Before the British rule, Indian transport and communication system was backward in comparison to the Western countries. There were no roads and no railway to connect distance places. No telegraph system ever existed.
The self-sufficient village economy was enough to meet the day to day needs of the people. For this reason, there was no compulsion to search for better transport and communication system.
On land, bullock carts, pack-horses, donkeys, camels and even head loads comprised the means of transport. Boats and its accessories were used to carry cargo by water ways. Indians had no idea about steam engine and navigation canals. Except the coastal and river valley regions in India, transportation was costly, undependable and difficult.
Prior to 1757 commercial activities of the East India Company were confined to coastal markets. By establishing factories or trade centers on coast lines and river mouths, the English merchants carried on trade with nearby accessible territories. After the Battle of Plessey the Company utilized its political power to enhance the commercial activities.
The company felt the need of good transport and communication system both for political and economic purposes. First the English merchants had to reach new markets of interior India and also the markets of territories occupied by expansion of British Empire. Second, they also had to explore the fields of raw materials required for the growing British industries. In both the cases the merchants needed easy and cheap transport of goods and raw materials from the ports to the markets and vice versa.
Third, in order to search new markets and fields of raw materials, they had to use power for territorial expansions. Wars and conquests needed smooth transport of army and war materials. Fourth, the British also felt the need of communication system in order to establish links between far off places and the administrative headquarters. Since the company maintained vast empire in India, it was an administrative need to connect all parts of India with centers of administration. Thus, the English had their own ideas about transport and communication. However, the need of the Company indirectly served for welfare of the Indian mase.
The English took upon the projects for finding cheap and easy means of transport both on land and in water. Steps were taken to improve the condition of the existing roads. Some of the important cities, ports and, markets were connected by roads. But Lord William Bethink first initiated the project to connect Calcutta (Kolkata) with the frontier provinces of India. By that time Kolkata was the capital of the British Empire.
Works on this project started in 1839 to connect Kolkata with Delhi and it known as the Grand Trunk Road. Later this road was extended up to Lahore and Peshawar. To supervise and coordinate the construction works of roads, bridges, canals etc. Lord Dalhousie set upon the Public Works Department under a Chief Engineer.
Water ways were more important for commercial purposes. Navigation canals were dug. Steamships and steam boats were introduced in the rivers, this means of transport proved cheaper and easier both for the merchants and people.
However, introduction of railways was the milestone in the Indian transport system. The English observed the benefits of railways as the best means for distribution of finished goods and supply of raw materials.
The English realized that only a railway net work could meet their colonial needs. Therefore, some Englishmen thought of introducing railways in India. It was Rowland Macdonald Stephenson who argued that railways would be the easy and cheap means of transport for British industrial goods to the markets of interior India and for the raw materials to the sea-ports.
Thus, the prospects for construction of proposed railways looked very much lucrative for the English merchants. In the mean time, the Industrial Revolution had created a powerful capitalist class in England who were willing for investment of their surplus capital what rich dividend would be assured. Such investors found the construction of railways as the best channel for investment.
The British iron industries considered the project as an outlet for their products. The Government of India contemplated double benefits from the railways: first, commercial benefits would make the Government financially strong; second: rapid movement of army would fulfill the objective of territorial expansion and maintenance of the Empire. Further, it would Bengal easier for the Government to suppress internal rebellion and to counter internal aggression. The Government decided to encourage the private companies to invest for construction of railways in India. The companies were offered assistance in the form of guarantees for an assured return of minimum five percent on the capital invested in India.
Meanwhile, Lord Dalhousie joined as the Governor General of India in 1848. As an ardent advocate of railways, he took keen interest in it and prepared an extensive programme of main trunk lines. First railway line between Bombay and Thane was opened in 1853. Kolkata was connected with Raniganj in 1854 and Madras (Chennai) with Arcot in 1856. The private companies built 6400 Kms railway lines by 1869 and there after the Government of British India took upon the construction of railway directly,.
No less important was the modernization of postal system in India by the British. Indian postal system was in deplorable condition. Posts were sent by horses and by postmen. This system used to take very long time to carry letters or news from one place to another. In addition, there was delay for various other reasons.
Government letters were sent by its machinery. Even rich persons made their own arrangements for sending messages. But common people faced lot of difficulties. Existing system of cash payment before posting a letter put the common people under hardship. Cost of postage depended on the distance to be covered by the letter. It was very costly affair at times.
Meanwhile Rowland Hill introduced the Penny Postage system in England. This system had the advantage of affixing a stamp of uniform value of one penny on the letters before those were posted.
The Penny-Postage system was cheap and easy for the people of England. At this moment, Lord Dalhousie introduced sweeping reforms of modernize postal system.
In 1852 he introduced half-Anna postage system uniformly in India. People could send the letters to any part of the country by affixing a stamp of half-Anna value.
The system gave maximum benefit to the people. In 1854 ‘Indian Post-office Act’ came into force and the Director General supervised the postal services. No doubt, this reform was a remarkable gift of Dalhousie to the Indians.
Dalhousie decided to introduce the electric telegraph in India as quick and better communication media.
He had the benefits of this by system in minds as found in Europe and North America. Partly he was prompted by the administrative need of establishing direct communication links between the Central Government at Kolkata and the provincial capitals. Further, as an imperialist, partly he felt the need of quick and constant touch with the military headquarters.
He promptly took actions in this direction and found an able engineer O’ Shaughnessy to convert the plan into reality. His untiring efforts resulted in the installation of experimental telegraph lines. In 1852 three main trunk lines were taken up for communication network. First line linked Kolkata with Peshawar through Banaras, Allahabad, Agra, Ambla and Lahore. The second line connected Kolkata with Mumbai (Bombay). The third line linked Chennai (Madras) with Mumbai through Bangalore, Poona and Hyderabad. The telegraph system worked so efficiently that it became the point of attack for the revolutionaries during the Revolt of 1857.
Means of transport and communication had tremendous effect both on the Government of India and on the people. It benefited all in many ways. Opening of cheap and easy transport system profited the British merchants and capitalists the most.
It accelerated the pace of colonialism and economic exploitation of India. Within a short period, India was converted into a market for the British machine-products and a source of raw materials for the British industries.
Economy of Britain flourished at the cost of Indian economy. The Government of India succeeded in suppressing all internal resistances and in defending the empire against all external aggressions. It added efficiency and greater mobility to the army and military operations, hereafter, became easier and successful. It brought safety and stability for the British Empire in India.
However, these reforms proved a boon for the Indians. Railways and roads established greater contact among the people of various parts of India. It also opened greater opportunity for inter-action among the people.
It changed the attitude of the people and broadened the outlook of Indians. Gradually it developed the feeling of oneness and commitment towards the motherland. Historians hold the view that it was the beginning of patriotism and so to say nationalism.
With the change in economic system, pattern of agriculture changed. Previously emphasis was given for production of food-crops. Presently importance was given for production of cash-crops like cotton, jute, tea etc. Thus, process of commercialization of agriculture started.