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Colonial Rule and Infrastructure Growth in India

by Akhilesh K Prasad

The British are often criticised for leaving India in a deplorable state of socio-economic ruin, and not without reason. However, there have been some positive contributions of the Colonial rule in India that cannot be denied. Setting the foundation stone for infrastructure growth in India is one such example. Although they were guided by the motive of ease of governance rather than social welfare, assets created served as public goods.

The categories of infrastructure development undertaken by the Raj are discussed hereinafter:


The British East India Company is credited with the restoration of defunct irrigation systems in the Ganga and Cauvery basin. Irrigated area as a percentage of the cropped area increased from an estimate of 5-6% in the 18th century to 22% in 1938. 60% of the irrigated area was served by government canals. Canals were categorised as ‘protective works’ or ‘productive work.’ While the former was not expected to yield any income like the latter, it saved expense on account of famine.


Until the 19th century, the main mode of long-distance transport was pack animals and small sailing vessels of navigable rivers. It involved a lot of labour and time. Railways proved a worthy alternative. Short-distance transport, however, was not given much attention. Therefore, traditional means remained the norm till well after 1947.

Railways construction began on a large scale in the 1850s and continued under the private sector until 1890s. Thereafter, due to prevailing economic conditions, the participation of the government started increasing. By 1920s, all railways in India came under government management.

By then, the Indian rail network was one of the largest in the world. Between 1860 and 1940, total route miles increased from 838 to 41,852. Route miles per 1,000 square miles increased from 0.5 to 26, and route miles per million persons increased from 3 to 107. Passengers carried by the railways increased from 48 million in 1880 to 604 million in 1940. Railways have proved a milestone in the growth of transportation infrastructure during colonial rule.


The East India Company restored and constructed some major roads for military purposes, but the regular allocation of funds for roads did not begin until the 1830s. Roads were not a priority of the government can be gauged from the fact that road length grew at a much slower pace than railways. In 1931, the length of metalled roads was 0.4 per 1000 persons. Road construction was costly, given the Indian terrain. It involved repairs after each monsoon and it brought the government no monetary return like the railways.


The British developed ports such that they converged with railways and became centres of industrial activity. Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Karachi and Rangoon are prime examples. The two western Indian ports enhanced trade manifold with the US post the Civil War and after the opening of the Suez Canal. After World War I, while upsetting business, the military emphasis was laid on some of these ports.


Electricity was first introduced in 1897 by a small firm in the Darjeeling Municipality utilizing a mountain stream. Two years later, the Calcutta Electricity Supply Undertaking started producing electricity with steam power. In the interwar period, a large number of hydroelectric and thermal power units were started, many of these in the territories of the princely states. At 1947 the installed capacity stood at 1.7 million kilowatts.

The aforesaid were the stepping stones upon which the history of infrastructure growth in India was built.

An MBA by qualification, Akhilesh has dabbled into various businesses. He is a keen    debater, data miner and analytically inclined. His blogs tend to present a fresh perspective on any given matter

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