolescence to work the family fields.  It was not a situation conducive to recruiting educated, indigenous administrators, and the Company recognised this gap at an early stage.  After a couple of failed attempts, it joined hands in the 1830s with Indian reformers like Raja Ram Mohun Roy, close friend of the reforming Governor-General Bentinck.  Their partnership resulted in the founding of Calcutta’s pioneering Hindu College and prepared the way for one of Britain’s most outstanding imperial policy-makers, the polymath historian, Thomas Macaulay.

Macaulay has been much misunderstood for his famous Minute advocating the creation of a Westernised class of Indian intermediaries, similar in all respects to their White superiors.[8]  Seen as a cynical ploy to create colonial Uncle Toms, what’s often ignored is the following sentence in his Minute, which presents this as a temporary prelude to modernising indigenous languages for far more egalitarian mass education:

“To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for carrying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”[9]

Despite the Company’s remarkably progressive modernising role, allegations have abounded about how the British de-industrialised India by their discrimination against India’s traditional handicrafts.  The Company, which relied on importing Indian manufactures into Europe certainly had no interest in discouraging them, had no links with Lancashire mills and did its best to lobby British governments against tariff barriers.

As early as 1924, the eminent economist D R Gadgil, later head of Nehru’s Planning Commission after independence, stated that indigenous cotton spinning and weaving industry only suffered a major decline in the late 19th century, as “a result of competition with the Indian machine industry”, not the Satanic mills of Lancashire.[10]  So handlooms would have declined whoever ruled India, as they did in Britain.  But in absolute terms, the number of Indian weavers remained constant and was the same at independence in 1947 as it had been in 1750.

Indeed, cheaper factory-made yarn helped weavers, brought down cloth prices and stimulated demand and consumption of textiles.  Domestic cloth consumption per capita went up from 5.8 square yards to 7.4 square yards in the same period.  Cloth imports from Britain only began in 1811 as a very small proportion of domestic production and consumption.  Such imports were only 10 per cent of supply in 1841, rising to a peak of 40 per cent in 1871.

Arguably, the key to the Company’s success in becoming India’s paramount power, despite the constant reluctance of its directors in London, had been the consistent support of indigenous bankers and merchants who had financed its wars with their loans, encouraged by the reliability of their returns.  The Company’s provincial governments had been able to finance these loans with their centralised tax collection, so much more efficient than that of their indigenous rivals.[11]

The loyal support of India’s infant bourgeoisie continued very noticeably through the Mutiny of 1857, later claimed by nationalists as a war of independence.  Such claims were belied by the Mutiny’s confinement to a tiny minority of the Company’s sepoy army, most of whom stayed loyal, and to an equally small minority of feudal aristocrats, incensed by Governor-General Dalhousie’s more egalitarian, modernising reforms.


The Company had been a public-private partnership since the Regulating Act of 1773, with the Crown’s control expanding over successive charter renewals, culminating in the final takeover after the Mutiny.  As we have seen, British governors acting for the Company had been increasingly pro-active in their administrative, social and cultural interventions, and the process continued under the viceroys who succeeded them after 1857.  It’s significant that, in the 1850s, Lord Macaulay, the recently ennobled imperial reformer, presided over a parliamentary committee to establish the Indian Civil Service or ICS as one of the world’s most efficient administrations, recruited by open, competitive examination.[12]

The ICS gradually replaced India’s feudal nobility as the effective local source of modernity, justice, public health and famine relief across the districts of British India.  The aristocracy were compensated for their loss of power with the ornamentalism epitomised by the splendours of the viceregal court at Calcutta and later Delhi.[13]

Under Company rule, enlightened administrators and policy-makers like Macaulay at Calcutta, Mountstuart Elphinstone and Sir John Malcolm in Bombay and Sir John Munro at Madras had held out the hope of Indians graduating through Western education into self-government and eventual equal partnership in the empire.  Under the Crown, behind the splendour of imperial durbars, the process of gradual enfranchisement began with municipal self-government in the 1860s and resulted in 1882 with the founding of the Indian National Congress by enlightened British ICS officers.  Starting as a platform for demanding more local patronage and commercial concessions for India’s rising bourgeoisie, the Congress graduated to campaigns for Home Rule, to which the imperial power seemed increasingly sympathetic.

The Ilbert Bill (1884) enacted by the liberal viceroy Lord Ripon opened the way for Indian judges to try cases involving Europeans.  The Morley-Minto reforms of 1909 established executive and legislative councils in the provinces and the viceregal centre, to which Indian notables were first nominated and later elected.  The 1919 Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms took this further with a system of dyarchy, sharing Indian and British responsibility in elected provincial councils and creating an elected imperial legislature at Delhi.

The 1935 Government of India Act took this further by enfranchising 30 million voters, men and women, one-sixth of India’s adult population, based on either matriculation or tax-paying.  In 1937, Indian politicians from the nationalist Congress and other parties contested free elections under that constitution and formed ministries in seven autonomous provinces.  The 1935 act had also held out the goal of federation of these provinces with India’s princely states, to achieve responsible government and Dominion Status at the Centre.  It was a constitutional experiment that never happened, thanks to the inability of Hindu and Muslim politicians to agree on power-sharing, although this devolved, federal model was later successfully applied in states like Nigeria and Malaysia.

In 1945, the Cabinet Mission Plan was a final, last-ditch attempt by London to establish a loose confederation in a united, democratic India, holding together both Hindu and Muslim-majority provinces.  Its rejection by Congress resulted in the 1947 Act, transferring power to two independent dominions of India and Pakistan.  Indian democracy, it’s often forgotten, was not born overnight but evolved through almost a century of benevolent imperialism.

Despite the massive ethnic cleansing that followed, the actual transfer of power from British to indigenous politicians, mostly Western-educated Macaulay Children, was remarkably peaceful and became a template for future evolution of the empire in Africa, the Caribbean and the Far East into the modern Commonwealth.  India subsequently joining the Commonwealth as a republic also set a then unique example, spreading these days to the Caribbean.

While the Raj failed to hold the subcontinent together after its departure, its economic legacies were far more positive, though contested in nationalist narratives.  The drain theory, as it came to be known, was first coined by Dadabhai Naoroji, the Parsi president of Congress, at the end of the 19th century.  Naoroji, also elected to the Westminster parliament as a Liberal M.P., was no economist, and his theory of colonial economic exploitation does not stand up to any statistical scrutiny.[14]  India had attracted £380 million in British capital by 1913, £23 billion in today’s money.  But Home charges in 1913, the so-called drain from India to Britain, were only £ 11 million, tiny by comparison.

Development economists today recognise that foreign inward investment has to be paid for by foreign remittances.  Calculated as an average annual return on British investments in India, total remittances for Home charges and private transfers under the Raj amounted to an annual average of only 3.4 per cent, considerably less than British capital could easily have earned in world markets.  These charges paid for the valuable, imported, technical, managerial and administrative skills that fuelled India’s own industrial revolution. They amounted to an average of 1.5% of India’s national income, hardly a significant drain.

“…the so-called drain”, Professor Tirthankar Roy, India’s foremost economic historian, reminds us, “was also a payment for skills, and it is impossible to imagine an economy short of skills dealing with the world without having to buy skills from abroad.”  Often overlooked by nationalists is the fact that India was the first country in Asia to have a modern textile industry, preceding Japan by twenty years and China by forty years.  Cotton mills were started in Bombay in 1851 and grew from supplying 8 per cent of domestic needs in 1896 to 76 per cent in 1945.   The Raj also left India as the largest steel producer in the developing world, with heavy industries and an airline in the private sector.

Indian industrialists did particularly well out of World War 1, and manufacturing output grew at 5.6 per cent between 1913 and 1938, well above the world average of 3.3 per cent, helped by imperial tariff protection from the 1920s.  India had become the world’s fourth largest textile producer by 1913 and its largest jute producer, with its third largest railway system, largest canal system and a modern post and telegraph service.  India’s per capita industrial output at independence was higher than anywhere else in Asia outside Japan, and more than half of India’s exports were manufactures.  In the last century of British rule, per capita output of industrial goods rose by a third, hardly a sign of the de-industrialisation of which the Raj is so often accused.

“Between 1850 and 1940, employment in Indian factories increased from near zero to two million,” writes Roy. “Real GDP at factor cost originating in factories rose at the rate of 4-5% per year between 1900 and 1947. These rates were comparable with those of the two other emerging economies of the time, Japan and Russia, and without a close parallel in the tropical world of the 19th century.”  Clearly factory production and employment had taken firm root in British India by the early 20th century and grew at a rapid pace in the first half of the 20th century.

A major engine of this growth were the railways.  Their introduction in the 1850s had been one of the causes of the Mutiny, because the modernising Governor-General Lord Dalhousie had insisted there would be no caste barriers in railway carriages. Though driven partly by British military needs, the railways completed India’s integration into a single market, hugely expanding both domestic and foreign trade, linking its ports with inland cities.

India’s colonial railways are shown to have reduced famine and improved living standards in the districts that had them, with agricultural incomes shooting up by 16 per cent on average, according to studies at Cambridge and MIT.[15] Using the volume of freight traffic in 1900, the social savings achieved by Indian railways are estimated to have been Rs. 1.2 billion or 9 percent of national income.  Without railways, freight rates would have been between 80 to 90 percent higher, based on the observed differences with freight rates for India’s traditional bullock carts during the mid-19th century.  Railways helped integrate the food market in India, with the data for average wheat and rice prices from 1861 to 1921 showing that the variation in prices was lower for districts that had railways, compared with those that didn’t.

Not only did the railway network lead to a rise in income levels and a decline in the uncertainty in income, it also reduced the intensity of famines.  An MIT study, which collated agricultural data with information on the spread of the rail network, confirms findings by Cambridge economists that the railways helped in integrating markets, lowering price fluctuations and raising income levels.  In a sub-continent that had not yet seen metalled roads, the introduction of mechanical transport exposed once protected markets to global competition, hitting artisanal manufacture, but stabilizing the agricultural sector.

A major anti-imperial trope has been the allegation that railways were paid for by India at inflated rates to benefit British private investors.  The facts speak otherwise.  The Raj initially guaranteed private investment in Indian railways at 5 per cent which was only slightly above the average global market rate of 4.8 per cent, so hardly extortionate.  That guarantee fell to only 3.5 per cent after 1880, when the Delhi government started building its own railways and buying out private companies.  During the same period, even independent nations like Brazil and Argentina, with similar tropical terrain, had to guarantee much higher returns of 7 per cent, because governments to this day struggle to attract private investment in infrastructure.

The rapid expansion of India’s foreign trade after 1800 was partly attributable to the security directly provided, free of charge, by British naval power.  In another major reversal of drain theory, Britain also paid the viceregal Government of India for the massive deployment of Indian troops abroad.  The Indian reserve bank held a positive sterling balance of over £1 billion at independence in 1947, £36 billion in today’s money, as payment for India’s services in World War 2.

Despite its support for industrialisation, the Raj is often accused of neglecting Indian agriculture, left to the devices of India’s parasitical landowning classes.  The reality was not so simple.  Local studies show that agricultural productivity grew slowly but steadily under colonial rule, with even some improvement in the lot of agricultural labourers.  For example, in Muzzafarnagar district of the United Provinces, India’s heartland, between 1840 and 1924 rent per cultivated acre rose by an enormous 315 per cent, though land revenue rose by only 63 percent.  The value of output per acre also rose by 900 percent in that 84-year period.  Thus rent as a proportion of the value of output per acre fell by 59 per cent, and land revenue as a proportion of the value of output per acre fell by 85 percent during the period.  So in the Muzaffarnagar case, the real burden of rent and land revenue per acre fell sharply, putting paid to claims that all gains were transferred into the hands of landlords and the State.[16]

Similar work on the Madras presidency[17] down south, has been particularly unsettling to notions of growing rural impoverishment and landlessness under the Raj.  For at least one period, 1881-1901, the data suggest that the proportion of landowners to workforce in agriculture actually increased substantially.

Thanks largely to new canal-building, British India’s irrigated area increased about eightfold, covering more than a quarter of all land.  Areas which had formerly been desert, especially in Punjab and Sindh, now became the biggest irrigated area in the world and a major producer of wheat and cotton, both for export and for sale in other parts of India.

The British had inherited the Mughal tax system, which provided a land revenue equal to 15 per cent of national income, but by the end of the colonial period land tax had been reduced to only 1 per cent of national income. The Mughal land tax had been about 30 per cent of the crop, but by 1947 land tax was only 2 per cent of agricultural income, so hardly a sign of imperial exploitation.

Another incontrovertible fact of British rule is that India’s population increased more than twofold from 170 million in 1750 to 425 million in 1950, a rough measure of major improvements in public health and nutrition, despite India’s cyclical famines.  Though attacked for its neglect of famine, the Raj could point to equally severe famines in the pre-colonial period, such as the Deccan and Gujarat famine of the late 15th century, which took an estimated 4 million lives.

Far from ignoring famine, the Raj took major steps to plan and implement policies which remain at the heart of famine relief across the developing world.  A Famine Commission established by the viceroy Lord Lytton in 1878, in the wake of a major famine, concluded that agricultural labourers’ and artisans’ loss of employment and wages due to droughts was the main cause of Indian famines and that national supply was not the issue. The resulting Famine Code of 1883, and its successors of 1897 and 1900, set out a public policy for transporting grain to famine areas, providing food relief in exchange for work to the able-bodied, constructing protective railways and expanding irrigation works.

The Commission set up a £ 1 million a year Famine Insurance Fund, with a budget of £500,000 allocated to railway construction and general public works and a further £250,000 pounds for irrigation projects.  The Famine Codes adopted by the Raj effectively got rid of major famines, with the Bengal famine of 1943 as the exception to the rule, caused as it was by wartime shortages and local profiteering. The construction of Indian railways between 1860 and 1920, and the opportunities they offered for greater profit in other markets, allowed farmers to accumulate assets that could then be drawn upon during times of scarcity. By the early 20th century, many farmers in the Bombay presidency were growing a portion of their crop for export. The railways also brought in food, whenever expected scarcities began to drive up food prices. By the end of the 19th century, local food scarcities in any given district and season were increasingly smoothed out by the invisible hand of more integrated and globalised markets, causing a rapid decline in mortality rates. [18]

The rules embodied in the Famine Codes of the Raj continued in independent India until the late 1960s and have become routine procedure in famine relief strategy across the globe.  Rail transport, in particular, played an essential role in supplying grain from food-surplus regions to famine-stricken ones. The 1880 Famine Codes urged a restructuring and massive expansion of railways, with an emphasis on intra-Indian lines as opposed to the existing port-centred system. These new lines extended the existing network to allow food to flow to famine-afflicted regions.  Even the left-wing economist Jean Drèze concluded that the necessary economic conditions were present for a national market in food to reduce scarcity by the end of the 19th century.[19]

Railways also had a separate impact on reducing famine mortality by taking people to areas where food was available, or even out of India. By generating broader areas of labour migration and facilitating the massive emigration of Indians during the late 19th century, they provided famine-afflicted people the option to leave for other parts of the country and the world.  By the time of a food scarcity crisis in 1912-13, migration and relief supply were able to absorb the impact of a medium-scale shortage of food.   Even Drèze grudgingly concedes: “It is plausible that the improvement in communication towards the end of the nineteenth century did make a major contribution to the alleviation of distress during famines.”

Another major complaint against the Raj has been on the educational front, for its failure to make primary education free and compulsory.  It was a failure derived in part from the undoubted supremacy of laissez-faire doctrine through most of the 19th century, followed by the global depression of the inter-war years and its impact on government spending. Nevertheless, male literacy did increase from an abysmally low 8 per cent in 1881 to 30 per cent at independence, while female literacy during the same period leapt from almost zero to 9 per cent.  Macaulay’s English-medium education policies since the 1830s had created an impressive 27 universities, 498 colleges and one million students in higher education at independence.  Enrolment in primary schools in the age group 6-11 years was 43 percent in 1947, with 210,000 primary schools, an average of one to an area of 5 square miles.  Not enough, of course, compared with India’s burgeoning population, but pretty impressive even compared with independent India’s performance.

While empire undoubtedly left India and other successor states with the main pillars of modern nationhood, I shall conclude with a brief postscript here on its reverse impact on the mother-country.  How much did the jewels in Britain’s imperial crown contribute to the process of industrialisation back home? There is now sizeable statistical work comparing the scale of transactions between colonists and their empires on the one hand, and the rest of the world on the other.[20] In trade, migration, investment and factor income movements, British links with the rest of the world appear to have been much more extensive than their links within the empire.

What that suggests is that the economic gains for Britain from the Raj were neither as large as once imagined, nor as crucial to British industrialisation, and certainly not a saga of one-way exploitation. What we can also confirm, from even cursory observation of the British cultural and political scene today, is the continuing huge impact of the multicultural British Raj on everything from our art, music, language, cuisine and social policy to our large influx of South Asian migrants.  The subject for a future paper?


This paper was first given at the 2022 Ethics of Empire conference in Oxford.


[1]  These economic data and estimates are based on the Maddison Project at the OECD and reports by Angus Maddison, Maddison Historical Statistics, University of Groningen.

[2]  My figures on Mughal India are derived from Irfan Habib: ‘The 18h century in Indian Economic History’, in P J Marshall, The Eighteenth Century in Indian History: Evolution or Revolution? Delhi, OUP, 2003

[3]  Jeffrey Williamson, D. Clingingsmith, ‘Mughal Decline, Climate Change, and Britain’s Industrial Ascent: An Integrated Perspective on India’s 18th and 19th Century Deindustrialization’, Explorations in Economic History, 2008.

[4]  P J Marshall, op.cit.

[5]  Shashi Tharoor, Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India, Hurst, London, 2017.

[6]  Tirthankar Roy, An Economic History of India 1707-1857, Routledge, London, 2022; A Business History of India, 2018.

[7]  Bernier, François (1891), Travels in the Mogul Empire, A.D. 1656–1668. Archibald Constable, London; Aparna Basu, Essays in the History of Indian Education, New Delhi, Concept, 1982.

[8]  Zareer Masani, Britain’s Liberal Imperialist, Bodley Head, London, 2013.

[9]  C D Dharker, Lord Macaulay’s Legislative Minutes, London, 1946.

[10]  Tapan Raychaudhuri, Perceptions, Emotions, Sensibilities: Essays on India’s Colonial and Post-Colonial Experiences. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005.

[11]  Roy, op. cit.

[12]  Zareer Masani, op. cit.,

[13]  David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire,

Allen Lane, 2001.

[14]  Tirthankar Roy, op. cit.

[15]  John Hurd, ‘Railways and the expansion of markets in India, 1861-1921’, Explorations in Economic History, vol. 12, 1975, pp. 263-288; Dave Donaldson, ‘Railroads of the Raj: Estimating the Impact of Transportation Infrastructure,’ American Economic Review, 2018; W J Macpherson, ‘Investment in Indian Railways 1845-1875’, Economic History Review vol. 8, 1955, pp 177-86..

[16] Raychaudhuri, op. cit.

[17]  Dharma Kumar: ‘Land and caste in South India: agricultural labour in the Madras Presidency during the nineteenth century’, Cambridge Studies in Economic History, vol. 12, Cambridge University Press, 1965.

[18]  Roy, op. cit.

[19]  Jean Drèze, ‘Famine Prevention in India’, in The Political Economy of Hunger, vol. 2, Oxford University Press, 1990.

[20]  Roy, op. cit.

About the author

Zareer Masani

Zareer Masani

Zareer Masani is an author and broadcaster, whose books include Indira Gandhi: A Biography (1976), Indian Tales of the Raj (1990) and Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist (2013).