ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

“The Best Insuring Class”: Life Insurance and Market Segmentation in Late Colonial India


Rajaram Poorva - Max Weber Stiftung, New Delhi, India


25 – Thinking with markets: Practices and codes of engagement in South Asian economic milieus


 This paper tries to understand the market for life insurance in late nineteenth and early twentieth century India. I argue that historians have failed to examine the notable degree of porosity that was evident between the 1870s and the early 1900s between life insurance companies and smaller provident insurance societies. This was a period of flux before life insurance became a little more established in India. This paper, which doesn’t take market segregation as inevitable, shows the precise process by which different forms of finance were conceptually hierarchised as either prudential and therefore good or speculative and therefore bad.

This paper shows that middle-class urban salaried professionals came to anchor the practice of life insurance with others participants like smaller peasants being discouraged from it. Within the professional and the salaried, government employees were particularly prized as subscribers to life insurance companies forming, in the words of one observer, the “best insuring class”. This paper looks at how life insurance, through significant exclusions, grew to become a respectable stream of the larger world of Swadeshi commerce. It argues that life insurance became a meta-economic litmus test for the health of Swadeshi finance and commerce, symbolically connoting a high level of financial sophistication and achievement for the Indian economy and its actors.