Calcutta Notebook


India's cotton industry emerged, principally in the cities of Bombay and Ahmedabad in the wake of the American Civil War. To be sure, the Bombay Spinning and Weaving Company had commenced production as early as 1854, and by 1861 there were 12 spinning mills in India. Yet the true expansion occurred only after 1865, drawing on the profits Indian merchants had accumulated during the years of very high raw cotton prices. Indian capitalists, increasingly pushed out of the raw cotton trade by European dealers such as the Volkarts, redirected their capital into cotton mills. By 1875, they had opened 27 mills. In 1897, there were 102 mills in the Bombay Presidency alone. The number of spindles exploded from 1.5 million in 1879 to nearly 9 million in 1929. Cotton manufacturing would come to dominate the Indian manufacturing economy.

More so than perhaps anywhere else in the world, cotton and nationalism became intertwined in India. Textile industrialists became supporters of the Independence movement, and its leaders in turn made domestic cotton industrialization a prime goal. As Gandhi, who enjoyed close connections to Ahmedabad's mill owners, put it in 1930, "The cotton textile industry is a valuable national asset giving employment to a large number of people, effecting the prosperity of the people of India, and its safety and progress must continue to receive attention of her capitalists, labour leaders, politicians and economists". For many Indian nationalists, independence would, among other things, make possible the development of a home market and import-substitution industrialization—the "reconstruction of her entire political and economic life", according to a 1934 book by scholar and engineer Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya. Creating a state conducive to domestic industrialization threw Indian cotton industrialists, like their Egyptian, Chinese, and eventually African and Southeast Asian counterparts, into skirmishes with the colonial state, as a global social conflict came to focus increasingly on the control of the state. The cotton textile industry has undergone profound changes over the years throughout the world. The old players are gone, new players are emerging.

Cotton towns crumbled as workers whose families had labored on mules and looms for generations found themselves unemployed. The symbolic evidence of England's fall had come in 1958, when the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, long an adamant champion of free trade, reversed course and declared that the British cotton industry needed protection—an unintended but obvious expression of defeat. Yet while Europe, and increasingly the United States, had become marginal to this marvelously productive and frighteningly violent system of production, the empire itself persisted.

Yet while a century ago shirts would have likely been sewn in a shop in New York or Chicago, using fabric spun and woven in New England, from bolls grown in the American South, today it is probably made of cotton grown in China, India, Uzbekistan, or Senegal, spun and woven in China, Turkey or Pakistan, and then manufactured in a place like Bangladesh or Vietnam. But cotton farmers are in pitiable conditions everywhere.

Many Tajik cotton farmers, for instance, are locked in a cycle of debt and forced cotton production just like their counterparts a century ago in India and the American South. Indeed, cotton growers have remained relatively powerless. In India in 2005, after a season of weak rains and crop failures, hundreds of heavily indebted farmers of genetically modified cotton committed suicide by drinking their own pesticides, a trend that persists to this day. Cotton production continues to be an often brutal ordeal. For most farmers and workers, cotton is far from the cuddly "fabric of our lives" touted by marketeers for the American cotton industry.

Vol. 48, No. 37, Mar 20 - 26, 2016