Infrastructure, Evidence and Interpretation: Economic Fabric in Early India (Part Two)

In an earlier post, I discussed the problem of migration and agricultural output in early India. But besides agriculture, other economic activities in early India depended on similar factors as do economic activities in our times. For instance, let’s focus on infrastructure. Can you imagine a world without bridges, means of transport and communication, buildings, mints, dams, and roads? Where would our economy be without such infrastructure? Infrastructure, therefore, is a conditio sine qua non of any budding—or for that matter developed—economy, be it in the era of kings or emperors, or in the era of democracy and the welfare state.

Administrative Infrastructure

A critical economic action that has been engaged in throughout Indian history was the striking of coins, and the expertise with which the dies were carved and struck on minuscule pieces of metal makes it evident that mints constituted a crucial element of the city infrastructure and were located in every major town or trading center. The following extract from a modern work provides an excellent word picture of the mint organization in ancient India:

The mint house in ancient India was perhaps known as bhandagara, whereas the mahabhandagara was functioning just like the modern Reserve Bank….. The office of the bhandagara…had to maintain the establishment and accounts, and mint coins… [It] was headed by a board of Shreshtina

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Figure 1. Interior of the Mughal mint in Fatehpur Sikri

For medieval India, we have the masterful documentation in the Dravyapariksha by Thakkura Pheru, mint-master during the rule of Alauddin Khalji (13th century), where detailed information is provided regarding the coins that were arriving at the mint for melting and re-coining, and about the metallic fineness of various coin nomenclature. Part of the infrastructure that housed the mint during the Mughal rule still survives in Fatehpur Sikri near Delhi (Figure 1).

Infrastructure for the Society

Moving to other elements of infrastructure that supported the economic fabric in early India, references to the construction of roadways, reservoirs, canals, forts, and rest houses are quite frequent in literature, and it is little surprise that the Arthashastra refers to such activities as one of the basic duties of the ruling authority:

[The King shall] construct roads for traffic both by land and water, and set up market towns…. He shall also construct reservoirs filled with water either perennial or drawn from some other source. Or he may provide with sites, roads, timber, and other necessary things those who construct reservoirs of their own accord. Likewise, in the construction of places of pilgrimage…

(Arthashastra, II.1)

From Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (3rd century BCE) to Pashtun Emperor Sher Shah Suri (16th century, often called the forerunner of Akbar), all rulers in early India prioritized the building of roads and infrastructure to support travelers:

On the roads also banyans were planted to give shade to cattle and men, mango gardens were planted, and at each half kos wells were also dug; also rest houses were made….

(Ashoka in one of his rock edicts, c. 273-232 BCE)

For the convenience in travelling of poor travellers, on every road, at a distance of two kos, he made a sarai…another road he made from the city of Agra to Burhanpur…and he made one from the city of Agra to Jodhpur and Chitor, and one road with sarais from the city of Lahore to Multan…

(Tarikh-i-Sher Shahi)

The road from Lahore to Multan, then called the Sadak-e-Azam (the Great Road), later formed part of the Grand Trunk Road (Figure 2), which still serves as one of South Asia’s oldest and longest roads stretching over 2500 km. The road has undergone several improvements in the British period and even thereafter, and now extends from Kolkata to Peshawar. Over the centuries, the road has serviced trade and communication, and aided the movement of troops and invaders.

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Figure 2 (Left): The Grand Trunk Road in India, Ambala-Delhi section, during the British Raj. Image at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GTRoad_Ambala.jpg_

 

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Figure 3 (Right): A passenger train travelling from Bombay to Thane, 1855 Image at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Dapoorie_viaduct_bombay1855.jpg

 

Dalhousie’s stint as Governor General in the mid- 1800s represents a watershed as far as the history of communication infrastructure is concerned, particularly with the introduction of the telegraph and the railway. Here is how the official website of the Indian Railways records the introduction of the railway in India:

The formal inauguration ceremony was performed on 16th April 1853, when 14 railway carriages carrying about 400 guests left Bori Bunder at 3.30 pm “amidst the loud applause of a vast multitude and to the salute of 21 guns.”

Three locomotives were put in service to cover this distance of 33 km, and a year later the Bori Bunder–Thane route was enhanced with India’s first railway bridge (Figure 3). From three locomotives and 33 km, Indian railways today has about 8,000 locomotives and stretches over 63,000 km across the country.

Clearly, therefore, infrastructure has been a primary economic activity of the administration through all historical epochs. In the 21st century, most cross-state, or even multinational, commercial enterprises and investments are determined by the infrastructural base of the target site. In other words, to attract investment from other states and from abroad, we must first build and expand state-of the-art infrastructural capabilities. No wonder, infrastructure in Mumbai has been compared—albeit in a false sense of regional pride—to Shanghai, and India is struggling to attract foreign direct investment by ramping up, inter alia, airports ports, and the hotel industry, and by repeatedly projecting how India’s infrastructure needs should be prioritized to meet the urban challenges that will be posed by 2050.

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