The British Raj And Its Economic Legacy

The military conquests were combined with economic conquests. From the start of the eighteenth century to the end, Britain went from being an importer of Indian textiles and garments to a significant exporter to India. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Britain was the clothier of India, with British mechanized mills displacing millions of Indian hand-loom operators. The textbooks often paint this as a picture of market forces shaped purely by technological advance. The textbooks neglect to add, however, that Britain imposed trade restrictions on India's textile exports to Britain during the pivotal eighteenth century, giving itself time for its own less efficient manufactures to gain the upper hand. In short, Britain pursued an aggressive industrial policy to topple India's predominance in the textile trade.

Britain's military conquest of India was completed in 1857, at which point the East India Company, which was already under state control, formally transferred legal authority over India to the British Crown. In dia was, of course, the jewel of the British Empire, and much of Britain's foreign policy in the Middle East, Central Asia, and elsewhere was devoted to protecting that jewel. Britain also invested heavily on the Indian subcontinent, financing roads, rails, electricity grids, and telegraph connections to help develop the Indian economy from the late nineteenth century onward. Yet a proper reckoning of the British Raj must also consider the downsides of empire, which were severe.

Perhaps most important, the British Raj showed a disdain for educating the Indian population, both at the primary level and at the elite level. Although there were Indian elites such as Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru who received world-class educations and who would go on to create an independent India, they were few in number. Under British rule, India remained a continent of illiterate peasants. At the time of independence, India's literacy was only 17 percent. Public health was also badly neglected. Life expectancy in 1947 was a mere 32.5 years. Britain also showed a disdain for Indian industrialization, at least the kind of industrialization that might threaten British industrial interests back home. The infrastructure was built to exploit India's raw materials, such as cotton for British mills, and not mainly to industrialize India itself. There were exceptions, once again, but they help to prove the rule. And as Angus Maddison notes, "The Indian capitalists who did emerge were highly dependent on British commercial capital and many sectors of industry were dominated by British firms, e.g. shipping, banking, insurance, coal, plantation crops and jute."

The greatest illustration of British imperial irresponsibility was its response to repeated famines and disease epidemics during the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. As recounted vividly in Mike Davis's stunning book Late Victorian Holocausts, India fell prey to repeated monsoon failures, which were probably linked to El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate fluctuations in the western Pacific. A monsoon failure would lead to drought and hunger one year and then to a severe malaria epidemic the next when the rains reappeared and a burst of mosquito abundance afflicted a weakened population. British infrastructure building—dams, irrigation channels, roads—exacerbated India's vulnerability to malaria by multiplying the breeding sites of the anopheles mosquitoes in proximity to human settlements.

The British cannot be blamed for the monsoon failures, or the increasing number of breeding sites. The role of mosquitoes in transmit-

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