chapter  5
15 Pages

Labour- intensity and industrializaton in colonial India


The skilled artisan Until recently, the standard narrative in the economic history of India considered that the artisan tradition suffered large-scale decline owing to competition from British textile imports.2 In the 1970s, the ‘de-industrialization’ of India was used by neo-Marxist writers to explain the historical origins of under-development in the modern world (Robinson 1979; Baran 1978; Frank 1975; see also Bettelheim 1968). In some recent stylized accounts of the historical origins of rural poverty in India, deindustrialization again plays a role (Eswaran and Kotwal 1994; Dutt 1992). There is, of course, evidence showing that the artisans suffered unemployment in the early nineteenth century. Equally, as Morris (1963) pointed out, survival of the artisan tradition in the mid-twentieth century was impressive too. How do we fit decline on a large scale and survival on a large scale in one narrative? One possible response to this question involves recognizing that traditional industry was diverse in composition. Some segments within it mainly engaged in the production of intermediate goods or in serving the needs of the peasant and were unable to withstand the competition of cheap machine-made goods, other segments, such as those making consumer goods and serving wealthier consumers, survived by employing craftsmanship in innovative new ways.3 Consistent with this hypothesis, production of metals, cotton yarn, dyes, making of fibres in wool, silk and soft metals, declined. The technological standard in this segment was falling too far too quickly behind the European model from the early nineteenth century, rendering productivity-weighted wages unsustainable. The rural branches of almost any craft were especially vulnerable. Owing to the generally low rural wages, this market absorbed the simplest kinds of goods, which were exposed to intense competition from machine-made alternatives. On the other hand, designed clothing, metal products, decorated pottery, carpet weaving and wood products survived, even flourished in the late nineteenth century. The more economically stable groups of artisan textile producers, for example, served markets that wanted hand-made consumer goods for reasons of status, rituals, display or special occasions, apart from utility. Such clothing embodied designs or utilized materials that only the artisan weaver was capable of implementing in the authentic style. Although serving traditional consumption, these segments did not remain untouched by globalization. Individually some products and techniques faced the threat of foreign competition or competition from the factories. Overall, however, globalization had a benign side. It aided the artisans by making available cheaper and better quality inputs, such as, cotton yarn, dyes, silk thread, metal thread, iron and steel, and chemicals. To better utilize such substitution possibilities, some of these industries found it profitable to relocate near port cities or textile mill centres. Capitalists rose from the ranks of the artisans to trade in, sometimes manufacture, these inputs. Labour migrated closer to points of consumption and input trade, in turn encouraging wage employment and technological experiments.