9th January – How Britain got ahead of us in economic development?

Context –

In the 18th century, Indian cotton dominated the world. In terms of exchange, Indian craftspersons were paid in such volumes of silver that between 1600 and 1800, India accumulated approximately a fifth of the world’s total silver production. Despite India’s clear dominance over global trade, by the 1850s, Western Europe, seemingly out of nowhere, became the undisputed centre of the global cotton trade and consequently the world economy.

How Europe dominated world trade?

  1. Shift to coal –
  • By the end of the 18th century, Britain was facing a severe shortage of wood because of aggressive deforestation. It was forced to turn to coal for energy, a fuel harder to access than wood but which was far richer in calorific value.
  • The substitution of wood with coal dramatically altered the energy economy of the country, allowing England to achieve a far higher utilisation than was previously possible.
  • India, on the other hand, was blessed with an abundance of forest cover and consequently was under no compulsion to look for alternative sources of energy.
  • The immediate consequence of this was that Britain was able to lower the cost of manufacture of iron and steel, generating large amounts of ferrous products and bringing into the production process a level of industrialisation that India was not even aspiring to achieve.

2. Industrial revolution –

  • The second and probably more significant external force was the tremendous competitive challenge that Indian cottons posed to England.
  • Given its importance as a trade commodity, significant effort was being invested into imitating Indian textiles, resulting in the discovery of new and more efficient means of production that eventually launched the industrial revolution.
  • By coupling innovations in mechanised spinning and weaving with steam power and industrial production, the first great textile factories were born. This resulted in the centre of global manufacturing rapidly shifting from Asia to Europe.
  • As a result, the textile exporting regions of India such as Gujarat, Bengal and South India suffered a tremendous decline in the global demand for their products from which they never recovered.

3. Military expansion –

  • In time, Britain consolidated its advantage by establishing military dominion over the subcontinent through the East India Company. This resulted in a loss of demand for various other goods whose continued development would have increased the pace of technological innovation in India.
  • It translated into the destruction of educational institutions that generated knowledge and reduced the patronage for scientific and technical inquiry. The cumulative effect of these events opened up a huge technological gap between India and the West that hasn’t been completely bridged till this day.
  • The British was able to establish its dominion over the once powerful Indian states, reducing them to colonial outposts of the empire. While India certainly had the ability and the resources to make these technological advances, due to lack of competition, it was not forced to develop its technological capacity to modernise its industrial capacity.

The emerging trends –

Over this past decade, it feels as if the pendulum has begun to swing in the other direction. While Western economies remain dominant, Asia has begun to assume a significance that is hard to overlook. Technology allowed the West to gain ascendance over Asia, and it is technology that Asia is using to re-assert itself.


If India is to have any hope of regaining its former glory, it needs to learn from the history to advance itself technologically. To do that, it will need to implement policies that take advantage of shifting global forces.


QUESTIONHow Britain got ahead of India in industrial development? How modern India can emulate the British success to ensure its former glory?

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