There were extensive power cuts across India in late July and early August. This created the opportunity for celebrity historian and recent Reith lecturer Professor Niall Ferguson to go on the attack. Ferguson opens his article in Newsweek with a reminder of how India used to be:
The British—slightly less than a thousand of them—used to govern India. Without air-conditioning….There was a reason the British moved their capital to the cool Himalayan hill station of Simla every summer. Maybe today’s Indian government should consider following their example.
He quotes Kipling approvingly, before going on to argue that it’s all socialism’s fault anyway:
India’s electricity grid has missed every capacity addition target since 1951. The system is so dilapidated that 27 percent of the power it carries is lost as a result of leakage and theft. Even today, 300 million people—a quarter of the population—don’t have access to the grid. That’s one reason the blackout didn’t spark more public ire.
The root of the problem is one of many leftovers of India’s post-independence experiment with socialism. Half of India’s power stations are coal-fired. Indian coal is produced by a state monopoly (Coal India). The price is controlled by the state, as is the price of electricity itself. The private firms running power stations are trapped between a lump of coal and a hard place. They cannot even trust the regional distributors to order the right amount of power.
Ah yes, if only Britain were still in charge, everyone in India would have aircon and iced tea on tap….
Oddly for a historian, though, Ferguson doesn’t appear to have taken much notice of history. Britain governed India for 50 years beyond the first electricity supplies in the 1890s. In that 50 years to independence in 1947, a total of 1,500 of India’s 640,000 villages were connected to the grid. During that time, pretty well all of Britain was electrified, along with the rest of Europe and America. After independence, this is what happened:
In other words, under the seven five year plans from 1947 to 1991, the Indian government brought electricity to roughly 320 times as many villages as British colonialism managed in a similar time span.
This is not to say that India does not face major challenges in ensuring secure power supplies in face of its burgeoning demand from its cities, and the ongoing need of the rural areas not yet reached. But for Ferguson to insinuate that Indians are in some way less capable than their colonial masters betrays a startling ignorance of what colonialism did to India in the first place.
Put simply, the British colonial powers had no interest in the Indian people. India was what Acemoglu and Robinson refer to in Why Nations Fail as an “extractive colony”. As a result, the formation of the Indian state and its institutions was so severly stunted that, even today, India can no longer be seen as anything like a ‘complete state’ of the type that developed organically, over several centuries, in Europe and then America (see here for a fuller analysis of the case of India, based on Charles Tilly’s groundbreaking work).
For Ferguson simply to set the long term consequences of colonialism to one side, in favour of a simplistic view of why India is where it is now – a paradox not of its own making – confirms his fall from decent historian to celebrity charlatan, interested more in soundbite opportunity than in real economics and history.