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

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Traditional Industry in Colonial India

Traditional Industry in Colonial India TIRTHANKAR ROY This is a response to some comments in Claude Marcovits

This is a response to some comments in Claude Marcovits’ excellent review1 of my book Traditional Industry in the Economy of Colonial India (Cambridge, 1999). Directly or indirectly, the comments bear on my treatment of the role of colonialism in shaping artisan history in India. I feel compelled to write a clarification.

The book covers the period, 1870s to the 1940s. The question asked is, what was the main dynamics in traditional industry in this period? It first states and criticises a received view in answer to this question. The received view derives from a theory about how colonialism produced underdevelopment. Traditional industry in India, especially cotton textiles, is one of the main illustrations of this theory, better known as ‘de-industrialisation’. According to this view, traditional industry declined during and because of colonial rule. The book argues that, in the period demarcated, decline was not the main dynamics. ‘In the period demarcated’ was left implicit and not stressed enough in the book, a fault that has caused some confusion among reviewers of the book. What then was the most important process of change? The book shows that, in the period covered, it was increasing market transactions or commercialisation. This was a complex process. In the spirit of Adam Smith, commercialisation is seen to have led to efficiency-improving outcomes via increasing division of labour and specialisation. In the spirit of theories of industrial organisation, commercialisation is seen to have led to information problems and changes in organisation to deal with these. But it also gave rise to large segments of decline via more intense competition within the crafts. The net effect was definitely positive after 1900. Indirect evidence suggests that it was probably positive between 1870 and 1900.2

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