Why India’s Farmers Continue to Revere Sir Arthur Cotton

Arthur, cotton, photo,
Image: 7MB
A British civil engineer continues to be revered by farmers around the Godavari river. What makes Arthur Cotton the people's engineer?

In the last week of his life, Arthur Cotton, one of the most renowned civil engineers of the British Raj, lay in his bed reading a letter from India. It bore news of the terrible drought of 1899, and spoke of “dying of the cattle and sheep from sheer inanition, dried-up stream-beds and the utter absence of grass everywhere.”

According to his daughter, he looked up at her and said:

If they had only taken my advice, given so many years ago, they would have saved fortunes, and gained others over and over again.

His advice was to link India’s mainland rivers, and have the state spend as much on irrigation as it did on railways. It was unheeded advice, then and today. The Indian famine of 1899-1900 would go on to kill more than four million people by some estimates – and India would suffer two more in the half century before independence. But Arthur Cotton’s legacy – a lifetime spent building dams and irrigation projects – ensured that even today, his name is known among farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, in what was then known as the Madras Presidency.

(Image: 7MB) A model of the Dowleswaram barrage

Some of the projects Cotton worked on continue to irrigate lakhs of acres even today, such as the Kurnool Kuddappah Canal, Prakasam Barrage and Dowleswaram Barrage. Near the Godavari, irrigation offices bear his photograph, and farmers perform ‘Tharpanam’ (homage) on his birthday, May 15, every year.

What endeared Cotton to the populace was the real impact his work had on farmers and locals. One story tells of a pundit who lived by the banks of Godavari, who prayed for the welfare of ‘Cotton Durai’ every day – saying he could take his daily bath before prayers only because of the Dowleswaram Anicut. In contrast, the railways Cotton advocated against tended to benefit the British – whose main intention for the railway was to effectively extract resources from the country.

Cotton’s beef with the railways stemmed from a belief that rivers could be more effective at transport – with societal benefits along the way. As he argued:

First enrich the country, and then lay down railway lines as advisable.

The Dowleswarum Barrage built in 1852 on the Godavari gave Cotton his name as a great engineer. In Madras Miscellany, Muthaiah S. writes that Arthur “told the Board of Revenue that he would convert one of the poorest districts in India into one of its richest, if he was given the go-ahead to build a giant anicut at a cost of £120,000.” The result was what Cotton would famously say:

My Lord, one day’s flow in the Godavari river during high floods is equal to one whole year’s flow in the Thames River.

The increased irrigation from the project turned the region from famine-prone to a rice basket of the state.

Cotton’s use of cost-effective techniques like substituting solid chunks of stone with stone coatings over sand led to his brother, Robert Cotton, crediting him with the “Cheap School of Engineering”. One could also look at it as a form of colonial Jugaad, and as Robert adds, “What is good engineering but economy!”. This success of the project led him to ever more ambitious schemes – such as river-linking.

River linking

The first person to suggest that India’s rivers be linked was Cotton in 1858. The debate over river-linking is one of India’s longest running policy conundrums. In Cotton’s view, water flowing in the sea was wasted. Instead, rivers could be a means of transport – working out cheaper than the railways, and more appealing in an era where the environment was to be controlled and regulated. Altering the natural flow of a river could lead to its disappearance, as has happened with the river of India’s namesake – Indus.

Cotton as the forerunner of India’s river-linking project was met with opposition – primarily financial. Even today the project is derided for its financial costs (estimated by some at $168 billion, making it the world’s largest irrigation project).

The disparity between bureaucratic decisions and on ground experience is visible here, and evident even today. In Cotton’s time, the British state was spending twice as much on the railways as it was on irrigation. Today, the budget for the proposed bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad exceeds the amount allocated for irrigation projects under the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana – an amalgamation of irrigation schemes.

Whether Cotton was right about the benefits of river linking remains to be seen. That farmers remember his work even today is itself a strong legacy. It is not often that a civil engineer becomes a household name – becoming a part of a land’s mythos and oral tradition in the process. Many of India’s problems require engineering solutions – but not all are equally advisable. As Marcel Pagnol once said:

One has to watch out for engineers – they begin with the sewing machine and end up with the atomic bomb.


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