Rethinking Metrology, Nationalism, and Development in India (1833-1956)

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When India adopted the metric measurement units in 1956, it concluded the project of standardisation initiated in 1833 by the East India Company administrators. Nationalists claimed victory after chastising the ‘failure’ of the colonial government. This paper argues that strict enforcement of standardised weights and measures was inextricably tied to shifting normative notions within India’s political economy. The intersection of Focculdian ‘governmentality’ with notions of planned economic development that germinated amongst the nationalists proved a more compelling environment for metrological reform.

The case of India should lead to rethinking the links between measurement standards and the state, and in uncovering the different claims that various social groups make on measurement technology. To some measurements were a technology of economic coordination, to others it was a technology of governance: to others still it became a technology of planned development. The history of metrological reforms also sharpens the focus on how sites of calculation were shaped in culturally appropriate ways. Cultural appropriation of metrology was not limited to quantification within bureaucracies, but had to be framed in ways that made sense within social contexts that mediated everyday economic relationships. As the case of India shows, metrological reforms were possible when a nationalist state invoked ‘tradition’, in addition to quantification, to enforce measurement standards in the context of planned economic development: the technocratic rationale had to be bolstered with the cultural authority of Indian science.

Weights and measures are a way of socially organising an inherently cognitive human activity. Governments in the past have used measurement systems to govern and rule, businesses use them to compete, and people depend on measurements to mediate a whole host of social and activities. India’s transition to the metric system occurred when this global technology of social exchange was reconstituted to address most of these contending claims.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)143-179
JournalPast & Present
Issue number1
Early online date1 Feb 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2018


  • India
  • Nationalism
  • History
  • Technology
  • Development
  • Metrology


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