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  • Technology and Rural Change in Eastern India: 1830–1980 by Smritikumar Sarkar
  • Animesh Chatterjee (bio)
Technology and Rural Change in Eastern India: 1830–1980
By Smritikumar Sarkar. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. 355.

The history of technologies in India has, in recent years, been explored through a variety of perspectives mostly associated with questions of empire, colonialism, and technology transfer from the core to the periphery. Smritikumar Sarkar's Technology and Rural Change in Eastern India is a timely addition to this growing scholarship. Sarkar brings a specific focus to the introduction of technologies "through various channels of colonial interactions" to rural areas in Eastern India (p. xiii).

Sarkar's book starts with transitions in modes of transport, or as Sarkar titles it, "From Bullock Cart to the Railways." The construction of bridges and the introduction of steamships and railways connected rural areas to new industrial hubs, enabling the bidirectional transfer of both raw materials and produced goods. Next, he focuses on the ways artisans—weavers and smiths—in rural Eastern India adopted new technologies, raw materials, and machines that followed colonial trade and adapted their methods to compete in a market increasingly moving towards machine-made products (chapter 2). The next chapter examines rice, sugar, and oil milling, the introduction of steam engines to sugar and oil mills, and how such new technologies and production techniques restructured the extensive network of farm workers, peddlers, transporters, merchants, and financiers. The book then studies two industries—matchmaking and hosiery—established by British-educated Bengali elites and how they imported technologies and expertise to set up their factories, as well as the financial and political challenges such enterprises encountered (chapter 4). Following, Sarkar analyzes the way the railways extensively altered patterns of rural settlement. The railways allowed traders and millers to buy paddy from farmers and sell rice to larger markets in urban areas. The increasing outflow of grains and rice from the villages resulted in extensive changes to the workings [End Page 1219] of rural markets; the consequent unemployment of traditional agricultural workers and rising prices of agricultural products caused an upheaval in social and economic structures.

Sarkar provides a detailed account of the interconnected nature of technological and societal change in rural Eastern India, focusing on the rural economy and how artisanal lives, practices, and environments transformed with the introduction of technologies and new trade regimes. The work falls largely within the diffusionist framework, highlighting the agency of workers, traders, and merchants in their pragmatic adoption of new technologies and enmeshing them within existing practices. Using lesser-known archival sources from outside the official archives, the book provides readers with a good understanding of the various forms of human labor and tools employed in rural artisanal practices, and how different industries within and outside the rural economy were interlinked and interdependent.

Despite details that historians of technology will find useful, this book lacks a critical engagement with the complexities of technology transfer and trade in colonial and post-colonial rural Eastern India. It is largely a descriptive account of the changes in rural artisanal and agricultural practices, industries, and tools rather than an analysis of them. We are not informed how colonialism and independence shaped rural economies and technological change. Moreover, Sarkar sees the introduction of technologies in rural economies as a process of recycling technologies that had become obsolete in the West. He overlooks the fact that technologies manufactured by local enterprises in India, as David Arnold has shown in Everyday Technology (University of Chicago Press, 2013), were also widely available and employed as cheaper alternatives to American or British machinery in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The overall argument would also have benefited from a critical analysis of primary sources and the relevance of contemporary social actors. Sarkar misses the opportunity to describe and analyze some of the lesser-known archival sources rather than simply quoting from them and leaving it to the reader to decipher their importance. The book would also be much more useful with a map of Eastern India to give readers a sense of the locations of the villages, cities, railway lines, collieries, and other places of importance...


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