- Engines of Change: The Railroads That Made India
In his Building the Railways of the Raj, 1850–1900 (1995) and two edited volumes, Railways in Modern India (2001) and 27 Down: New Departures in Indian Railway Studies (2006), Ian Kerr has established himself as the leading historian of India's railway construction and operation. Now he has cemented this reputation in a highly readable, thoroughly researched analysis of the development and impact of railways, their technology, and their people on the Indian subcontinent. Within just under two hundred pages, Kerr offers a thoughtful and balanced account of one of the great railway systems of the world.
India's railways began as a colonial project of the British Raj at mid-nineteenth century. Initially, rail penetration of the subcontinent represented the priorities of a colonial economy with lines originating at the port cities of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta, gradually evolving into a network connecting all corners of India's vast land. Planned for economic exploitation of commodity resources and greater mobility of armed forces for maintenance of order, the Indian railways offered one of the great surprises in the history of technology and culture. While British colonial officials and capitalists assumed that India's people—mired, it was believed, in tradition, caste distinction, and superstition—would avoid contact with the new "fire vehicles," in fact from the gala opening of the first line at Bombay, the "natives" took to riding the rails with great enthusiasm. While plans had to be altered to create space for the burgeoning passenger traffic, most Indians were forced by economic—and sometimes racial—exclusion to endure their journeys in overcrowded, filthy conditions.
In the first half of the book, Kerr concentrates on the period from the mid-nineteenth century to 1905 with chapters on construction and operations—the latter also exploring the social and economic impact of railways in increasing mobility, promoting economic development, stimulating "traditional" activities such as religious pilgrimage, and creating one of India's first industrial labor forces. Kerr notes the importance of government guarantees of return on investment to support private construction and operation of the early lines, and he explores how direct official control gradually evolved. In a sense, India's first experiments with "socialism" emerged as seemingly conservative British colonial officials increasingly intervened in the finances and management of the railways.
Railways may have been introduced as "colonial" technology, but, like most technologies, they represented a force that could work in any ideological or political context. In 1885—by chance the year of the formation of the nationalist Indian National Congress—one Indian statesman wrote: "What a glorious change the railway has made in old and long neglected [End Page 471] India! . . . [I]f India is to become a homogeneous nation, and is ever to achieve solidarity, it must be by means of the Railways as a means of transport" (pp. 4–5). Not surprisingly, then, when M. K. Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915, he undertook an extensive tour of the country by train. No better means of comprehending the complexity and vastness of India existed.
Kerr provides a useful introduction to issues of railway labor as well as an exploration of technological changes—notably the significance of India as a market for British-manufactured equipment and tools. The rise of Indian industry was aided by World War I scarcity and disruptions of supplies, leading eventually to a present-day capacity to supply not only India's transport requirements, but to become an export industry to other parts of the world.
With partition in 1947, rail and trade networks were disrupted, and Kerr documents the ghastly carnage of the refugee trains in the Punjab, but for various reasons he does not devote detailed attention to railway developments in Pakistan or Bangladesh. Politics and railways were never isolated from each other. Railways had been criticized as vehicles of colonial exploitation, but people and ideas moved by train and, consequently (to borrow Jawaharlal Nehru's phrase), "discovered India." After independence, the railways became...