A major characteristic of British rule in India, and the net result of British economic policies, was the prevalence of extreme poverty among its people.
While historians disagree on the question whether India was getting poorer or not under British rule, there is no disagreement on the fact that throughout the period of British rule most Indians always lived on the verge of starvation. As time passed, they found it more and more difficult to find employment or make a living.
British economic exploitation, the decay of indigenous industries, ‘he failure of modern industries to replace them, high taxation.
The drain of wealth to Britain and a backward agrarian structure leading to the stagnation of agriculture and the exploitation of the poor peasants by the zamindars, landlords, princes, moneylenders merchants and the state gradually reduced the Indian people to extreme poverty and prevented them from progressing. India’s colonial economy stagnated at a low economic level.
The poverty of the people found its culmination in a series of famines which ravaged all parts of India in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The first of these famines occurred in western Uttar Pradesh in 1860-61 and cost over 2 lakhs of lives. In 1865-66 a famine engulfed Orissa, Bengal, Bihar and Madras and took a toll of nearly 20 lakhs of lives, Orissa alone losing 10 lakh people.
More than 14 lakhs of persons died in the famine of 1868-70 in western Uttar Pradesh, Bombay and Punjab. Many states in Rajputana, another affected area, lost one-fourth to one-third of their population.
Perhaps the worst famine in Indian histoy till then occurred in 1876-78 in Madras, Mysore, Hyderabad, Maharashtra, western Uttar Pradesh, and Punjab. Maharashtra lost 8 lakh people, Madras nearly 35 lakh.
Mysore lost nearly 20 per cent of its population and Uttar Pradesh over 12 lakh. Drought led to a country-wide famine in 1896-97 which affected over 9.5 crores of people of whom nearly 45 lakh died. The famine of 1899-1900 followed quickly and caused widespread distress.
In spite of official efforts to save lives through provision of famine relief, over 25 lakhs of people died. Apart from these major famines, many other local famines and scarcities occurred.
William Digby, a British writer, has calculated that, in all, over 28,825,000 people died” during famines from 1854 to 1901. Another famine in 1943 carried away nearly three million people in Bengal.
These famines and the high losses of life caused by them indicate the extent to which poverty and starvation had taken root in India.
Many English officials in India recognised the grim reality of India’s poverty during the nineteenth century. For example, Charles Elliott, a member of the Governor-General’s Council, remarked:’ I do not hesitate to say that half the agricultural population do not know from one year’s end to another what it is to have a full meal-
William Hunter, the compiler of the Imperial Gazetteer, conceded that “forty million of the people of India habitually go through life on insufficient food.”
The situation became still worse in the twentieth century. The quantity of food available to an Indian declined by as much as 29 per cent in the 30 years between 1911 and 1941.
There were many other indications of India’s economic backwardness and impoverishment. Colin Clark, a famous authority on national income, has calculated that during the period 1925-34, India and China had the lowest per capita incomes in the world.
The income of an Englishman was five times that of an Indian. Similarly, the average life expectancy of an Indian during the 1930s was only 32 years in spite of the tremendous progress that modern medical sciences and sanitation had made. In most of the West European and North American countries, the average age was already over 60 years.
India’s economic backwardness and poverty were not due to the niggardliness of nature. They were man-made. The natural resources of India were abundant and capable of yielding, if properly utilised, a high degree of prosperity to the people.
But, as a result of foreign rule and exploitation, and of a backward agrarian and industrial economic structure in fact as the total outcome of its historical and social development India presented the paradox of a poor people living in a rich country.
The poverty of India was not a product of its geography or of the lack of natural resources or of some ‘inherent’ defect in the character and capabilities of the people. Nor was it a remnant of the Mughal period or of the pre-British past. It was mainly a product of the history of the last two centuries.
Before that, India was no more backward than the countries of Western Europe. Nor were the differences in standards of living at the time very wide among the countries of the world.
Precisely during the period that the countries of the West developed and prospered, India was subjected to modern colonialism and was prevented from developing.
All the developed countries today developed almost entirely over the period during which India was ruled by Britain, most of them doing so after 1850.
Till 1750 the differences in living standards were not wide between the different parts of the world. It is interesting, in this connection, to note that the dates of the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the British conquest of Bengal virtually coincide.
The basic fact is that the same social, political and economic processes that produced industrial development and social and cultural progress in Britain also produced and then maintained economic underdevelopment and social and cultural backwardness in India.
The reason for this is obvious. Britain subordinated the Indian economy to its own economy and determined the basic social trends in India according to her own needs.
The result was stagnation of India’s agriculture and industries, exploitation of its peasants and workers by the zamindars, landlords, princes, moneylenders, merchants, capitalists and the foreign government and its officials, and the spread of poverty, disease and semi-starvation.