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

Historical Roots of Mass Poverty in South Asia

A Hypothesis

Tapan Raychaudhuri (1926-2014) was a historian who specialised in Indian economic history and the history of Bengal. 

EPW brings you this essay from the archives where historian Tapan Raychaudhuri traces the roots of mass poverty in India, as we know it today, to the new institutional framework of agriculture introduced after 1813 which deprived small holders of nearly all their surplus. 

Abstract of the article: The contemporary phenomenon of underdevelopment is not a continuation of the traditional economic order of pre-modern times. The patterns of economic organisation and levels of economic performance in the traditional societies of Asia, before they were enmeshed into the international economy created by first the merchant and later the industrial capitalism of western Europe, were significantly different from their contemporary counterparts.

In the case of India, the pre-colonial economy in its normal functioning did not generate large groups of half starving people. The author traces the roots of mass poverty in India, as we know it today, to the new institutional framework of agriculture introduced after 1813 which deprived small holders, both tenants and proprietors, of nearly all their surplus, if it did not actually reduce them to landlessness.
 
Not only the new institutional arrangements, but even the positive developments in agriculture augmented the tradi-tional disparities of India's agrarian society. Thus development of a market for cash crops implied a change in the ratio of non-food crops to food crops until, with increases in population, the output of foodgrains per head of population declined quite sharply. And where irrigation provided the means of increasing productivity, those in control of large holdings tried and increased their holdings, often at the cost of the poorer agriculturists.
 
The all-too-familiar phenomenon of today's mass poverty was thus already an established fact of life by the time population began to increase at a steady pace. Thereafter, given the pyramidal structure of rural societyt there was a concentration of the increasing numbers in the lower rungs, until the very poor accounted for a hall or more of the rural population.
 
 

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top