IN 1853 the government of India, then directed by Britain’s East India Company, began construction of a vast rail network, continued by the British Raj, established in 1858. At the time, most inland transport in India was hauled by draught animals: with carts where roads existed and were passable; packed on animals’ backs when they were not, which was often. Moving goods across the great expanse of the subcontinent was costly and painfully slow. That changed with the arrival of the railway. Between 1853 and 1930 more than 67,000km (42,000 miles) of rail was laid across India, providing transport that was fast, cheap and reliable. A bullock could carry a pack 30km a day; an engine could haul freight 600km over the rails in the same time.
Working out the impact of this took Dave Donaldson (a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics when he started trying) nearly a decade. He dug through mountains of yellowed colonial-era records that had never before been collated and digitised. He found that eight different kinds of salt were sold across India, each sourced from just one region: this quirk allowed him to use local differences in the price of salt to calculate transport…Continue reading