This is an updated copy of the version on BadHistory. I plan to update it in accordance with the feedback I got. I'd like to thank two people who will remain anonymous for helping me greatly with this post (you know who you are)
Three years ago a festschrift
for Binay Bhushan Chaudhuri was published by Shubhra Chakrabarti, a history teacher at the University of Delhi and Utsa Patnaik, a Marxist economist who taught at JNU until 2010.
One of the essays in the festschirt by Utsa Patnaik was an attempt to quantify the "drain" undergone by India during British Rule. Her conclusion? Britain robbed India of $45 trillion (or £9.2 trillion) during their 200 or so years of rule. This figure was immensely popular, and got republished in several major news outlets (here
(they get the number wrong) and more recently here
), got a mention from the Minister of External Affairs
& returns 29,100 results on Google
. There's also plenty of references
to it here on Reddit.
Patnaik is not the first to calculate such a figure. Angus Maddison thought it was £100 million, Simon Digby said £1 billion, Javier Estaban said £40 million see Roy (2019)
. The huge range of figures should set off some alarm bells.
So how did Patnaik calculate this (shockingly large) figure? Well, even though I don't have access to the festschrift, she conveniently has written an article detailing her methodology here
. Let's have a look.
How exactly did the British manage to diddle us and drain our wealth’ ? was the question that Basudev Chatterjee (later editor of a volume in the Towards Freedom project) had posed to me 50 years ago when we were fellow-students abroad.
This is begging the question.
After decades of research I find that using India’s commodity export surplus as the measure and applying an interest rate of 5%, the total drain from 1765 to 1938, compounded up to 2016, comes to £9.2 trillion; since $4.86 exchanged for £1 those days, this sum equals about $45 trillion.
This is completely meaningless. To understand why it's meaningless consider India's annual coconut exports. These are almost certainly a surplus but the surplus in trade is countered by the other country buying the product
(indeed, by definition
, trade surpluses contribute to the GDP of a nation which hardly plays into intuitive conceptualisations of drain).
Furthermore, Dewey (2019)
critiques the 5% interest rate.
She [Patnaik] consistently adopts statistical assumptions (such as compound interest at a rate of 5% per annum over centuries) that exaggerate the magnitude of the drain
The exact mechanism of drain, or transfers from India to Britain was quite simple.
Drain theory possessed the political merit of being easily grasped by a nation of peasants. [...] No other idea could arouse people than the thought that they were being taxed so that others in far off lands might live in comfort. [...] It was, therefore, inevitable that the drain theory became the main staple of nationalist political agitation during the Gandhian era.
- Chandra et al. (1989)
The key factor was Britain’s control over our taxation revenues combined with control over India’s financial gold and forex earnings from its booming commodity export surplus with the world. Simply pu