East Indian Railway

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East Indian Railway the first company to introduce rail communication in Bengal and beyond. Established in 1845 the East India Railway Company, subsequently known as East Indian Railway (EIR), became the pioneer organisation to attract European capital and organisation to build the railway network in Eastern India. Its closest runners in other parts of India were the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, South Indian Railway, North Western Railway and Central Indian Railway. All these companies were private enterprises launched initially with European capital and management.

Constructing railway in India for profit was a project of British capitalism. Commercially, the rail-communication was opened in England in the early nineteenth century. Its vibrating business profitability soon infected the whole of Western Europe with railway building craze. Within three decades of its introduction investment in railway concerns became so competitive that many were going overseas to make investment in railway industry. From profit point of view, India, particularly Eastern India was selected by them to be the most viable ground for capital investment. The entrepreneur who had first visualised the prospects and come up with a serious plan to motivate the government of India in favour of laying railway tracts in India was Rowland Macdonald Stephenson, a civil engineer by profession.

From 1841, Stephenson and his team began extensive study on topography, labour, timber and legal aspects and prospective market of the new communication system. He submitted his plan for the consideration of the court of directors and board of control in 1844. The railway company was established in London by a deed of settlement (1 June 1845) which states that it was a co-partnership under the name of the 'East India Railway Company' with an initial capital stock of 4,000,000 sterling divided into 16000 shares of 250 sterling each. The Board of Directors comprised of thirteen members with Stephenson to act as the Managing Director of the company.

Protracted negotiations continued between the company and the Government of India and finally the agreement was signed between the two parties on 19 August 1849. Under the agreement, the government of India had committed a guaranteed profit of 5% on the actual railway investment of the company. The government also authorised the company to acquire necessary land with compensation for the construction of the railway tracts and railway establishments. The actual construction work of the railway began in 1851 with an experimental line from Calcutta to Raniganj coalfields in Burdwan (194.73 km). Having achieved the expected goal of the experimental line, the phase of rapid extension of railway branches began in 1852, inaugurating thus the railway age in India.

The transplanting of the Victorian railway technology in East India was the accomplishment of British capital and Indian labour. Millions of workers were mobilised in constructing thousands of miles of railway tracts and building thousands of railway-related establishments; British engineers, skilled workmen and overseers came to manage the Indian labour in the fields; building materials were procured from the world market; embankments, bridges and culverts were built over marshlands, rivers and channels; tunnels were cut through rocky hills and mountains; works of tens of thousands of contractors, sub-contractors, suppliers were allotted, controlled and coordinated; tens of thousands of rail-related accidents and deaths of labour were tackled; labour unrest and local resistance were faced with fortitude; and finally nearly a million of natives were recruited and trained in maintaining the railway tracts and managing the railway traffic and establishments.

All these were incredible obstacles to overcome initially on the part of the company and yet the challenge was successfully responded. The East Indian Railway turned the railway into an industry with the capability of employing tens of thousands of people and shipping goods at unimaginable scale and bringing an unprecedented expansion in internal and external trade and commerce.

The railway saga is believed to be achieved for one very extraordinary factor - 5% Indian government-guaranteed profit to EIR shareholders. Many economic historians argue that such a guaranteed profit, an unknown feature in Europe, was really a free gift made by the colonial rulers to the railway capitalists of Britain for political considerations. According to them, it was intended to market British manufactures in the remotest parts of India on the one hand, and manage prospective anti-colonial resistance movements, on the other. Whatever may be the intention of the railway project, it is possibly undeniable that it had conferred innumerable benefits - economic, social, cultural and political. It broke, first of all, the inter and intra-provincial barriers to human movement and activities. [Sirajul Islam]

Bibliography Daniel Thorner, Investment in Empire, British Railway and Steam Shipping Enterprise in India 1825-1849, Philadelphia 1950; Hena Mukherjee, The Early History of the East Indian Railway 1845-1879, Calcutta 1994; Ian j. Kerr, Building the Railways of the Raj 1850-1900, Calcutta 1995.