India Recalls Reign of Victoria

Munshi_1605081cManu Joseph in the New York Times:

As Britain celebrates six decades of Elizabeth II as monarch, it is the reign of another queen that contemporary India resembles.

It may be nearly impossible to accept that Victorian Britain, with its frock coats and parasols, had anything in common with present-day India, where “ladies” and “gentlemen” are primarily toilet signs. But, if the charades of appearances and manners are stripped away, and if only economic tumult and questions of conscience are considered, then mid-nineteenth-century Britain had much in common with India today.

In the England of that time, there were sharp increases in wealth, but the Industrial Revolution had also heaped a vast number of urban poor in plain sight. The accepted wisdom then was that poverty was the unavoidable curse of an unlucky majority. But that notion was slowly demolished by some brilliant men and women who, in their efforts to devise a cure, were building the rudiments of modern economics. A newly enriched society was beginning to accept that abject poverty in its midst was a morally indefensible paradox.

Sylvia Nasar, in her recent book “Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius ,” describes the observations of the 24-year-old mathematician Alfred Marshall on an unremarkable day in 1867, many years before he became one of the most influential economists of his time. In Manchester, she writes, Marshall found “the smoky brown sky, muddy brown streets, and long piles of warehouses, cavernous mills and insalubrious tenements — all within a few hundred yards of glittering shops, gracious parks and grand hotels. … In the narrow back streets he encountered sallow undersized men and stunted, pale factory girls. …”

This could be, without any changes, a scene in any major Indian city today.