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Railways In Modern India (Oxford in India…

Railways In Modern India (Oxford in India Readings: Themes in Indian…

by Ian J. Kerr

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Recently added bymdobe, haldaneshwar, thorold



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"Modern India" here seems to mean "modern" in the historian's sense, i.e. the 19th and early 20th centuries. Presumably OUP are still working on the companion volumes Railways in medieval India and Railways in ancient India...

If you're up for a bit of seriously bad academic prose, this is a reader well worth dipping into. However, be warned: the most readable and accessible piece in the collection is an essay by Karl Marx (1853). From then on it's downhill all the way, with Kerr (in his Introduction and a piece on the effects of the railway on pilgrimage) and Ellen McDonald Gumperz (city-hinterland relations in the 19th century Deccan) competing to achieve the least intelligible sentence. Given that Kerr says in five — constantly interrupted by irrelevant parentheses(*), almost invariably inserted between the adjective and the noun it is modifying — pages of his pilgrimage piece essentially what Chaucer says in the first 18 lines of his General Prologue, I think he should get the palm.

Most of the articles collected here are concerned with the economic effects of railway development. The conventional argument is that railways impoverished India by turning previously self-sufficient communities into exporters of raw materials and importers of manufactured goods, and by sucking money out of the Indian economy into the pockets of British railway shareholders. This theory is supported by the way the Indian railways were organised: the British authorities couldn't make their minds up either to trust market forces or to put the system under proper government control, so they ended up with an arrangement that combined the worst of both worlds. Most lines were operated by British-owned private companies under a system where the Government of India undertook to guarantee an income of 5% per annum, whether or not the line made a profit.

Under these conditions, there was little incentive to maximise traffic by offering favourable freight rates. The pattern of railway development also made it disproportionately cheap to transport goods to and from ports, something which worked against the development of industries in India itself. However, a couple of the articles in this collection seem to be arguing that railways did encourage economic development, in particular by making it possible for Indian farmers to specialise in cash crops and allowing the cheap redistribution of food in times of shortage. Obviously that particular debate isn't settled yet.

I enjoyed the piece by John Harrison on the sort of information that can be retrieved from the dusty archives of Indian railway companies. David Arnold's piece on cultural perceptions of railway technology is an interesting starting-point, but in the form in which it appears here it's barely even a research proposal. Probably Kerr included it to demonstrate how much work still needs to be done on this important topic.

(*) And footnotes. ( )
  thorold | Dec 8, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195672925, Paperback)

This volumn highlights the centrality of the railways in the history of colonial and post-colonial India.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:27 -0400)

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