Historical and Archaeological Findings in News

India’s experience under colonial rule: A study by Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Census in colonial rule

Mains level: Impact of colonial rule



  • A recent study of India’s experience under colonial rule by Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel concludes that data from the Census of India reveal that between 1880 and 1920 approximately 100 million Indians died due to British policy in India. Their method is to calculate the excess mortality, being the difference between the actual deaths and the deaths that may be expected.

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What are assumptions made by their study?

  • Mortality rate before colonial rule: Before colonial rule, the mortality rate of India is unlikely to have been very different from that of contemporary England.
  • Deaths due to colonial policies during the period of 1880-1920: The resulting estimates for excess deaths during 1880-1920 are 50 million in the first case and 160 million in the second one, respectively. The authors settle for the midway figure of approximately 100 million for the deaths caused in India due to colonial policy.
  • Figure is greater than deaths from famine in other countries: For perspective, they point out that this figure is greater than the death from famine in “the Soviet Union, Maoist China, North Korea, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Mengistu’s Ethiopia”. In their view, this provides a direct assessment of the consequences of the Raj for India.

Study quantifying the impact of colonial rule in India

  • Change in national income as a basis to quantify impact of colonial rule is non-existent: Attempts to quantify the impact of colonial rule in India have mostly relied on the change in national income. But reliable income data for the nineteenth century are almost non-existent. Population figures, though, are available from the time of the first Census of India in 1871.
  • Steady rise in mortality rate: The mortality rate in British India is seen to rise steadily after 1881, recording an increase of close to 20% by 1921. As it is unusual for the mortality rate of a country to rise continuously due to natural causes, this suggests that the living conditions worsened during this period.
  • Mortality rate dipped in last census in British India but famine is not recorded: The mortality rate dipped in 1931, which was the last census conducted in British India, but the last famine recorded in the country was yet to come. It took place in Bengal in 1943, in the last five years of the close to two centuries of British colonial rule.


How recurring famines are recorded?

  • British arguments for the empire: Arguments include “English forms of land tenure, the English language, banking, the common law, Protestantism, team sports, the limited state, representative assemblies, and the idea of liberty”, have been advanced by the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson.
  • No mention of the famines: There is no mention of the famines which started almost at the onset of rule by the East India Company in Bengal, the de-industrialisation of India in the nineteenth century, the drain of wealth, or the worsening food security as India’s peasants were forced to grow commercial crops for export so that Britain could balance its trade.
  • Population explosion but the life expectancy increased: The belief that British policy in India caused repeated famines is bolstered by the fact that there has not been a single famine since 1947. This is despite a population explosion following a sharp fall in death rates. The decline in the mortality rate surely signals improved living conditions. The Census shows that in the 1950s, life expectancy at birth of Indians increased by more than it did in the previous seventy years.

Census as a double-edged sword

  • Worsening gender inequality in India after 1947: It points to a worsening gender inequality in India. A simple indicator of this would be the ratio of females to males in the population. It is believed that in the absence of factors that lower the life chances of women, including foeticide, this ratio would tend to one. The Census of India shows that we have not attained that level in our recorded history, except in pockets within the country.
  • Trend in gender inequality: While this is disturbing in itself what is more so is that this ratio has steadily declined after 1947. After declining for four decades from 1951 it started inching up in 1991. But in 2011, it was yet lower than what it was in 1951.
  • Life expectancy faster for man than women: So, even though life expectancy increased soon after Independence, in the early years at least it increased faster for men than it did for women.


  • The Census of India not only helps understand the perils of British rule, but also flags the roadblocks lying ahead. As India chants Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam at the G-20, implying that the nations of the world are a family, it behooves us to ensure that all the persons in our own family enjoy the same freedoms.

Mains Question

Q. According to the census of the time discuss the impact of colonial rule in India. The Census of India not only helps understand the perils of British rule, but also flags the roadblocks lying ahead. Discuss.

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