Updated: November 30, 2010 15:30 IST

Overview of economics in colonial rule

Narendar Pani
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When one of India’s leading economic historians compiles a selection of his work done over several decades, the result is in some sense predictable. The academic rigour is what you would expect from Amiya Kumar Bagchi, as is the depth, the sharpness of the argument, and the cut and thrust of the ideological sword. The original articles having received considerable, and much-deserved, attention when they were first published between 1975 and 1996, it is easy to see this compilation as no more than a handy volume to revisit past debates. But when seen as a whole, the work is much more than the sum of its parts. It projects a larger picture of Indian economic history that is so often lost in the details that individual studies throw up.

The value of the overview is most easily accessible in Amiya Bagchi’s introduction to this collection, where he provides an insightful account of the colonial period and effectively argues his case for colonialism as structural adjustment. As he outlines the two phases of colonial structural adjustment — before and after the transfer of power from the East India Company to direct rule by the British parliament — he builds not just on his own work but also on that of several others to present an account that is designed to convince the diehard sceptic at the other end of the ideological spectrum.

Amiya Bagchi has been known to match economic conceptualisation with historiography in a way that few practitioners of Indian economic history have done. And this book has several outstanding examples of this craft. Arguably, the most striking example is where he looks at technological change in the context of de-industrialisation in India in the 19th century. The ease with which he recognises the common elements across centuries in the work of Ricardo and Hicks — before proceeding to critique this view — points to the potential of using recent developments in economic theory to understand the historical processes better.

It could be argued, though, that, at least in this book, Amiya Bagchi does not do full justice to his ability to link the past with the present. Just as he has taken the sophistication of modern economics into the study of history, it should not be difficult for him to bring the lessons he has learnt from a lifetime in history to bear on reviewing the practice of economics. While he does move in that direction, he does not quite go far enough. Nowhere is this gap felt more than in his innovative search for the implications for development theory of the de-industrialisation of India in the 19th century.

No doubt, Amiya Bagchi breaks new ground in taking the de-industrialisation debate into the questions about the Chinese development model as seen in the mid-1970s. This leads him to ask, in 1976, “What instruments can a society choosing an egalitarian path of development use to carry out the functions that markets perform in capitalist economies?” With China now using markets as much as self-proclaimed capitalist economies, the book would have been enriched if the author had taken that an additional step forward to ask if China’s recent experience meant that markets could be a part of an egalitarian path of development.

The experience of a historian could also throw fresh light on some aspects of the larger question of method in the social sciences. The debate on comparing the results from Francis Buchanan’s early 19th century data with the Census of 1901 takes one deep into the issues involved in making the best use of material available to the social scientist. The severe limitations on the availability of data make a historian typically extra-sensitive to the need to extract the most from a piece of data without compromising on rigour.

In the case of other social sciences, where the researchers can choose the method they use to collect data, debates often turn into a choice of one method over another, instead of seeking the best out of all available methods. It is no doubt unfair to raise this issue when reviewing a book of history, but the breadth of Amiya Bagchi’s vision does make us wish he had taken just that additional step.

In bringing together some of Amiya Bagchi’s compelling work we are reminded of the very high standards he has set for the innovative practice of economic history in India; but, as so often happens with the work of a master, it leaves us wanting more.

COLONIALISM AND INDIAN ECONOMY: Amiya Kumar Bagchi; Published by Oxford University Press. Price: Rs.795

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