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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Where the Runners Went: British Motivations Behind Postal Policy and Allocation in Colonial India

  • Author(s): Bharat, Sheetal
  • Advisor(s): Carter, Susan
  • et al.

British presence has had a profound influence on economic development in British and independent India, and the debate on the nature of this influence has been raging for decades. At one end is the imperialist view that India benefitted from British rule and at the other is the nationalist view that India is still struggling from the burden of misrule. This debate has been enriched by in-depth research on the railways, among other topics; yet the closely related postal network has received no attention.

Since part of the disagreement in this debate stems from different perceptions of intention, I approach the question by asking what effects the British intended the post to have. I use economic theory to propose, a priori, three motives for a state establishing postal communication - political, commercial and welfare, and some postal characteristics that serve as evidence for each. The railway literature too attributes the construction of railway lines to these three motives. Using newly collected and digitised data on post office locations and policy, I show that the British did indeed have these three motives for establishing and expanding postal communication in India.

Presentation of evidence is divided in two - Poona district in Bombay province, and the whole Indian subcontinent. I compare the allocation of post offices in Poona in 1881 with a hypothetical benevolent social planner's network, which ensures that post offices are as near as possible to as many people as possible. Differences that emerge are easily explained by the three motives. A probit model shows what village characteristics are strongest predictors of the presence of post offices.

A detailed qualitative discussion of the evidence for the subcontinent permits an evaluation of the relative importance of the three motives. Since the British engaged in trade with India and also governed India, the political and commercial motives were important and linked. The welfare role of the post, though genuine, came later as a by-product of the network already established for political and commercial reasons. The service-for-the-people role of the post was secondary to its tool-for-governance role, both temporally, and in terms of importance.

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