Saturday, 17 November 2012

Cawnpore: what happened next (and for 150 years after that)

I've just been watching a short video on the history of Cawnpore and how it has changed into modern Kanpur. I was interested to see film of the decline of the cotton mills.

I was brought up in the North West of England, where cotton used to be a huge industry. (According to the video, Kanpur was called 'the Manchester of India', a reference to the cotton mills of Manchester in England.) When I was a child, the cotton mills began to close. Whole communities that relied on this industry were decimated and the economic damage inflicted still leaves its mark on the region today.

Many people blamed the decline of the UK cotton industry on the development of industry in India, where Kanpur was building cotton mills that, despite UK tariff barriers, were undercutting UK cotton manufacturers and destroying their markets.

Looking at the video, the scenes of the derelict mills in Kanpur echo the sights I saw in the villages of Lancashire. The industry has moved on, I'm guessing to China, where wages are lower and there are more profits to be made. The result has been a flood of cheap Chinese cotton goods into the UK. I imagine it's been the same elsewhere, but I know the UK from personal experience. A friend who works in the fashion industry says that they have shifted all their manufacturing to China and increasingly the design work is based there too.

People like the cheap clothes and China benefits from economic growth. But I wonder how long it will be before China sees derelict plants as manufacturers move on to the next country to provide even cheaper labour.

Global capitalism brings huge benefits, but there is a downside too. Watching what happened in Lancashire repeated in Kanpur highlighted this.

I have no answers. But one of the useful things about looking at history is that it can raise interesting questions.

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