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Book Review by Sugata Bose on "The Industrial Development of Bengal, 1900-1939 by A. Z. M. Iftikhar-ul-Awwal"
(This book review was published in The Journal of Asian Studies / Volume 45 / Issue 05 / November 1986, pp 1098-1099)
Despite the burgeoning literature on the agrarian history of Bengal and on problems of Indian industrialization in general, the history of industry in early twentieth century Bengal has not received the definitive treatment it deserves. The purpose of Iftikhar-ul-Awwal's monograph is to fill this important lacuna. It attempts to do so through a largely quantitative study of the major manufacturing industries with particular attention to government policies and to the supply of labor, capital as well as industrial entrepreneurship. Two chapters are devoted to case studies of the jute manufacturing industry and the handloom cotton-weaving industry. The author concludes that although statistics on the shifting distribution of labor, consumption of power, and trends in aggregate paid-up capital indicate "some progress," "industrial development could hardly be said to be adequate." Although there were various reasons for "this slow and unsteady growth of industries in Bengal," "the most important factor was the lack of state patronage in this direction" (pp. 234-35).
Until the end of World War I the colonial state did nothing to aid Indian industrial development and did much to obstruct it. The setting up of a Department of Industries by the Government of Bengal in 1920 in accordance with the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms coincided with the Meston Award that enabled the central government to tighten its financial reins on the local governments. Under its terms most of the revenues raised in the province were siphoned away by the center. The Mestonwhip hurt Bengal most: the export duty on jute was earmarked for the center (a share was given to Bengal in the 1930s) whereas the proceeds from wheat, cotton, and sugar went to the producing provinces. Bengal's land revenue was, of course, permanently settled, and the province was not permitted to tax industry. Given such severe financial constraints, it was not surprising that the Industries Department "became a lame duck" (p. 60), having to confine itself to tinkering with small and cottage industries. Even within this limited field the provincial government did not have the resources to tackle the problems of marketing and finance faced by rural artisans. The expansion of demand spurred by the nationalist movement explains the partial recovery of these industries.
The imperatives of the colonial state and the financial disabilities of the provincial government remain only as shadowy backdrops in the more technical and narrowly conceived chapters on the supply of labor, capital, and entrepreneurship. The supply of labor is seen to be determined primarily by wage differentials and the supply of capital, especially to new industries, limited by the imperfect nature of financial institutions. The discussion of labor ignores much of the recent work on the social history of the working class and is probably the least satisfying aspect of the book. Indian entrepreneurs are found to be lacking not in the spirit of enterprise, but in technical and commercial education.
Despite a tendency in the substantive chapters to lose sight of the colonial context and a somewhat blinkered perspective on labor, this book is welcome as a carefully researched, informative addition to the literature. It is particularly illuminating on the problems faced by a provincial government starved of financial resources in promoting industrial development, a topic not without contemporary relevance.
The Industrial Policy of the Government of Bengal
Supply of Labour to Bengal Industries
Problems of Profitability and Capital Supply
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