There was a sudden and quick collapse of the urban handicrafts industry which had for centuries made India’s name a byword in the markets of the entire civilised world.
This collapse was caused largely by competition with the cheaper imported machine made goods from Britain. As we have seen earlier.
The British imposed a policy of one-way free trade on India after 1813 and the invasion of British manufactures, in particular cotton textiles, immediately followed Indian goods made with primitive techniques could not compete with goods produced on a mass scale by powerful steam-operated machines.
The ruin of Indian industries, particularly rural artisan industries proceeded even more rapidly once the railways were built. The railways enabled British manufactures to reach and uproot the traditional industries in the remotest villages of the country.
As the American writer, D.H. Buchanan has put it, “The armor of the isolated self-sufficient village was pierced by the steel rail, and its life blood ebbed away.”
The cotton-weaving and spinning industries were the worst hit. Silk and woolen textiles fared no better and a similar fate overtook the iron, pottery, glass, paper, metals, and guns, shipping, oil-pressing, tanning and dyeing industries.
Apart from the influx of foreign goods, some other factors arising from British conquest also contributed to the ruin of Indian industries.
The oppression practiced by the East India Company and its servants on the craftsmen of Bengal during the second half of the eighteenth century, forcing them to sell their goods below the market price and to hire their services below the prevailing wage, compelled a large number of them to abandon their ancestral professions.
In the normal course, Indian handicrafts would have benefited from the encouragement given by the Company to their export, but this oppression had an opposite effect.
The high import duties and other restrictions imposed on the import of Indian goods into Britain and Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, combined with the development of modern manufacturing industries in Britain led to the virtual closing of European markets to Indian manufacturers after 1820.
The gradual disappearance of Indian rulers and their courts who were the main customers of the handicrafts produced also gave a big blow to these industries. “For instance, the Indian states were completely dependent on the British in the production of military weapons.”
The British based all their military and other government stores in Britain. Moreover, Indian rulers and nobles were replaced as the ruling class by British officials and military officers who patronised their own home-products almost exclusively. This increased the cost of handicrafts and reduced their capacity to compete with foreign goods.
The ruin of Indian handicrafts was reflected in the ruin of the towns and cities which were famous for their manufacture. Cities which had withstood the ravages of war and plunder failed to survive British conquest.
Dhaka, Surat, Murshidabad and many other populous and flourishing industrial centers were depopulated and laid waste. By the end of the nineteenth century, urban population formed barely 10 percent of the total population.
William Bentinck, the Governor-General, reported in 1834-5: “The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India.”
The tragedy was heightened by the fact that the decay of the traditional industries was not accompanied by the growth of modern machine industries as was the case in Britain and Western Europe. Consequently, the ruined handicraftsmen and artisans failed to find alternative employment.
The only choice open to them was to crowd into agriculture. Moreover, the British rule also upset the balance of economic life in the villages.
The gradual destruction of rural crafts broke up the union between agriculture and domestic industry in the countryside and thus contributed to the destruction of the self- sufficient rural economy.
On the one hand, millions of peasants, who had supplemented their income by part-time spinning and weaving, now had to rely overwhelmingly on cultivation; on the other, millions of rural artisans lost their traditional livelihood and became agricultural laborers or petty tenants holding tiny plots. They added to the general pressure on land.
Thus British conquest led to the de-industrialisation of the country and increased dependence of the people on agriculture.
No figures for the earlier period are available but, according to Census Reports, between 1901 and 1941 alone the percentage of population dependent on agriculture increased from 63.7 per cent to 70 per cent. This increasing pressure on agriculture was one of the major causes of the extreme poverty in India under British rule.
In fact, India now became an agricultural colony of manufacturing Britain which needed it as a source of raw materials for its industries nowhere was the change more glaring than in the cotton textile industry.
While India had been for centuries the largest exporter of cotton goods in the world, it was now transformed into an importer of British cotton products and an exporter of raw cotton.