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India's Railways: Struggle, Labor, and Injustice



  Jun 25, 2024

The True Cost of India’s Railways: Struggle, Labor, and Injustice



The development of railways in India is often portrayed as a benevolent gift from the British colonial authorities. However, this narrative obscures the true cost borne by the Indian people. The railways were constructed not for the benefit of Indians, but to serve British economic interests, at a great expense to the Indian populace.

The Exploitative Agreements

In 1849, the British colonial Government of India signed a lopsided agreement with two railway companies—the East India Railway (EIR) and the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIP). This agreement was highly favorable to the British companies:

• Land Acquisition: The Government of India had to acquire land at its own cost and hand it over to the railway companies for free.

• Guaranteed Returns: The companies received an assured return of 5% on their capital, regardless of profitability.

• Refund on Termination: If a company decided to terminate its operations, the government had to refund the entire amount spent by the company.

• Purchase Terms: If the government wanted to buy the railway line, it had to pay a price based on the current market value of the company’s shares, which could only happen after 99 years.

The Motivations Behind the Railways

Economic Interests

The primary motivation behind the construction of railways in India was economic. British industries, especially the Lancashire cotton mills, were eager to access the cotton-producing regions of India. Railways provided a means to transport raw cotton efficiently and expand the market for British goods. Additionally, the railways facilitated the movement of troops to protect British interests and suppress rebellions.

Political Influence

The powerful railway lobby in Britain, with significant representation in Parliament, pushed for these exploitative terms. By 1860, there were 186 directors of various railway companies in the British Parliament, ensuring that the government of India could not oppose these terms.

The Realities of Railway Construction

Financial Burden

From 1850 to 1898, India paid £126.6 million in guaranteed interest to the railway companies. Despite this immense financial burden, India was left with a disorganized and exploitative railway system. The lack of a central plan led to the construction of lines on various gauges, catering to the immediate needs of British economic and military interests rather than a cohesive national strategy.

Exploitation and Segregation

The railway system was marked by racial segregation and exploitation:

• Monopolistic Practices: Large territories were assigned to single companies, leading to high freight and passenger rates.

• Racial Segregation: Europeans traveled comfortably in less crowded carriages, while Indians faced overcrowded and wretched conditions.

• Employment Discrimination: The better-paid positions were reserved for Europeans, while Indians faced systemic racial discrimination at every stage of their journey.

Economic Exploitation

The primary purpose of the railways was to create a market for British railway-related manufacturers. Nearly all equipment was imported from Britain, with Indian workshops forbidden from manufacturing railway engines despite their capability. This ensured that the economic benefits of railway construction were reaped by British industries.

The Unintended Benefits

While the spread of the railway network did bring benefits such as improved communication and famine relief, these were unintended outcomes rather than the primary objectives. British investment in the railways was driven by self-interest, as evidenced by the disproportionate investment in railways compared to irrigation, which would have significantly benefited Indian agriculture.

Conclusion

The railways in India were far from a benevolent gift from the British colonial authorities. Every foot of the railway lines was paid for by the ordinary Indian through immense struggle, labor, and untold hardship and injustice. The narrative of the railways as a gift must be re-examined to acknowledge the true cost paid by the Indian people.




SRIRAM’S



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