Modern Asian Studies


The Commercialization of Agriculture in Colonial India: Production, Subsistence and Reproduction in the ‘Dry South’, c. 1870–1930

David Washbrooka1

a1 University of Oxford

Although it would now seem established beyond question that agriculture in most parts of India had been exposed to commercial influences from medieval times, there can be little doubt that a variety of developments from the second half of the nineteenth century greatly strengthened those influences. Railways and road transport made possible a huge expansion in cash cropping, for national and international markets, and production regimes across the subcontinent were placed in a new context of opportunity—and of pressure. While so much would scarcely be disputed among historians, what has become—and remained—more controversial, however, is an understanding of the implications of this extended commercial logic for agrarian economy and society. Since colonial times, opinions would seem to have been divided between ‘optimists’, for whom commercialization marked progress and a growing prosperity for all; ‘pessimists’, for whom it marked regress into deepening class stratification and mass pauperization; and ‘sceptics’ who held that it made very little difference and that its impact was largely absorbed by preexisting structures of wealth accumulation and power on the land.