Falling Behind and Catching up: India’s Transition from a Colonial Economy

August 28, 2019 | Blog
Home > Falling Behind and Catching up: India’s Transition from a Colonial Economy

by Bishnupriya Gupta (University of Warwick and CAGE)

The full paper of this blog post, Falling behind and catching up, was published by The Economic History Review.

Official of the East India Company riding in an Indian procession, watercolour on paper, c. 1825–30; in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Available at <https://www.britannica.com/topic/East-India-Company/media/1/176643/162308>

There has been much discussion in recent years about India’s growth failure in the first 30 years after independence in 1947. India became a highly-regulated economy and withdrew from the global market. This led to inefficiency and low growth. The architect of Indian planning –Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, did not put India on an East Asian path. As a contrast, the last decade of the 20th century has seen a reintegration into the global economy and today India is one of the fastest growing economies.

Any analysis of Indian growth and development that starts in 1947, is deeply flawed. It ignores the history of development and the impact of colonization. This paper takes a long run view of India’s economic development and argues that the Indian economy stagnated under colonial rule and a reversal came with independence. Although a slow growth in comparison to East Asia, the Nehruvian legacy put India on a growth path.

Tharoor (2017) in his book Inglorious Empire argues that Britain’s industrial revolution was built on the destruction of Indian textile industries and British rule turned India from an exporter of agricultural goods.  A different view on colonial rule comes from Niall Ferguson in his book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Ferguson claimed that even if the British rule did not increase Indian incomes, things might have been much worse under a restored Mughal regime in 1857. The British build the railways and connected India to the rest of the world.

Neither of these views are based on statistical evidence. Data on GDP per capita (Figure 1), shows that there was a slow decline and stagnation over a long period. Evidence on wages and per capita GDP show a prosperous economy in 1600 under the Mughal Emperor Akbar. Living standards began to decline from the middle of the 17th century, before colonization, continued as the East India Company gained territorial control in 1757. It is important to note that the decline coincided with increased integration with international markets and the rising trade in textiles to Europe. In 1857, India became a part of the global economy of the British Empire. Indian trade volume increased, but from an exporter or industrial products, India became an exporter if food and raw material. Per capita income stagnated even as trade increased, the colonial government built a railway network and British entrepreneurs owned large parts of the industrial sector. In 1947, the country was one of the poorest in the world. Figure 1 below also tells us that growth picked up after independence as India moved towards regulation and restrictions on trade and private investment.

What explains the stagnation in income prior to independence? The colonial government invested very little in the main sector, agriculture. The bulk of British investment went to the railways, but not in irrigation. The railways, initially connected the hinterland with the ports, but over time integrated markets, reducing price variability across markets. However, it did not contribute increasing agricultural productivity. Without large investment in irrigation, output per acre declined in areas that did not get canals. Industry on the other had was the fastest growing sector, but employed only 10 per cent of the work force. Stagnation of the economy under control rule had little to do with trade.

Indian GDP per capita between 1600 and 2000. Source: Aniruddha Bagchi, “Why did the Indian economy stagnate under the colonial rule?”  in Ideas for India 2013

Indian growth reversal began in independent India with regulation of trade and industry and a break with the global economy. For the first time in the 20th century, the Indian economy began to grow as the graph shows with investment in capital goods industries and agricultural infrastructure. Industrial growth and the green revolution in agriculture, moved the economy from stagnation to growth. This growth slowed down, but the economy did not stagnate as in the colonial period. Following economic reforms after the 1980s, India has entered a high growth regime. The initial increase in growth was a response to removal of restrictions on domestic private investment, well before reintegration into the global economy in the 1990s. The foundations for growth were laid in the first three decades after independence.

The institutional legacy of British rule, had long run consequences. One example is education policy that prioritized investment in secondary and tertiary education, creating a small group with higher education, but few with basic primary schooling. In 1947, less than one–fifth of the population had basic education. The higher education bias in education continued after independence and has created an advantage for the service sector. There are lessons from history to understand Indian growth after independence.


To contact the author: B.Gupta@warwick.ac.uk