How did India become an economic powerhouse for over two millennia, before it hit the current blip of an economic under-performer in the last 200 years? There is enough evidence to show that India had one of the largest economies for over two millennia, if not longer. Was India the world’s biggest economy? Did India control 24% of global trade? Since global data-keeping is a recent development, it would be hard to state the exact size of the Indian economy. Although there are books and research papers that attempt to put an estimate of the Indian economy through the ages, the records are really patchy. However, the point is not the exact size of the Indian economy, but the fact that India was a very large and powerful economy.
And as with any large economy, it had its fair share of looters and profiteers streaming in, from the Arabs to the Central Asians to a series of mercantile setups whose only role was to do “trade” with India, including the Dutch East India Company, followed by its more infamous replica, the British East India Company. The quest for India even led to the Americas being discovered. Clearly, India was a magnet for the world, and people were not coming to India for its spiritualism. They were coming for the wealth that India was generating.
So, in what form was this wealth being generated? Was this in the form of agricultural produce? Was it vegetables that were being purchased and taken back to Europe and China and other lands? Was it fruits that were being bought from India? A quick look at the composition of exports show that bulk of exports from India was actually based on technology.
When the Dutch government commanded an amalgamation of several rival Dutch trading corporations to form the United East India Company in 1602, the purpose was to trade with India, with a special focus on trade with Bengal, from where it was importing 50% of its textiles and 80% of silk. Textile and silk are not direct agricultural produces. They are the output of technology. The Dutch could not manufacture the same textiles or the same silk as they lacked the technology. In fact, even the double roller ginning machine for cotton, that became the defacto machine to be used for ginning that was required for producing fine cotton textiles, was an apparatus invented in India.
We are more familiar with how the British government destroyed the Indian textile industry by imposing severe taxes on export of textiles from India, leading to millions of weavers across Bengal, starving to death. Of course, the British also forced English poor-quality textiles into the Indian market, at zero duty. But what is not well known is that the British also imposed an additional tax on all imports coming into England on India-built ships, under the Registry Act of 1815, as the British shipwrights just could not compete with the superior ships built by the Indian shipwrights. As the argument was put in at the English parliament, “the families of all the shipwrights in England are certain to be reduced to starvation” as long as Indian shipyards are allowed to compete with those of Britain. The British traders were also buying Indian ships for their shipping requirements. The British protectionist laws gave a breather to British shipwrights, and as the British took political control over India, they ensured the destruction of the technologically superior Indian ship-building industry.
British protectionism from Indian exports came up repeatedly in the 17th and 18th century, that included fans, furniture etc, each being virtually banned through laws that were passed in the British parliament. The ships, the furniture, the fans, the textiles etc were all manufactured goods that required technology, and India possessed superior technology.
India’s defence industry and technology were also significantly superior, throughout the ages. The famous Damascus steel was actually based on Wootz steel, that was a high carbon steel alloy, being exported from south India and Sri Lanka for over a millennia. Any high quality defence armament of the middle ages required the technological miracle of Wootz steel. It is almost like the current situation of any laptop that you buy, the processor would largely be an Intel processor. Similarly, any high-quality blade that you bought in the medieval period, would had to have the Indian Wootz steel.
And the technological prowess was not restricted to just steel as an input. In the 17th century, European travelers reported that the barrels of muskets manufactured at Golconda were of higher quality iron than the European ones, thus making them more resilient to bursting. The military historian H. A. Young has written that the British military men in India historically had a healthy respect for Indian matchlocks, which were often judged to have superior range and velocity over European muskets. The Marathas came up with dual-metal cannons that reduced the weight of the cannons and increased their maneuverability, while making the barrel more resilient to bursting.
Even agricultural products that were exported from India, were exported after significant value-add. Crystalline sugar is an excellent example of value-added agricultural produce invented in India by the 4th century AD, and the Tang Dynasty of China-made several attempts to “procure” the technology in the 7th century, finally being able to do so by the middle of the 7th century.
Sugar was not the only thing that the Chinese got from India. India had created the technology for the extraction of zinc, which was a critical component for high-quality brass and for iron alloys with special properties. In fact, the second metal used in the Maratha cannons was brass, which allowed the barrels to “breathe” when a cannon ball was fired, increasing the life of the cannons and reducing their weight. This reduced the number of draught animals needed and the associated food and logistics needed during warfare, thereby providing a tactical advantage to the Maratha military. India guarded the zinc extraction technology zealously for centuries, with the Rajputs in Zawar being one of the last custodians of the technology. By the 17th century, the Chinese had got hold of the technology, in perhaps the first documented case of industrial espionage. Soon after, the British also laid their hands on the technology, and William Champion promptly patented the technology in England in the nineteenth century. In a twisted irony of fate, the British provided the technology back to Hindustan Zinc Ltd., a public sector company that was formed by the Government of India to produce zinc, in exactly the same place from where the British stole the technology, Zawar. Thus, Zawar in Rajasthan is the oldest zinc producing place in the world.
The list of technologies from India that helped it become an economic powerhouse is endless. It was not agriculture that made India an economic powerhouse, a global power. It was technology. Even the spices exported was part of the technology for food preservation as spices was used as a preservative and not as a condiment by the Europeans. And thus, it is the relentless pursuit of technology that can make the Indian economy regain its due place in the world economy and make its people prosperous again.
(The author is President of Centre for Digital Economy Policy Research. Views are personal)