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Britain Squeezed US$45 Trillion Out Of Colonial India

12/17/2018 4:50:15 PM
written By : Team India Se Print

It will take Britain 15 years to return all the money it took out of India even if its entire annual gross domestic product went towards repaying its former colony. Britain siphoned off nearly US$45 trillion from India over nearly two centuries of colonial rule, according to the renowned economist Utsa Patnaik. To put that figure in perspective, Britain’s 2018 GDP estimate – the total value of goods and services produced within its borders – is nearly US$3 trillion – only one-fifteenth the amount it took out of India.

Patnaik, Professor Emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, arrived at that figure drawing on nearly two centuries of detailed data on tax and trade. Her findings appear in a collection of essays published recently by Columbia University Press.

“Between 1765 and 1938, the drain amounted to £9.2 trillion (equal to $45 trillion), taking India’s export surplus earnings as the measure, and compounding it at a 5% rate of interest,” she said in an interview with Livemint. (The exchange rate was US$4.80 per pound sterling during much of the colonial period.)

She explained how Britain got rich at India’s expense.

Before India became a British colony, Britain bought goods like textiles and rice from Indian producers and paid for them mostly with silver, as they did with any other country. But after 1765, when the British East India Company began collecting taxes in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa following the Treaty of Allahabad with the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, the company established a monopoly over Indian trade. The company used about a third of those revenues to buy Indian goods for British use. In other words, instead of paying for Indian goods out of their own pocket, British traders acquired them for free, "buying" from peasants and weavers using money that had just been taken from them.

The exploitation continued when Company rule ended and India came directly under British rule, when Queen Victoria became the empress of India.

The East India Company's trade monopoly ended and Indian producers were allowed to export their goods directly to other countries. But Britain ensured that the payments for those goods still ended up in London. For anyone who wanted to buy goods from India had to use special Council Bills - a unique paper currency issued only by the British Crown. And the only way to get those bills was to buy them from London with gold or silver. So traders paid London in gold to get the bills, and then use the bills to pay Indian producers. When Indians cashed the bills, they were "paid" in rupees out of tax revenues - money that had just been collected from them.

“Indians were never credited with their own gold and forex earnings,’’ said Patnaik. “Instead, the local producers here were ‘paid’ the rupee equivalent out of the budget—something you’d never find in any independent country. The ‘drain’ varied between 26-36% of the central government budget.”

“It would obviously have made an enormous difference if India’s huge international earnings had been retained within the country. India would have been far more developed, with much better health and social welfare indicators,” said Patnaik.

“Not only Britain, but the whole of today’s advanced capitalist world flourished on the drain from India and other colonies. Britain was too small to absorb the entire drain from colonial India. So it became the world’s largest capital exporter, which aided the industrial development of Continental Europe, the US, and even Russia.


“The advanced capitalist world should set aside a portion of its GDP for unqualified annual transfers to developing countries, especially to the poorest amongst them,” said Patnaik. “Britain, in particular, morally owes reparations for the three million civilians who died in the Bengal famine because it was an engineered famine.”

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