Infrastructure and railroads

Railroads were introduced to India for quicker and more efficient access to trade. Unfortunately, they had the unintended consequence of exacerbating both environmental and economic conditions that proved damaging in times of famine.

Map of India Railways, 1909

Prior to the advent of railways, Indian transportation was conducted by two systems: road and water. Constructed roads were few and poorly maintained, with many being inaccessible during monsoon season. On roads, goods were carried in bullock carts or carried manually on the heads of porters. Water transportation was limited to the coast and the Indus and Ganga river basins. These important commercial arteries connected the north to the western and eastern coasts respectively. In comparison to the north, river transportation in the south was less reliable because the rivers relied heavily on rainfall. Thus, for British trading ambitions, transport costs were high outside of the great river routes. Also, the Grand Trunk Road, which had been constructed by Shershah Suri, only connected Calcutta to Peshawar. In this situation, the initial advocates for developing railways were mercantile firms in London and Manchester with trading ambitions in India.20

The goals of the plan to introduce railways were to lower transport costs and to give English merchants easier access to raw cotton from India. Also, the railway would simultaneously open the Indian market to British manufactured products such as cotton textiles. Initially, neither the railways promoter nor the East India Company envisioned much of a demand for passenger traffic. Railway construction started in 1853, with two “experimental” lines beginning in Bombay and Calcutta, and accelerated quickly following the Indian Mutiny, the first Indian war of independence, and the transfer of the government of India from the East India Company to direct rule by the British Crown.

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A British plan for railway development in India was first initiated in 1832, but the core of the pressure for building railways came from London in the 1840s. In the year 1844, private entrepreneurs were permitted to launch a railway system by Lord Hardinge, who was the Governor-General of India. The railway age dawned in India on 16 April 1853, when the first train ran from Bombay’s Bori Bunder to Thane, a distance of 21 miles, marked by a 21-gun salute. The mileage of India’s rail network grew from 838 miles in 1880 to 15,842 miles in 1880, mostly radiating inland from the three major port cities of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta.21 Most of the rail construction was made by Indian companies under the supervision of British engineers. They built a railway system of strong bridges and a mixture of broad-meter and narrow-gauge tracks. By 1901 India had a rail network covering 25,373 miles.22

The common people of India did not see the railroad as a wonderful invention or great convenience; they even referred to it as the Great Rakasha or Rakas (ghost). While the railway conveyed the huge might and power of the British and boosted India’s efforts at commercial modernization, it did little to help local people in times of famine.

Indeed, scholars point out that the railroads were designed to serve altogether different goals than the needs of the local population, and as an unintended side effect, they created a trade system that boosted grain prices beyond what poor workers could afford. Instead of feeding the population of inland provinces, the railroads served to carry grain away from the regions where it was needed most, so that it could be stored near port cities for export. Beyond all of this, railways were noted as the carriers of epidemic diseases such as cholera and influenza.23

Madras beach during the famine 1876-1878, Tamil Nadu, South India

Heaps of sacks between the railway and the Madras Beach during the famine 1876-1878, Tamil Nadu, South India

Their greatest impact of railroads on the famines, therefore, may have been neither the ability to transport commodities over long distances nor their impact on the Indian economy, but rather the way they catalyzed the natural processes of the spread of diseases, a process magnified immensely in the context of famine. Indeed, railroads serve as a telling example of the misalignment between colonial development and the environmental factors of famine. For while railroad development was undertaken with enthusiasm by colonial industrialists, irrigation projects drew comparatively little investment. Until March 1902, large tracts of country were without irrigation facilities. Irrigation was only carried out by means of canals in Bengal, Agra and Oudh, Punjab, Bombay, and Madras provinces, and expenditures on irrigation were much lower than major industrialization projects. While 226 million sterling was spent on railroads in India in 1902, only 24 million sterling was spent on irrigation.24

The famine in Bengal: Indian mode of irrigation

British colonial authorities argued that it was the climate and failure of rains that caused failure of crops and famine. Similarly, some scholars have argued, for example, that the famines were caused by environmental factors such as scarcity of water and poor soil quality, and that this guaranteed that investments in agriculture were excessively risky.25 Seen through the lens of economic goals, this comes as little surprise, just as the enthusiastic development of railroads appears as a logical means for pursuing colonial economic goals. But infrastructure development always involves a process of overlaying human technologies upon natural systems and landscapes. The combination of robust investment in railroads and meager development of irrigation systems, together with natural systems involving repeated droughts and opportunistic disease vectors, contributed to the destruction of India’s nineteenth century famines.

The famine in Bengal: Indian mode of irrigation


20 D. Thorner, “The Pattern of Railway Development in India,” Far Eastern Quarterly, no. 14 (1955): 201–206; J. Hurd, “Railways,” in Cambridge Economic History of India vol. II, ed. D. Kumar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
21 Dutt, The Economic History of India, vol. 2. 399–403; J. Hurd, “Railways.”
22 Dutt, The Economic History of India, vol. 2. 400; D. R. Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850–1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 78–79.
23 Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, 1; J. Dreze, “Famine Prevention in India,” in The Political Economy of Hungry: Famine Prevention, eds. J. Dreze and A. Sen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991); M. B. McApline, “Dearth, Famine, and Risk: The Changing Impacts of Crop Failures in Western India, 1870–1920,” The Journal of Economic History 39 (1979): 150; I. Klein, “When the Rains Failed: Famine, Relief, and Mortality in British India,” The Indian Economic and Social History Review 21, no. 2 (1984): 190–91.
24 Dutt, The Economic History of India, vol. 2, 403–404.
25 T. Roy, “A Delayed Revolution: Environment and Agrarian Change in India,” Oxford Review of Economic Policy 23 no. 2 (2007): 239–50 and 243–4.