Great Depression and India

A severe depression gripped the world capitalist economy from the end of 1929 and influenced the colonial economy and polity as well as people’s movements in India in more ways than one. In the first place, along with the general decline in prices, the agricultural price index (base 1873-100) slumped from 203 in 1929 to 171 in 1930 and 127 in 1931, Land revenue and rent burdens remained practically unchanged. So did interest payments, irrigation charges etc. All those having a surplus produce to sell were directly hit and the demands of middle and rich peasants (from rent and revenue reduction to no-rent, no-revenue; return of alienated land etc.) figured prominently in the peasant movements of the period.

Secondly, on the industrial front contradictory pushes and pulls were set in motion, further promoting the love-hate relationship between British imperialism and Indian capital. Indian industry did face certain problems owing to dislocation in world commerce, but these were more than offset by lower prices of commercial crops like colon and jute and by enhancement of import duties on many items, resorted to by the Indian Government under severe financial constraints, which had the effect of a protective tariff. The 1930s therefore witnessed rapid development of cotton, sugar, cement and paper industries. British industry also sought to utilise the protective barrier by setting up behind it “India Limited” companies and manufacturing units of British giants like Lever Brothers, Metal Box, Dunlop etc. While capitalists prospered, the workers were made to bear the burdens of lay-offs and higher work-loads in the name pf “rationalization” (this was an international trend of the time) as well as customary wage cuts. How the working class answered this renewed onslaught, we shall discuss separately.

Thirdly, there was less easily documentable yet no less significant and widely recognised impact. The bright contrast of the sustained and remarkable progress of the Soviet Union as against the worst-ever crisis of all the mighty capitalist nations helped a faster spread of socialist ideals in the freedom movement and further accentuated the left-right contradiction within it.

It is against this world backdrop of the “Great Depression” of 1929-33 that the third great wave of national movement known as the Civil Disobedience Movement developed.