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National water grid — A hundred-year-old plan

Ch. Prashanth Reddy

MUCH is being talked and written about inter-linking of rivers. While there is a vague recognition that this is not a new idea, few politicians, engineers or members o the public know that the concept dates back at least 120 years.

According to Dr Gautam Pingle, Chairman, Public Policy Area, Administrative Staff College of India, the proposal to create a network of rivers and canals was made in meticulous detail way back in 1881, by Sir Arthur Cotton, that extraordinary engineer-economist who formulated a comprehensive sub-continental plan for the formation of a national water grid.

Dr Pingle says that Sir Arthur's scheme was elaborate and, needless to say, did not involve pumping of any description though locks for navigation were envisaged. The plan involved navigation and irrigation, storage as well as river training. His list of potential projects was exhaustive and the costing was also given (see infographic).

Dr Pingle stated that all this was put together by Sir Arthur in 1881, and the total cost estimated, with 20 per cent pre-operative costs, at 50 million pounds sterling, or the then equivalent of Rs 50 crore.

While some of the projects were subsequently taken up, many people are unaware that Sir Arthur first identified them. Many of the older engineers in South India are aware of his work and writings.

The concept of inter-basin transfers, of navigation along the coasts and across the peninsula are uniquely Sir Arthur's and to him must go the full credit of drawing up a master plan for India a hundred years before the idea resurfaced. Sir Arthur had also stated that four main canal lines needed to be established. They were: "From Calcutta to Kurrachee — up the valley of the Ganges, across the watershed of the Jumna and the Sutlej, down the valley of the Indus to Kurrachee. The worst part is already cut, the Srihind canal, across from the Sutlej to the Jumna, by the line of the Godavari, and the Tapti from Cocanada to Surat, up the valley of the Tungabhadra and the valley of the Kala Naddee, crossing the watershed near Darwar which is the worst one, at two thousand feet, reaching the sea at Karwar and by Palghat, a breach south of the Neilgherries, up the valley of the Ponany and down the valley of Amravatty, crossing the watershed near Coimbatore, on a level of about one thousand four hundred feet."

Speaking about Madras Presidency, his vision was clear: "As respects water transit, the whole presidency is perfectly capable of first-class water transit on all the important lines, and this almost everywhere, in combination with irrigation."

Yet his vision was not restricted to the Presidency he served so well: "The Coast canal from Bengal, by Cape Comorin to Karwar on the Western Coast, is all perfectly practicable at quite an insignificant cost. The main lines across the Peninsula from Madras through the heart of the Camatic to Ponany, and from the same city by Nellore through the Ceded District to Karwar and that up the Godavari and Warda, and by the line of the Tapti to Surat, are also all perfectly practicable at small cost compared to their effect."

He further stated that: "From these, thousands of miles of branch canals may be led so as to fully open this populous country. Further a contour line may be led from the Cauveri near Seringapatnam, through Mysore, the ceded districts, and Hyderabad, to the Godavari, in the heart of the upper country, thus putting the whole of the interior, by means of the east and west canals and rivers and the coast canals, in effective communication with the ports of both coasts, and with Calcutta and the plains of the Ganges and the Punjab. The conveyance of one ton from Lahore to Karwar, three thousand miles, would thus, at one-twentieth of a penny per ton per mile, cost about Rs 6 — about ten per cent of the value of grain."

K. L. Rao, in India's Water Wealth, stated that the navigation plan proposed by Sir Arthur Cotton "showed his remarkable mastery of the river systems of India. Needless to say, had such a plan been implemented in the last century, transport in India would have presented no problem".

Sir Arthur's plan also took into account irrigation of a vast extent of land and was not restricted to navigation alone. He realised that the two were complementary and need not, and should not, be separated.

Nearly a hundred years later, the UNDP mission on National Water Grid 1971-72 felt that "India's national economy in its development and growth will be confronted with the problem of increasing scarcity of water within the next thirty years. From basic compilation of future water demand and water yields it becomes evident that by the year 2000 or so, the National Water Grid will be a vital necessity".

Now, Dr Pingle feels that with the extensive current political interest in the national water grid — an interest that was lacking both in the 19th and 20th centuries — the twenty-first century may see Sir Arthur's plans being realised.

Sir Arthur Cotton died on July 14, 1899 at Dorking, Surrey, at the age of 97. But he is remembered quietly every morning by millions of farmers and ordinary people in the Godavari and Krishna deltas.

The Andhra Pradesh Government has installed his statue on the Tank Bund in Hyderabad along with the other heroes of Andhra.

He is perhaps the only Englishman whose statue was installed in India after Independence.

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