No country under colonial dependence could undertake any industrial transformation, if not all-round development. Up to the First World War, India experienced the classic period of imperialism of free trade and the British Government’s unsympathetic, hostile policy against industry.
In addition, shortage of capital, management experience and technical expertise, as well as the absence of a growing indigenous market, and, above all, general poverty, caused slow expansion of Indian industries. Even then, one can safely conclude that during 1850-1914, the foundations of modern industries were laid in India.
Meanwhile, the outbreak of the First World War exposed the weakness of Britain’s strategic position in the East as India had been deprived to develop the most elementary basis of modern industry. In order to impress upon the Indian people and the (industrial) bourgeoisie, Britain granted some political and economic concessions, particularly future industrialization during the War and immediately after the War.
As the issue of tariff protection crept into the heads of Indians, the British Government appointed the Industrial Commission in 1916 and assured that industrialization efforts would henceforth continue with utmost sincerity. Unfortunately, industrialization scheme as prepared by the Industrial Commission ultimately came to nothing.
However, during the war-period, industries like cotton and jute made much headway. Steel industry also experienced substantial growth. Consumer goods industries like chemicals, cement, fertilizers, mineral acids, etc., for which India depended on foreign countries, also progressed during the War.
However, such prosperity of Indian industries was not a long-lasting one. Above all, promises made by the foreign ruler remained, however, unaddressed—as usual. On the contrary, faced by the intense foreign competition, Indian industries in the mid- 19205 demanded protection in an unwavering manner. To this end, the Fiscal Commission was appointed in 1921 that ushered in a policy of discriminating protection.
This was indeed a belated response to repeated demand made by the Indians from at least since the 1880s. The policy definitely helped some industries to develop. But the end result was rather a haphazard development of certain industries and not general economic development as such. In 1936, ‘The Economist’ observed India’s industrialization effort: “Although India has begun to modernize her industries, it can hardly be said that she is as yet being industrialized”.
On the whole, during the inter-war period, output of cotton piece goods, steel ingots, paper, etc., increased substantially. Many other industries also progressed even in terms of employment and the number of factories. But as far as diversification was concerned, it was indeed slow and the state of transformation of the economy was only ‘marginal’.