Protection versus Preference: Behind the Scenes of Indian Tariff Board, 1923-1927
Blessy Abraham

The first Indian Tariff Board established on 16th February 1923, was assigned to investigate tariff protection eligibility for the still evolving iron and steel industry in India. The steel industry was fairly successful as protective tariffs up to 25 percent ad valorem were imposed on iron and steel products in 1924 on the Board’s recommendations. However, throughout the 1920s, not all Indian enterprises were as successful as steel in claiming protection against foreign competition. The paper studies these various Tariff Board Reports and observes not just a preference for certain big industries but also seeks to highlight how the industrialization project in a Crown Colony was now being defined in the ‘national interests’ of the Empire.
Previously recalcitrant on granting reciprocal preferential treatment to Empire imports (mostly raw materials) through lower tariffs, a post-War recovery Britain in the 1923 Imperial Conference offered concessions to its Dominions like Canada and Australia. Britain was also flexible in granting ambiguous fiscal autonomy to India through the curious policy of ‘discriminating protection’ in return for some form of preferential treatment to British manufactures in Indian market. This paper seeks to discuss how the impact of a post-War Empire economy, pushed a gradual transformation in perception of colonies like India as not just exporters of primary goods but how they could also be transformed into centres of partial industrial production in the interests of an intra-Empire market through a heavily controlled policy of tariff protection. This paper will show how the scope of the Indian Tariff Board embodied these contrarian policy flux between protectionism and preference, national and imperial interests, raw and refined goods, and how these very contradictions also shaped and restricted Indian tariff policy in the 1920s.