The Railroad’s Impact on India and Mexico
International history illustrates the extent to which new transport inventions changed human life and the international economy. Railroads connected territories that were once isolated. They changed international trade, by decreasing the unit costs of transporting an innumerable amount of goods from textiles to agricultural products. Suddenly, goods were able to be transported 400 miles as opposed much slower modes of transportation used in the past. Also, cargo was better protected from damage and spoilage. In this paper, I examine governmental motives for the construction of these vast railroads, and both the foreign and the domestic effects the introduction of railways had on India and Mexico. Railways were the most significant infrastructure development in India (during 1850-1947) and during Porfiran Mexico (1876-1910). In these places new railroads played a major role in integrating markets and increasing trade.
Above is a photo an Indian railroad construction site of the Benghal Nagpur Railroad Construction (1890).
The British colonial establishment oversaw a creation of a state-of-the-art rail transportation network. As opposed to American railway technology in which the focus was to use low-cost, and mass-produced rails, the British civil Engineers insisted on the installation of more costly, but durable rails and bridges made from brick and iron (Sharma 22). By 1910, India had over 30,000 miles of track.
Here is a photo of a train on the Metlac Bridge in Mexico. (1904)
Rapid expansion of the Railway network in Mexico was one of the clearest symbols of Porfirio Díaz’s developmentalist economic strategy during Porifirian Mexico (1876-1910) (Garner 339). Before the introduction of railroads, Mexico was already producing large amounts of transportable goods. In 1880 Mexico was finally able to secure enough capital to launch a major railroad construction project. However, the lack of sufficient harbor facilities at both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans made the line of little value, compared to the huge costs involved. To fix these deficiencies, the Díaz administration signed a series of contracts with foreign investors, such as the British firm: S. Pearson and Sons, to fix the problems with the port facilities and the railway itself (Garner 340). This illustrates the point I will discuss later in this paper: that the process of modernizing the Mexican economy was dominated by external forces and powerful foreign interests. During the first ten years of the 21st century, railroad construction reached its peak and by 1910 19,205 kilometers of tracks had been built. However, even with these vast railway lines, major portions of the country remained outside the railway network by 1910. For example, Both Baja California and the southern pacific coast remained isolated. The fall of the Diaz dictatorship in 1911 and the revolutionary turmoil that followed ended railway construction and caused considerable construction to tracks. Even when the economy began to recover, the railway system was severely damaged (Coatsworth 942-944).
Numerous studies have been done to estimate the social savings caused by the introduction of railroads to India and Mexico. They helped boost the value of Indian exports from 21 million pounds in 1853 to 333 million pounds by 1920. This new transportation mode is responsible for about 43% of international wheat price decline, and a 55% international price decrease of rice (Andrab). In India railways decreased trade costs and interregional, and increased interregional and international trade. The social savings estimate in colonial India amounted to about 9.7% of aggregate GDP or 14.8% of agricultural income (Kerr 120). The Railroad’s contribution to economic savings derives from unit savings in transport costs and the quantity of passengers traveling by train. Social savings caused by Mexican freight trains, relative to Mexico’s 1910 GDP was between 24.6 and 38.5 percent. However, Social Savings for human transportation was very low and difficult to measure, even though it saved passengers an innumerable amount of time if they choose to take the train. This is due to the fact that during this time there was a large decrease in real wages, and low wages made time less valuable (Coatsworth 948).
Various reasons explain why railroads had a relatively large impact in India. First, they were far superior to the existing transport technology in India. Also, India did not have an extensive inland waterway network (Kerr). Before they were built, the transportation network was poor. Bullock carts were not an effective substitute to railways in India, and India did not have an extensive inland waterway network. Improvements to India’s transport infrastructure brought isolated inland districts out of economic independence by connecting them to the rest of the sub-continent. This striking improvement took place over many decades (Kerr 118).
Many advocates of railroad construction voiced military justifications for the development of a railroad network in British India. They believed it would prevent supply and ammunition shortages, and it would serve to be able to rapidly concentrate troops in the event of a sudden emergency. Clearly, a rail system would reduce expenses of troop movement, and spare the health and lives of European troops who would otherwise be compelled to march through perilous weather and terrain (Sharma 26).
Railways allowed the British Raj to facilitate its colonial state. They allowed officials to establish its authority over the entire subcontinent. By 1912, 90% of the total Railway network was state-owned. Thus, railways operated more efficiently if they were owned by the state. The ways this construction re-shaped the land, showed Britain’s engineering abilities.
This photo shows workers building a tunnel during the Construction of the Benghal-Nagpur Railway in 1890. This shows the british Engineering abilities of the time.
At first, they terrified and awed the locals of Indian villages (Sharma 20). Not only were political justifications voiced, but also many officials stated the fact that railroad construction would justify their very existence in and control over the sub-continent. To British policy makers, railways embodied their “civilizing mission”: the ideology that sustained the assumption that they had the right to govern India. Even the public viewed this construction as the realization of Great Britain’s “civilizing mission.” However, this belief exaggerated the railway’s socio-cultural impact; it did not weaken Hindu devotion to their deities. Faster transportation allowed people to travel to festivals and distant shrines. On a monthly basis, railways encouraged interaction of tens of millions of people whom lived from vast distances and came from many different backgrounds (Sharma 27).
In India, locations of commercial significance became connected with the introduction of railroads. Groups with commercial interest had a big influence on railroad policy makers, especially cotton textile-manufacturers. These cotton manufactures tried to convince policy makers that Indian railways would eliminate Britain’s dependence on cotton from the United States (Sharma 31).
Great Britain successfully transformed India into an international supplier of agricultural goods. By the late 19th century, focus shifted to wheat, as the demand for cotton in England declined. As a result Railways caused a price depression of wheat abroad. This made wheat unaffordable for poor Indians, causing millions of Indians to reach a stage of Malnutrition (Sharma 34).
A centuries old Indian textile industry was undermined due to the construction of Railways in India. It was simply more profitable to import manufactured materials than it was to develop the metal-producing regions of the subcontinent. India lacked the manufacturing base required to stimulate industrial development without British Capital. 99% of the capital of the railways came from Britain, and almost all of the policy makers were British (Sharma 33).
During the last two decades of the 19th century, Mexico underwent a rapid, but ultimately unsuccessful process of economic growth. A new flow of Capital from Europe and the United States broke down the obstacles that had been holding back the construction of Railroads, which led to economic growth, in Mexico. New laws were designed to encourage capital accumulation. The government started to give tax-holidays or reductions to foreign investors. Many Mexican mines were drained because the mining code was re-written to favor foreign investment. (Haber 190). Government officials used the symbolic power of the new Railway to portray a positive Image of the regime (Coatsworth).
This photo of an impressive looking train is titled: Mountain Locomotive on the Mexican-Veracruz Railway. It was taken in 1904.
The argument that Railroads would promote economic growth and internal order trumped the arguments against which were regarding the nature, operation and regulation (Randall 25). The Porfirio administration’s program on railway development was centered upon expediting the expansion of the export economy at the expense of developing domestic industry.
This ambitious program meant to industrialize Mexico was based on two pillars: imported technology and businesses having protection from the Government. New policies of trade liberalism reduced tariffs, favoring foreign business. Acquiring foreign capital at any cost to fund railroads and other industries caused the government to be in debt, and allowed foreigners to control the wealth and economy of Mexico. The construction of Railroads was the most tangible aspect of the influx of foreign capital. Opponents of the Porfirio regime stated this belief that the railway development fostered foreign (especially U.S. and British) domination in the economy (Randall 27). These factors contributed to the widening gap between the poor and rich in Mexico. They also contributed toward the furthering of concentration of economic control among small groups, both foreign and domestic. (Ficker 267-275).
During this time, the Government’s mission to secure material and Industrial progress caused many social and political hardships. Before the construction of railroads, the control of transportation was carried out by thousands of mule drivers. After they were it build, control of transportation became consolidated among a few foreign companies. This was contributory towards the acceleration of the eventual dominance of the mercantile industry into the hands of a few. A small group of powerful merchant financiers controlled most of the industry in Mexico. The government favored few businesses and allowed them to form monopolies. This disallowed new business to start, and industrial adaptation and innovation decreased. These factors also contributed to the widening gap between the poor and rich in Mexico, and to the furthering of concentration of economic control among small groups, both foreign and domestic. Despite rapid industrialization, the economy had a limited marked for domestic industrial goods. Railroads made it cheaper. This also contributed to the fact that domestic production was limited to few companies. (Ficker 275-285).
John Coatsworth argues that Railway development targeted economic growth, but failed to promote internal markets and native industries, instead benefiting few Mexicans and mostly foreign investors. Clearly, government officials undermined national authority and power by favoring foreigners. He states that as a result of the anti-promotion of internal markets, the country went through “underdevelopment.”
There is no doubt that railway construction sparked an industrial boom of sorts in Mexico. By the last few years of the Porfirian period of Mexico, large factories churned out products, like steel, cement, paper, glass, dynamite, soap, beer, cigarettes, and cotton and wool textiles, at a rate that was previously unimaginable. However, in most product lines, one or two huge firms controlled the entire industry, employing thousands of workers, and paying low wages. Beginning with the importing of rail technology, foreign-capital intensive methods of production contributed to the fact that Mexico was still importing most of its industrial technology from the United States and Europe (Haber).
Railroad construction caused the dictatorship in Mexico to increase agricultural production and trade. By the end of the Porfirian period, 95% of communal villages had lost their lands. This caused in increase in demand to work, even for extremely low wages. The seizing of village land, and the decrease in real wages paid to laborers were two profound changes during this time period (Katz).
Undoubtedly, the introduction of railroads in India and Mexico forever changed both the economies and the lives of the inhabitants. Due to this new transport technology, the world and international economies were never the same. The Mexican government’s main motivation to build a railway network was its desire to industrialize and expand trade as quickly as possible. The Mexican dictatorship’s policies have lasting effects that can be seen presently. Britain constructed railroads in India, intending that they would only strengthen their power and control over colonial India. However, this faster mode of transportation allowed communication between Indians, living in villages hundreds and even thousands of miles away. This was one of the contributing factors to the eventual success of the Indian nationalist movement, and the eventual overthrow of the British Raj. England and Mexico had their own reasons for constructing railroads, and they experienced effects, both intended an unintended.
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