Revelation?? Shashi Tharoor’s “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India”

Shashi Tharoor strikes back at the British Raj’ claims one news journal while another quotes the author  ‘British reduced India to one of the poorest countries’.

The above headlines are in reference to Shashi Tharoor’s latest work of non-fiction ‘An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India’

There has been quite a media reaction on this book, lots of ‘rah rah’, ‘oohs and aahs’ and of course the ‘… I knew it, we knew it’ both from the knowledgeable media and the average reader. Everyone seems to agree that the book explains and then goes on to elucidate the pain the British raj and its aftereffects had on the Indian subcontinent, with emphasis on the Republic of India.

I am not particularly interested in why this book has hit a nerve with its Indian readers, I am more interested in the premise of this book, what has Mr. Tharoor proposed in this book that has resulted in this revelation among the Indian readers?

To start off, let me introduce Mr. Shashi Tharoor to the readers, if you know him well enough, you can skip this paragraph, else please read on. Shashi Tharoor is a former UN diplomat, current Indian politician and an acclaimed novelist. But does that give him enough authority to write a book on a complicated topic such as the one we have in question? The answer to that is a resounding YES, he is a student of history and a prodigy of sorts, he earned his PhD at the age of 22 and has had a successful international diplomatic career. So I guess that gives his enough authority to not only air his views about the subject but also to lend his own analysis of affairs past.

I want to broach the subject of the drivers of economic well-being of nations based on their journey through history. The broad theory is based on the research work that has empirically concluded that the current economic state of a country is a direct result of institutional setup. In the case of former colonies such as India, the current economic state or rather the journey to the current state does have its underpinnings in the institutional setup by the colonists, in India’s case, the English.

What then are institutions? According to scholar Douglass Cecil North “Institutions are the rules of the game in a society or, more formally, are the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction”.  Institutions determine how the actors in a society interact with one another in carrying out their economic and social activity. With good institutions, actors can interact with greater degree of confidence knowing that the institutional framework under which they operate will protect their rights whatever that might be. Conversely with bad institutions, actors will be wary of their interaction and will take measures to protect themselves as they know they cannot count on the bad institutions to uphold their rights.

To explain the premise and for the sake of simplicity, we can break up the colony setup into two distinct sets, the first set, the colonisers who in most part were the Europeans and the second set, the colonies i.e. non-European countries in most cases. Among the colonies we can further cleave them into colonies that the colonisers continued to inhabit like Australia, the United states, South Africa etc. and colonies that were meant for trade and exploitation like most of Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia etc.

Why is this important? Well we need to understand the motivation of the colonisers and the subsequent actions taken in the years to pass which will explain the current state of the former colonies. Acemoglu, Johnson, Robinson in their 2001 paper Colonial Origins postulate that the Europeans decided to stay on in some places and they choose not to stay on in some other places.  This they say in-turn had an effect on the kinds of institutions they developed in the colonies whose effects persists to the present. In their paper they observe that the mortality rate of the early Europeans in the colonies had a direct impact on whether the Europeans decided to stay or not.

Overall, where the Europeans decided to stay, they setup inclusive institutions with good law and order, property rights, fair markets etc. where they decided not to stay they setup extractive institutions whose sole purpose was to enrich the colonisers’ coffers by extracting as much as they could from the land.

We know for a fact that the English chose not stay on in India, perhaps the fact that there was a large indigenous population that could not be displaced that easily led them to think differently. However, knowing that they chose not to stay on, we can safely conclude that the institutions that they developed in India were extractive in nature. So from a social anthropological view, it is not surprising to reach a conclusion that the British left the country poorer than they found it. But to those who are not familiar with the mechanisms of institutions and their after effects it might appear to be a revelation and hence the headlines and the justified accompanying sentiments.

Now having said my bit about the subject, I have to go out and buy/borrow a copy of the book and find out for myself if there is indeed a discovery to be made.


On Global warming – Kiribati

2015 was shown to be the hottest year on record and there seems no sign of these record breaking natural events abating.

Case in point Kiribati, no other group of people will validate this truth that the residents of Kiribati, a country in the pacific which straddles both sides of the international date line, an atoll which at its highest point is 88m, but most of its 811 km2 at sea level, the entire landmass is 2 meters above sea level the consequences of the change are dire to say the least. The president of Kiribati Anote Tong in a recent address at a TED conference expressed concern over the impact of climate change to his country.  In the worst case scenario 100% of the country will be underwater and all of its population. To compound the situation, it is also one of the poorest countries in the world. Its major source of income is fisheries and agriculture, by the year 2100, most of the limited arable land will be underwater and will result in jeopardizing the survival of the 100,000 or so inhabitants.

Kiribati is an unfortunate case of a country that has suffered at the cost of development of others. The fallout of this situation ultimately has to be borne by neighboring countries and partners, the impact of 100,000 people displaced into their countries will have a significant social, economic and political impact.

Its pacific neighbors and trade partners will be the first ones to feel its impact. The bigger economies of Australia and New Zealand might be able to absorb a large portion of the climate refugees but what about the I-Kiribati themselves? What is become of their identities, will they integrate into their adopted countries and carve out a little piece of their identity or will they become marginalized, reduced a mere statistic.



On becoming Vegetarian

The only reason i stopped eating animals? simple really, i didn’t want to cause pain.

‘What?’ you may ask

To which my response is an easy test you can do on yourself.

step 1 : Make a small gap between your index finger and thumb of your right hand

step 2: Place this gap above your left bicep

step 3: close this gap while gripping the skin over your left bicep slowly and continue to apply pressure with all your strength

step 4: Ouch!

so you pinched your arm, painful eh?

Would garroting a neck, sledgehammering a skull, application of a few thousand volts of electricity to the body  or asphyxiation be less painful? if anything the momentary feeling might be far more painful and the dread of recognition of the pain would be tortuous!

So, in summary, pain, my reason for turning vegetarian.

Or i could go into a very detailed rant about industrial farming, all that will do is drive my conclusion away from its simple certainty.