A recent study of India’s experience under colonial rule by Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel concludes that data from the Census of India reveal that between 1880 and 1920 approximately 100 million Indians died due to British policy in India. Their method is to calculate the excess mortality, being the difference between the actual deaths and the deaths that may be expected on the basis of some benchmark. While they used Census data for actual deaths, the duo arrived at the deaths to be expected using two alternative benchmarks - the mortality rate for India in 1880 and that for England in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The assumption implicit in the choice of the latter as a benchmark is that before colonial rule, the mortality rate of India is unlikely to have been very different from that of contemporary England. The resulting estimates for excess deaths during 1880-1920 are 50 million in the first case and 160 million in the second one, respectively. The authors settle for the midway figure of approximately 100 million for the deaths caused in India due to colonial policy. For perspective, they point out that this figure is greater than the death from famine in “the Soviet Union, Maoist China, North Korea, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Mengistu’s Ethiopia”. In their view, this provides a direct assessment of the consequences of the Raj for India.
Attempts to quantify the impact of colonial rule in India have mostly relied on the change in national income. But reliable income data for the nineteenth century are almost non-existent. Population figures, though, are available from the time of the first Census of India in 1871. The age-wise population distribution in the census has been used to estimate the mortality rate, which Sullivan and Hickel utilise to draw conclusions about the evolution of economic conditions in colonial India. Their figure for excess deaths is of course only as good as the benchmarks chosen, and the mortality rate itself is the result of estimation and not enumeration, for the registration of births and deaths became established practice in India only much later on.
Subject to these caveats, the Sullivan-Hickel study does draw attention to something not so widely recognised. The mortality rate in British India is seen to rise steadily after 1881, recording an increase of close to 20% by 1921. As it is unusual for the mortality rate of a country to rise continuously due to natural causes, this suggests that the living conditions worsened during this period. The mortality rate dipped in 1931, which was the last census conducted in British India, but the last famine recorded in the country was yet to come. It took place in Bengal in 1943, in the last five years of the close to two centuries of British colonial rule.
British arguments for the empire, including “English forms of land tenure, the English language, banking, the common law, Protestantism, team sports, the limited state, representative assemblies, and the idea of liberty”, have been advanced by the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson. But in this statement, there is no mention of the famines which started almost at the onset of rule by the East India Company in Bengal, the de-industrialisation of India in the nineteenth century, the drain of wealth, or the worsening food security as India’s peasants were forced to grow commercial crops for export so that Britain could balance its trade. Indian economic historians have recorded and astutely analysed these developments. Yet, by drawing our attention to a sustained rise in the death rate at the height of the Raj, the Sullivan-Hickel study vindicates Dadabhai Naoroji’s claim of the immiserisation of India under British rule.
The belief that British policy in India caused repeated famines is bolstered by the fact that there has not been a single famine since 1947. This is despite a population explosion following a sharp fall in death rates. The decline in the mortality rate surely signals improved living conditions. The Census shows that in the 1950s, life expectancy at birth of Indians increased by more than it did in the previous seventy years.
A double-edged sword
But the Census, from which we know all this, can be a double-edged sword in the hands of nationalists. The population numbers recorded after 1947 point to the extent to which the lives of Indians improved since the end of colonial rule in dimensions other than mere income. However, the mirror it holds up is not always flattering to us. It points to worsening gender inequality in India. A simple indicator of this would be the ratio of females to males in the population. It is believed that in the absence of factors that lower the life chances of women, including foeticide, this ratio would tend to one. The Census of India shows that we have not attained that level in our recorded history, except in pockets within the country.
While this is disturbing in itself what is more so is that this ratio has steadily declined after 1947. After declining for four decades from 1951 it started inching up in 1991. But in 2011, it was yet lower than what it was in 1951. So, even though life expectancy increased soon after Independence, in the early years at least it increased faster for men than it did for women. So, though India became free of foreign rule, some Indians grew more free than others. As India chants Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam at the G-20, implying that the nations of the world are a family, it behooves us to ensure that all the persons in our own family enjoy the same freedoms.