ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Colonialism and Traditional Crafts

Traditional Industry in the Economy of Colonial India by Tirthankar Roy; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, Cambridge Studies in Indian History and Society 5; pp 252, Rs 875.

In this book, Tirthankar Roy, who is already the author of a well known study of weaving in India in the 20th century, enlarges his focus to present us with a global study of ‘traditional industry’ in colonial India, by which he means artisanal industries, which used ‘traditional’ techniques and modes of organisation. One of his aims is to develop a ‘non-naive’ critique of what he perceives as the Marxist-inspired dominant view on Indian de-industrialisation, but he is also interested in a broader comparative perspective regarding industrialisation. The construction of the book is somewhat convoluted, as the first two chapters put forward the main thesis on the basis of a rapid reading of the empirical evidence, while the next five chapters present that evidence in a more detailed fashion, sector by sector. This leads to some unavoidable repetition and does not make for an easy read.

Broadly sketched, Roy’s thesis is that in colonial India artisanal production was not significantly destroyed by the advent of colonialism and the opening of the country to cheap industrial imports from Britain, but that it responded to the stimulus of commercialisation by undergoing a process of adaptation and transformation which had very different outcomes sectorwise. The thesis itself is not totally new, having been put forward in the last few years by Konrad Speck and Douglas Haynes in particular, but it is articulated here with particular forcefulness. Although sensitive to the dynamic aspects of artisanal production, Roy is nevertheless led to conclude that the overall outcome of Indian colonial and post-colonial industrial development was unsatisfactory, as incomes failed to rise significantly and no major qualitative transformation took place. While rejecting the ‘Marxist’ view that Indian underdevelopment is to be partly explained in terms of the destructive impact of colonialism on traditional crafts, the alternative explanation he proposes, based on a combination of high population pressure and lack of investment in human capital, appears a bit narrow. His use of Japan as a comparative benchmark is not strikingly original: he predictably finds that, while in the 19th century the process of industrial development in India was not fundamentally different from what it was in Japan, in the 20th century lower Japanese fertility and higher investment in education resulted in very different outcomes for the two countries. This reviewer finds it altogether difficult to judge how far Roy’s claim to have refuted the so-called ‘Marxist’ thesis on de-industrialisation is well-founded. The polemical aspect of the book does not strike him as its strongest point. For, in spite of making them his avowed target, Roy never directly confronts the upholders of the ‘de-industrialisation’ thesis, who base their views mostly on 19th century evidence, and in particular on a detailed examination of British policies during that period. His almost exclusive reliance on 20th century materials, implicitly suggesting that he believes the decisive retardation in India’s industry to have taken place in that period, as well as his lack of interest in government policies ensure that no real confrontation of views takes place.

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