is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Traditional Industry in the Economy of Colonial India

Author(s):Roy, Tirthankar
Reviewer(s):Wolcott, Susan

Published by EH.NET (February 2001)

Tirthankar Roy, Traditional Industry in the Economy of Colonial India.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xi + 252 pp. $64.95 (cloth),

ISBN: 0-521-65012-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Susan Wolcott, Department of Economics, University of


This new book by Tirthankar Roy of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development

Research, Bombay is well worth reading. It is a careful and extremely well

researched discussion of the evolution of five important craft-based

industries during the colonial period: handloom weaving, on which Roy has

written before, gold thread (jari), brassware, leather, and carpets. Roy

addresses himself to India’s failure to grow. Why did industrialization never

lead to a sustained increase in per capita income? He sets out to do two

things in this book. The first is to dispute the contention that the craft

industries were devitalized by the colonial economy, and thus prevented from

becoming the incubators of an indigenous industrial revolution. His second

task is to show that the true root of stagnation was the too rapid rate of

growth of population and an absence of government involvement in the provision

of education and credit. In the first of these tasks, the book succeeds. The

thorough discussion and careful analysis of the history and organization of

each of these crafts well illustrate the dynamism and inventiveness of the

Indian entrepreneur. But the second task remains for further research. Roy

shows that the laissez faire policy of the British colonial government did not

crush these indigenous craft industries. But a history of craft industries by

itself is not well suited to answering the question of why modern industry did

not establish itself in India.

It can, however, offer certain hints. But the hints in this case do not

support Roy’s contention in an obvious manner. If the histories had shown that

there were attempts to move from small scale craft production to large scale

factory production, but these attempts were thwarted by a lack of capital,

that would have lent support to Roy’s claim that more direct intervention by

the government would have fostered faster growth. That is not the case. In

fact, just the opposite is true. The centralization of the craft industries as

they moved from their rural roots to a more urban existence is a recurrent

theme in Roy’s book. All of these crafts moved away from production for local

consumption to production for long distance trade, either for export to

Europe, or intra-India trade via the new railroads. To some extent, this was

just small craft shops moving to the cities for economies of agglomeration;

information sharing is one theme Roy often stresses. But the urban shift was

frequently accompanied by a large increase in the size of the typical factory,

and a move away from family labor to wage labor. To this reader, large

increases in the scale of individual operations suggest capital constraints

were not a critical issue. (The large scale of modern factory operations in

India during this period support this contention.)

Nor do the histories of these crafts suggest that there was a problem that a

broad program of education would address. Roy makes the important point that

the artisans were quick to adopt modern methods. Examples include the move to

use sheet metal in constructing brassware, mineral dyes for carpets, and the

fly-shuttle in handloomed silks. Through simplification, entrepreneurs

increased productivity. His examples successfully dispel any notion that the

Indians were technologically stagnant, at least in these areas. But this makes

it difficult to believe that these crafts, at least, would have seen greater

productivity increase with a more educated workforce.

What the histories do suggest is the importance of caste and regional ties in

the transmission of knowledge and access to credit. Roy’s attention to these

details in his histories is one of the chief reasons for the book’s

usefulness. It appears that knowledge and credit were accessible in India, but

not to everyone. Leather, the longest chapter, provides perhaps the most

interesting discussion. Leather manufacture has until very recently been the

preserve of the lowest rungs of Indian society as it involves handling dead

animals, a very polluting activity among Hindus. (Anything involving death is

polluting (dead cows even more so), and anything which is polluting is avoided

by higher caste Hindus.) Originally leather tanning was done in the village.

Members of certain castes would have the right to the carcass of animals that

died by natural causes in return for removing and disposing of the carcass.

These animals provided more than sufficient leather for the shoes, water bags

and straps needed by villagers. But the development in the late nineteenth

century of large-scale chrome tanning in the US and mineral leather dyes in

Germany created an upsurge in international demand for hides. Suddenly the

carcasses of animals had a significant value. There was a fairly rapid switch

from a small rural craft to large urban slaughterhouses and tanning factories.

Interestingly, these factories remained chiefly staffed and quite often owned

by the same castes that had performed these functions in the villages.

However, although there had been a quick response to the change in export

demand, and yet another rapid switch in product mix when export demand died

down in the interwar period, the further step of developing chrome tanning in

India was pursued only on a very limited basis. Roy attributes this to the

restricted access to capital of the lower caste Hindus who had skills in

leather working. Capital was available in India, but not to them.

Another illustrative story is the non-adoption of the fly shuttle in much of

the trade for coarse cotton cloth. But the reason is not that the workers did

not know better. There had been adoption of better techniques and large-scale

manufacture in handloomed silks. The cotton weavers were unwilling to make

even this relatively small capital investment in what was essentially a use

for otherwise unemployable household labor – women in agricultural off

seasons. The question of why the opportunity cost of women remained virtually

zero is not directly addressed.

These two examples provide a different justification for government

involvement in education and capital markets than what is typically given in

development texts. Roy writes that “the conversion of craft skills into

industrial and innovative capacity required an induced social

revolution in India, the conditions for which were not created,” (emphasis

mine, see p. 59). His book does not directly prove that this was the case. But

it does provide hints to this effect. A discussion that addresses this point

directly instead of obliquely might yield very interesting results.

Susan Wolcott is currently working on an article entitled “The Role of Caste

Relations in the Slow Industrialization of Colonial India: Evidence from

Textile Strikes, 1921-38.”

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII