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December 17, 2018

Britain’s theft

Opinion

December 17, 2018

After the British Raj took over in 1847, colonisers added a special new twist to the tax-and-buy system. As the East India Company’s monopoly broke down, Indian producers were allowed to export their goods directly to other countries. But Britain made sure that the payments for those goods nonetheless ended up in London.

How did this work? Basically, anyone who wanted to buy goods from India would do so using 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 would pay London in gold to get the bills, and then use the bills to pay Indian producers. When Indians cashed the bills in at the local colonial office, they were ‘paid’ in rupees out of tax revenues – money that had just been collected from them. So, once again, they were not in fact paid at all; they were defrauded.

Meanwhile, London ended up with all of the gold and silver that should have gone directly to the Indians in exchange for their exports.

This corrupt system meant that even while India was running an impressive trade surplus with the rest of the world – a surplus that lasted for three decades in the early 20th century – it showed up as a deficit in the national accounts because the real income from India’s exports was appropriated in its entirety by Britain.

Some point to this fictional ‘deficit’ as evidence that India was a liability to Britain. But exactly the opposite is true. Britain intercepted enormous quantities of income that rightly belonged to Indian producers. India was the goose that laid the golden egg. Meanwhile, the ‘deficit’ meant that India had no option but to borrow from Britain to finance its imports. So the entire Indian population was forced into completely unnecessary debt to their colonial overlords, further cementing British control.

Britain used the windfall from this fraudulent system to fuel the engines of imperial violence – funding the invasion of China in the 1840s and the suppression of the Indian Rebellion in 1857. And this was on top of what the Crown took directly from Indian taxpayers to pay for its wars. As Patnaik points out, “the cost of all Britain’s wars of conquest outside Indian borders were charged always wholly or mainly to Indian revenues”.

And that’s not all. Britain used this flow of tribute from India to finance the expansion of capitalism in Europe and regions of European settlement, like Canada and Australia. So not only the industrialisation of Britain but also the industrialisation of much of the Western world was facilitated by extraction from the colonies.

Patnaik identifies four distinct economic periods in colonial India from 1765 to 1938, calculates the extraction for each, and then compounds at a modest rate of interest (about 5 percent, which is lower than the market rate) from the middle of each period to the present. Adding it all up, she finds that the total drain amounts to $44.6 trillion. This figure is conservative, she says, and does not include the debts that Britain imposed on India during the Raj.

These are eye-watering sums. But the true costs of this drain cannot be calculated. If India had been able to invest its own tax revenues and foreign exchange earnings in development – as Japan did – there’s no telling how history might have turned out differently. India could very well have become an economic powerhouse. Centuries of poverty and suffering could have been prevented.

This article has been excerpted from: ‘How Britain stole $45 trillion from India’.

Courtesy: Aljazeera.com

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