The Colonization Narrative : India

Victorial Memorial, Kolkata, India

Victorial Memorial, Kolkata, India

This is an perhaps an oversimplified, linear narrative of how India went from a land ‘out there’ and ‘somewhere’ to being the crown jewel of the British Empire. If I were to write this story of colonization for a history paper, I would perhaps sink without a trace in the deep waters of historical analysis. But it still merits a shot for the fact that simpler narratives are a point of start for the more nuanced ones.
The story of colonization in India is that of a gradual subjugation and systematic economic exploitation. From the first colonial encounter – with the merchants of the British East India Company – to establishment of British empire with India as a colony, the two hundred years of British presence has left an indelible mark on all aspects of Indian economy, agriculture, geography and more so its social core. Historians reason that Indian colonization happened in three distinct phases –

Mercantilism (Phase I), 1755 – 1813

What started as a small trading operation from a small post on the Hoogly river in Calcutta in 1755, the operation of British East India Company went much beyond trade in the decades to follow. The English merchants were interested in trading spices, silk, jute and other goods which would sell in Britain. Merchants and businessmen dominated this period and expanded their trading operations in India rapidly as the demand for these goods in Britain increased. However, growing demand for these goods back in Britain also meant an outflow of bullion out of their country and into India. In addition to this the cost of trading in India were high due to wars with the Portuguese and Dutch trading companies.

The merchants sought to address this by extracting land revenues in India as taxes which could compensate the outflow of money from Britain. The rights to land revenue were to be acquired from the rulers of princely states of India. The first such land revenue collection rights or the “Diwani” rights were acquired for Bengal after the Battle of Plassey in 1957. This was soon to spawn an elaborate system of land revenue system known as “ryotwari” system and the “mahalwari” system (in northern parts). The model was on a template of land revenue system of the Mughal rulers who preceded the British. Ryotwari system is a characteristic of this period. It was operationalzed with the help of intermediaries or “zamindars” who were awarded the ownership of large tracts of land and were responsible for collection of revenues on behalf of the Company. Historian Bipan Chandra estimates that the export from India to Britain increased four times during this period. Indian trade had come to be monopolized completely by the British as the 18th century came to an end.

Free Trade (Phase II), 1813 – 1858

During the second decade of 19th century Adam Smith’s idea of free trade or “laissez faire” economy had managed to influence the British parliament with some of its members – the “free traders” demanding that access to Indian markets must be made free. This translated into the Company losing its monopoly rights in India. To this effect the Charter Act of 1813 was passed. It withdrew British East India Company’s trade monopoly. The Company’s territorial possessions were now subordinated to the British crown.

This phase is marked by commercialization of Indian agriculture. India was fast converting into a plantation colony with cash crops like indigo, opium, jute and tea being forced on the peasants, over food grains. Consequently indentured labour was used for running several of its plantation colonies in French Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Sri Lanka. Agriculture in India now served as a raw material base for British industries. Famines, introduction of railways (1853) and irrigation projects were other features of this phase.

Financial Imperialism (Phase III), 1858 – 1947

Industrial revolution in Britain and an uprising of native Indian soldiers against the Company (the Sepoy mutiny) ushered in the imperialistic phase where the colonizer and the colonized relationship was set firmly in place. The railways, land revenue system, civil services and judiciary served as the apparatus of the British government to strengthen the colonial grip and make India serve as a captive resource providing colony which would get fed into the furnace of British prosperity perpetually.

This phase is marked by de-industrialization of Indian industry (as argued by many historians and economists, though I find that this period also served as a demonstration of industrial technology and its capability for the Indian entrepreneurs and who would later make good use of it to set up their own businesses. Ex- V O Chidambaram Pillai in Tamil Nadu, Birlas and Goenkas in Calcutta, textile entrepreneurs in Bombay). Indian goods during this period became in-competitive to the superior machine made goods like textiles which flooded the Indian market from Britain. This inflow of cheap goods was a consequence of the industrial revolution in Britain.

The domestic market was systematically exploited and foreign trade by 1920s had declined significantly. Indian capitalist class rises in the aftermath of the World War II when the foreign economic influence wanes away due to the war. It is then that the Indian economy picks up steam and the Indian industrialists align with the Congress to push for independence. What follows later ends the colonization of India in 1947.



Narratives, Ranajit Guha & Microcredit

I have been on an overdose of Ranajit Guha’s writings and papers from the Subaltern Studies over the past few weeks. Guha’s reasoning on the project of colonial historiography in Chandra’s death is something I, perhaps prematurely, feel overrated. Moreover, its increasing currency is suspect as far as the merit of the argument is concerned. The language of the text is highly imaginative and I like the way it is presented. The point that the colonial project asserted itself in ways like this trial of a deceased woman’s death is overdrawn. Guha’s big draw has been his highly imaginative language and the force with which the thoughts pound a reader’s mind – for instance, his claim of “reclaim the document for history”.

The paper has a certain dramatic force –

This essay begins with a transgression-a title that is designed to violate the intentions for which the material reproduced below has already served with two authorities-the authority of the law which
recorded the event in its present form and that of the editor who separated it from other items in an archive and gave it a place in another order-a book of documents collected for their sociological
interest. The movement between these two intentions-the law’s and the scholar’s-suggests the interposition of other wills and purposes.

He goes on further to state that “we know nothing of them (historical events) except that they must have occurred”. Having said this, the exercise situates itself in an imaginary domain where the scholar’s guess is as good as any other person thinking about it. But for Guha –

 the very fact that they occurred, in whatever unspecified ways, would justify yet another intervention– a return·to the terminal points of the shift, the only visible sites of legal and editorial intentionality, in order to desecrate them by naming the material once again and textualizing it for a new purpose.

This obsession of social scientists as Guha is beyond me. It is hard to understand why should this view of colonial historiography prevail over the other narratives.

However, I realized while talking to a friend that distinct dissections as these of an action could be useful and may be a simple way of looking at the microcredit debate between Grameen and SKS as it unfolded last year. We began enquiring if SKS followed the same approach as that of Grameen and where did the difference lay. I have keenly followed several sharp dissections of the issue and long drawn analyses on these two organizations, particularly at CGDEV’s blog. But what we discussed here was at a larger, ‘approach’ front.

Grameen and SKS have not followed the same model. In fact in a long drawn and public debate Prof. Yunus has criticized Akula’s SKS way of microcredit. He was alluding to the fact that SKS variety is essentially “commercial microcredit” whereas Grameen’s origin and current mode of work as well, is significantly different and in not-for-profit mode. (A quick “Yunus vs Akula” search should yield relevant links to the spat that happened between them last year.)

Prof. Yunus called SKS and similar companies as “profit minded loan sharks” at some point. So now one can estimate how different these two are. SKS is clever financial engineering to extend credit to low income groups and earn returns. This when done at a larger scale will create windfall profits. And this made the company valuable the day it went public and offered its IPO.

And why is Grameen seen as successful by a vast majority? Hazarding a reason – because the capital mobilized as credit was not expected to yield “returns” for its investors. Another paper (presented at WEAI’s 86th Conference) Crisis in Indian Microfinance: A Tale of Growth and (No) Regulation explains the shift from a social model of capital helping poor avail credit and increase their income vs. capital which was brought in by large institutional investors with an expectation that it should make more profits. And SKS took institutional investors’ capital to scale and expand. And therefore had to push for returns and profits.

In another paper, Grameen and Microcredit: A Tale of Corporate Success, Anu Muhammad does an empirical study of Grameen’s claims and performance. What this paper does is that it puts Grameen to a very hard test on numbers and claims that the organization has made over the past. It is an assessment exercise. The numbers might tell a different story and lay bare the mismatch between claims and results on the ground, as well as the measures adopted by Grameen in later years.

The other part of the story is that the world understands Grameen NOT by its means and ways, but by the values and the intention with which it began. It generally happens that the intention along with the early simpler ways of disbursing credit is what remains in the public memory when they talk or hear about Grameen. As the organization grew, changing scale of operation, geographic reach and people at Grameen led to a divergent way of doing things which had hardly any similarity with the early formula. This is where these empirical works are situated and help in unveiling the larger, long term effects of the organization.

The method in the paper is rigorous. This is what an economist is likely to do. At the same time, this is the kind of research with which a social scientist has issues with. It is rendering dead the narrative and lived experiences of several people who might have benefited from microcredit. Instead the analysis disconnects the narrative and takes only the numbers. Depends on the reader what he would like to prioritize – the social/narrative or the hard numbers.

Or as Guha would do – read an event either in its present form or look at the way its editor archived it when it occurred. The views on microcredit are bifurcated in quite a similar fashion – one can consider only the intentions as a considerations while the rest would settle for no less than examining it on how it unfolds on the ground and impacts lives. On this front, reading Guha’s complex arguments and sociological analysis sure helps!

HBR’s pricing and access to knowledge

(Image: clker)

(Image: clker)

An interesting discussion is brewing on FT with a Rotman School academic – Prof Joshua Gans suggesting that FT should knock-off Harvard Business Review (HBR) from its research component in FT45 ranking of global MBA and EMBA programs. While he acknowledges the quality of papers from the journal, he is clear that the publication is restricting access to knowledge which should be free in the interest of learning. It is okay to charge for research papers but the use of other content in the journal for instructional use should not be charged. I like the clarity of Prof Gans’ argument

A mere mention of an HBR article that some students may want to delve deeper into would cost the same as a case assigned as the basis for a three-hour class. Thus, the knowledge created by that journal will be less accessible for the students than knowledge elsewhere. How can it be, therefore, that the FT can consider HBR as a journal that connects students to knowledge creators? HBSP has relegated HBR to second-tier status and so should the FT.

To this, HBR’s Das Narayandas responds that –

Many believe that information should be free, but ideas that achieve maximum impact come at a cost.

This paradox is familiar to us at our small company. We offer data analysis and advisory services to non-profits. And many of the potential clients negotiate our pricing by assuming that information services for a ‘good cause’ should be given for a lower price or in some interesting cases as a pro-Bono service. We have always felt strongly against this practice and of course, gravitate towards Naraynadas’ comment that ‘ideas that achieve maximum impact come at a cost’.

The cost in this case appear to be monetary, but could as well be in other forms. If the information desired is potential enough in improving the processes or outcome in an organization then such an information is a product of substantial investment in terms of time, effort and professional expertise. How does one expect it to be free or cheaper in the interest of whatever!

The idea is not to be insensitive to requirements of those who cannot afford it, but to see that people know and appreciate what it costs to generate such knowledge. After this recognition one can sure explore ways of how can access be facilitated without undercutting the costs of producing it.

And until such time, it could be difficult for businesses to help such situations but rest assured that they have also faced such situations and empathize with others in need.