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Notes on the Geography of India Themes: Irrigation 2: British Efforts in the South

Lord Curzon in 1900 told his council that "it cannot truthfully be said, even by the most envenomed of opponents, that we have looked helplessly on." He was speaking of famine, and he was right. The British did many things to reduce famine suffering, including hiring masses of starving peasants to help build irrigation systems. Yet the record of British irrigation development in India is crippled by one well-meaning mistake: thinking as humanitarians, the British insisted on spreading water thinly, so that many farmers would get a small amount of water. Such a system could only work if the institutions governing water distribution were powerful enough to resist the tendency of "headend" farmers to take more water than the system was designed to give them. In India, especially after Independence, they were not. The result is that miles and miles of "tailend" canals run dry--investment wasted and faith in government shattered.

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This is where British irrigation in India begins, at the head of the Cauvery Delta, near Tiruchirapalli. The monument marks an "anicut" or weir built by Sir Arthur Cotton, an employee of the East India Company.

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Downstream from the previous picture: this weir marks the point where the waters of the Cauvery are divided into canals. The prominent structure is comparatively recent, but the submerged one is a low weir of the type favored by Cotton. Like the ancient and decayed works they replaced, these were comparatively cheap and simple structures, hardly more than lumps in the streambed.

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Cotton went on to develop similar structures for the great deltas of the Godavary and Krishna rivers, farther north on the east coast of India. (In his day, both were part of the Madras Presidency.) The distribution canals were broad and slow, but there were (and are) occasional drops, like this one in the Krishna delta. The weather this day in 1981 was ferociously hot, and local boys were taking advantage of the frothing current near Machilipatnam.

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A more business-like picture of another drop, also near Machilipatnam

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Morning in the Godavary Delta.

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Sir Arthur himself, seen in a bust and in a Christ-like portrait. Both are in a museum in Rajahmundry, at the head of the Godavary Delta and devoted to Cotton and his work.

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His daughter Hope is shown in this Indianized form. As Lady Hope, she wrote a full-length autobiography--near hagiography--of her father.

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Cotton had his fiascos, most notoriously the Kurnool-Cuddapah Canal. The typically modest weir is shown here, ponding the water of the Tungabhadra River. The canal starts behind the camera and heads south some 320 kilometers. It was supposed to irrigate some 200,000 hectares, but that was cut back to 118,000. By 1920, the canal was irrigating only 35,000, with most farmers still declining to buy water because their crops usually grew well enough without it. Built as a private venture, the canal was purchased by the Madras government in 1882. The government never got its investment back. Farmers today are eager for water, but the project still fails to irrigate most of the land it technically commands. Why? All the water is taken by headenders, and the government lacks the will to force the kind of rationing that's needed to get water down to the people at the far or tail end of the system. It's a huge problem throughout South Asia, and it probably begins here, in this pioneering project.

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Low water at Sunkesula: the camera has turned 180 degrees from the previous picture. In the distance: the start of the Kurnool-Cuddapah, or K-C, Canal. On this day, however, there wasn't any water to divert. Upstream diversions on the Tungabhadra had dried up the flow at this point.

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The British and, later, the government of independent India, invested a fortune developing the waters of this generally dry country. Some of the dams, like those built by Cotton, were relatively modest. This one, the Tunga Anicut, on one of the two parent streams of the Tungabhadra, is a bit more ambitious. The weir is in the background; the irrigation canal, in the foreground.

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Some irrigation structures, even in the British period, were very substantial, however. This is the masonry Marikanave (nowadays Vanivilasa)Dam. It was sponsored by the Maharajah of Mysore and stands on the Hagari River, a tributary of the Tungabhadra. Work began in 1898. For a time this was the biggest reservoir in the world; measured by gross storage, it was bigger even than the better-known Low Aswan Dam. Alas, it was supposed to irrigation 50,000 hectares, but a century later it was irrigating only about 5,000.

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The Bhatgar Dam and, just below  it, the larger Lloyd Dam. Water levels when this picture was taken were low enough that Bhatgar was not overtopped. Bhatgar was built to store water for the Nira Project, opened in 1892 south of Poona with the aim of providing water in the event of drought. Farmers in most years, however, only wanted water for thirsty cane. The tailends ran dry, and the headenders could not be forced to give up their cane crop even in years of desperate famine. Lord Lloyd, Governor of Bombay, oversaw the construction of the larger dam, opened in 1928. Rather than better irrigate the original command area, on the left bank of the Nira River, it also feeds a 100-mile-long right-bank canal and is supposed to irrigate 180,000 drought-prone acres. No luck: only a third that much is irrigated today, and the headend is thick with sugarcane.

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"Salient details," as the British (and Indians today) called them.

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More details, illegible but showing the well-made inspection bungalow.

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One of the last gasps of British irrigation works in Peninsular India: the Visapur Project, completed in 1929 between Pune and Ahmednagar. The storage reservoir was begun in 1896, but work was sporadic, firing up whenever drought put farmers on the public-works budget. The project was finally finished with prison labor. It was supposed to spread water over 33,000 hectares, each one getting two light waterings one year in three. Not likely: the completion report of 1936 calls the farmers "apathetic" and says that unless the rains fail there is "almost no demand for water." The government finally contracted with a sugar company to take three-fourth's of the project water to irrigate 140 acres of cane.

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Salient details. Sykes' real love was aviation, though after a distinguished military career in World War I he also entered politics, which led to a three-year stint in India.

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From the wall of the local inspection bungalow.

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Tough to read: the commemorative monument for Ashti Tank, west of Sholapur. "V R et I" at the top stands for Victoria Regina et Imperatrix, or "Victoria, Queen-Empress." It's all very regal, but Ashti Tank has never irrigated more than a third of the land it was supposed to serve. The engineer in charge of it in 1981 was surprised to find an unused water tunnel so far from the actually irrigated land that he had never before noticed it.


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