Home / Opinion / Columns /  Colonialism stole India’s future, not just the Kohinoor

On most days, what works on social media is something that is simple enough to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Given this, it was hardly surprising that when Queen Elizabeth II died on 8 September, chatter around the Kohinoor diamond immediately broke out in the context of how the British monarchy looted India.

While the British looted many other countries that they ruled as well, they hurt us in a much bigger way, which perhaps cannot even be measured and the cost of which is still being borne.

Economist Oded Galor explains this in his book, The Journey of Humanity: The Origins of Wealth and Inequality. As he writes: “Between 1813 and 1850… India… gradually transformed from being an exporter of manufactured products—largely textiles—into a supplier of agricultural goods and raw materials."

Much of India’s trade in the 19th century, over two-thirds of imports and a third of exports, was with the UK. The imports were largely manufactured goods and exports were raw material going into the making of these goods.

This dynamic had multiple impacts on the Indian economy. With the British supplying manufactured goods to India, the country’s per-capita level of industrialization fell. This ultimately had an impact on education levels. Galor argues that the second phase of the Industrial Revolution led to a significant increase in demand for skilled labour. This led to governments stepping in and ensuring universal primary education in many countries, which are now referred to as rich or developed countries.

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A similar dynamic did not play out in India. Given this, a significant part of the population is illiterate even in the 21st century. The overall literacy rate as per our last census in 2011 was around 73%, with only 65% of women being literate. Of course, things must have improved in the last decade; nonetheless, a significant chunk of the population still cannot read and write, and the major reason goes back to the British in the 1800s. Even after independence, India did not focus enough on primary education.

Primary education in many states continues to be besieged with problems, from absentee teachers and not enough of them to lack of basic infrastructure. This, among other reasons, explains why, despite high youth unemployment, many businesses are unable to recruit employees with even the most basic skills needed for low-level jobs.

A low literacy rate had other impacts as well. Take India’s infant mortality rate. In 1975, it was at 140. The infant mortality rate is defined as the number of children who die before turning one, per 1,000 live births. In 2019, our infant mortality rate stood at 30 per 1,000 live births. This improvement is largely an impact of more women getting literate over the decades and thus being able to read instructions. As Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund write in Factfulness: “The data shows that half the increase in child survival in the world happens because the mothers can read and write."

While an infant mortality rate of 30 per 1,000 is a great improvement over 140, it has taken us nearly five decades to get to this stage, with infant mortality in high-income countries now at around 4 per 1,000 live births.

There is another interesting point that Galor makes. The British ruled densely populated countries like India and thinly populated ones like Australia as well as large parts of the United States. In thinly populated regions, the British tended to settle and develop them for themselves, after they had decimated native populations. “They therefore formed inclusive, growth enhancing institutions for their own benefit and for that of their descendants," Galor writes.

The densely populated regions were the ones where civilizations were most advanced. In such countries, the British developed extractive institutions that could extract the wealth of the native population. The remnants of such institutions have continued to survive and they hold economic activity back.

As Galor writes: “When these colonies gained independence, the powerful local elites who succeeded the European colonisers maintained these extractive, growth-retarding institutions, so as to sustain and gain from the persistence of economic and political disparities, condemning these regions to underdevelopment." This played out in India as well, with large parts of the so-called system continuing to be extractive in nature.

So, while talking about the Kohinoor and other artefacts stolen from India might help us get our sense of patriotism going, the British actually hurt us much more by holding industrialization back, which in turn held education back, and we still bear the costs of that.

To undo this wrong, the central and state governments, especially those in non-peninsular India, need to ensure the universal availability of good quality primary education. The trouble is, concentration on primary education doesn’t create show-off projects like cemented roads and highways, huge hospitals and large higher education institutions, which are equally required and are competing for the same pot of government taxes. At the same time, a focus on primary education cannot possibly compete with the high public recall value of agricultural and pension freebies, which can up the profile of state-level politicians.

Vivek Kaul is the author of ‘Bad Money’.

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