Agriculture

The British General Who Was a Master of Irrigation

Sir Arthur Cotton was the architect of some of the grandest river-based projects that were completed in the 19th century and continue to function today.

A statue of Sir Arthur Cotton. Credit: YouTube

“Um.. uh.. the British brought in railways. And railway tracks. And new technology that otherwise wouldn’t have reached India. So I guess and that’s why I believe the British coming to India was a positive…event?”

As my friend stumbled through the sentence, he looked up from what he had scribbled on the blank sheets at the back of his history notebook. He was faced with the arduous task of defending British rule in India for a middle school debate set up by a misanthropic teacher who had a personal grouse. My friend was rewarded for his effort with the sight of faces filled with seething prepubescent patriotism. To say the experience put him off public speaking is a disservice to the damage done.

In hindsight, what strikes me about the memory was the sheer vitriol we held towards the British. The colonisers! The invaders! The looters, we were told. And all very legitimate things. It seemed as if three centuries and thousands of British bodies hadn’t produced one sympathetic figure (Mountbatten was confusing and the other one that came to mind was Elizabeth from the movie Lagaan).

In the midst of such thoughts, Sir Arthur Cotton entered without much fanfare. I wouldn’t have even noticed him had it not been for the statues. Driving past the districts on either side of the Godavari, the statues are subtle but visible. Plaques call him apara bhageeratha (the divine king who bought down the Ganges to Earth), or a less epic Cotton dora (roughly translates to Lord Cotton). Farmers put garlands on his statues to show respect.

An evangelist, general and engineer, Sir Cotton was the architect of some of the grandest river-based projects that were completed in the 19th century that continue to function to date.

One of the few colonial administrators loved by the people, and disliked by his own colleagues, Sir Cotton ensured the construction of Dowleshwaram Barrage – an irrigation structure constructed across the Godavari before it merges with the Bay of Bengal. Another mammoth construction under his guidance was the Prakasam Barrage, constructed across the Krishna river in Vijayawada, which still caters to the irrigational needs of the region.

That there are roughly 3,000 statues of the man on either side of the Godavari gives a hint of the respect he still holds amongst farmers. Despairing at the way Godavari ravaged the surrounding districts, he pleaded before the House of Commons to spend money on irrigation facilities instead of railways. He is quoted to have said: “My Lord, one day’s flow in the Godavari river during high floods is equal to one whole year’s flow in the Thames of London.”


Also read: Digging Up British Empire’s Bloody Legacy in India


During his travels across the world, Sir Cotton always thought about how he could best use his knowledge of irrigation towards the betterment of the places he visited. He travelled across Europe into Egypt and then crossed the desert into Baghdad. The city had gone through a plague, a flood and a siege by the time he got there.

Ghent and Brussels, crossing and inspecting the field of Waterloo, on which he remarks with characteristic acumen:–

“With the help of a book we had with us we made out the site of the battle perfectly. It appeared to me the finest piece of ground for a general action that could be imagined; there was sufficient variety of the level to show clearly the state of the field throughout, and at the same time not so much broken as to prevent any army from being used with full effect”.

“From Geneva to Lyons and other regions, and so by way of Avignon to Marseilles, he leisurely proceeded. Much of the country was of a dreary character, rocky and barren, and reminded him vividly of the worst parts of India.”

“…and so by a roundabout route to Jerusalem. Afterwards he passed through Samaria, making a detour to take in Mount Carmel, and so to Damascus.”

“From Damascus the party had planned to proceed to Bagdad, and were arranging for camels and horses…”

“You may have heard that the year before last, out of sixty thousand inhabitants of Bagdad, fifty thousand died of the plague, and at the same time the whole city was laid several feet under water by a flood while an army was waiting to besiege it, which took up its ground before the wall as soon as the water retired. The present appearance of the city corresponds with these occurrences.”

One of his preliminary observations was to build a canal that connected the Euphrates straight to Baghdad.

“Among other works in contemplation is the establishment of a regular line of steam boats on the Euphrates, and the cutting of a canal to connect that river with Bagdad, at the expense of the Pasha, thereby completely…”

But he was so sick and exhausted that the locals built a grave for him in case he died a few days later.

“But for your kind husband, Captain Cotton would not, humanly speaking, have got through his illness at Bushire, so ill was he, and so near death.. I doubt if he can remem­ber anything about the matter?’”

“… at a public meeting by a gentleman, whose name he could not remember, but who informed him that thirty years previously he was in command of the escort of the British Resident at Bushire, and had had charge of his funeral arrangements. My father often used to remark that ” he supposed he was himself the only man who had ever visited his own grave.”

But he marched on and survived.

Dowleswaram Barrage. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Upon visiting farms run by his brothers-in-law near the Derwent river in Tasmania, he argued that they should build reservoirs and water storages and not take the level of rainfall and the river for granted. Much later, the river almost ran dry and Tasmania faced near-drought conditions.

 “at least, of the fall of rain. Sad it is to remember that during the last week of his life he was reading a letter, which described the terrible drought then prevailing in that very part of the country. For a long period no rain had fallen, and this letter described the dying of the cattle and sheep from sheer inanition, dried-up stream-beds and the utter absence of grass everywhere.”

“…on subjects very near his heart, 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.”

The ‘rice bowl’ of Andhra Pradesh – the Godavari region – is credited to his vision and he had a grander scheme of implementing such a large scale project across India, to connect all rivers. His vision extended beyond the Madras presidency that he served as he wanted to connect India from Calcutta to Karachi and Indus to the Nilgiris.

“Pray consider what I say about your proceeding as soon as you can see your way a little. What is wanted is the connection of the various irrigations, so as to com­plete steamboat communication from Ludiana, by the Sutlej, Jumna, Sone, Ganges, Mahanudi, Godavari, Kistna boat canals, and one from Nellore through the Carnatic to Ponany, so as to bring produce to a point apposite to Aden at an almost nominal cost. That’s the grand object”

“The above letter referred to a large scheme which had been projected for a canal from the Ganges at Sahibgunj to Calcutta, but which was indefinitely shelved.”

He aimed to tame rivers so as to limit damage during floods and famines and create a navigation system that would prove to be more cost effective than the railways.

“I wish we could somehow get Messrs. F. to understand the extraordinary circumstances of Kurrachee, that it must inevitably become one of the principal ports, if not the first ; that it is the natural outlet of the whole of North India and of all Central Asia ; and this, with its accessibility and nearness to England, gives it advantages which nothing can possibly counteract.”

“But that the one thing it wants is cheap communication up the valley of the Indus. If a railway could carry at a halfpenny a ton, it would cost £3 10s. from the North-West ; while a canal, at a tenth of a penny, would charge ten shillings, making a difference of two millions a year on a single million tons of wheat and other grains only, even when the prices in England allow of railway prices at all ; but the fact is, it would make the difference between such a trade and none at all.”

His serious contributions to India began with the construction of anicuts to control the tumultuous Cauvery river and to boost life and prosperity in a decaying Tanjore district.

“He was appointed to the separate charge of the Cauveri Irrigation, which formed part of the Southern Division, with oversight and responsibility in regard to the Paumben works. Special study was given to the needs of the Tanjore district, and the moods of the Coleroon River were regarded in almost every possible light, with the view of making that great stream of the utmost possible service. The need for wide-reaching works was excep­tionally great. Absolute ruin stared Tanjore and the adjoining districts in the face. ”

What did Arthur Cotton do in Tanjore ?

He devised a great scheme for controlling the river Cauveri, and saving its almost priceless water from running to waste.

The construction of canals helped in navigation. Barrages and reservoirs helped irrigate fields. The net returns of the Cauvery Delta increased massively.

Cauvery Delta System

“The net return, after paying interest charges, was 37.91 percent on the capital outlay against 41.26 in the previous year.”

8,00,867 2,35,38,320

Source: General Sir Arthur Cotton, page 339

Sir Cotton detested the colonial project of railways and considered it a waste of resources and evidence of the British draining wealth from the country.

Expenditure from revenue and capital:                     £

Railways 246,609,235
Irrigation 39,359,045
Balance against irrigation 207,250,190

Source: General Sir Arthur Cotton, page 356 (summation from years 1882/83 – 97/98)

He persisted for far more investment in canals meant for irrigation and navigation. In his book, Public Works in India, Their Importance: Suggestions for their extension and improvement, he goes on to prove that it is far cheaper per ton per mile to transport cargo and passengers through canals.

“portion of all the traffic of India, transit can be effected at one pie or one-eighth of a penny per ton per mile, our main object will be already gained.”

“All goods are carried at about three annaa a ton per mile ; and if the cost were reduced to one pie, it is impossible to say what the traffic would be : but there can be little doubt that it would be increased five or six fold, or to a million tons per annum.”

One of his critiques of the railways was that it laid an unnatural emphasis on the high speed of transit as opposed to focussing on cheap forms of public transport. The relevance of this argument in the times of bullet trains cannot be overstated. He argued that if India were to have an equitable distribution of wealth in such a way that interior continental towns could be part of the development process, navigation set through canals would provide a better path than depending heavily on railways.

But the railways expect to be able to carry goods at two pence-half penny per ton, which for four hundred miles would be £ 4, or two-thirds of what it is now, in which case £ 8,000,000 more must be placed against the railway, making the expenditure on that line £ 23,000,000, against £17,00,000 by the river ; or thirteen times as much as the latter. Even allowing the railway to be worked for nothing, there would be a difference of £ 12,000,000.

“The fundamental error in regard to railways is the assumption by the authorities that if ” the problem of famine relief” be ” nearly solved,” that is enough. A con­fusion of ideas in regard to ” relief” and ” prevention.”

His greatest achievement was the transformation of the districts surrounding Godavari which used to depend heavily on seasonal rainfall and on the river’s mercy. In 1831, there was very heavy rainfall and in the following years, a cyclone and drought followed, leaving locals to the nature’s whims.

Added to this, the industrialised production of cotton clothing in England had cut down the demand for locally-made artisan cloth produced around the Godavari.

Factories for the manufacture of a special kind of cotton cloth, much in favour with the people, were, at a very early period, established by the East India Company. These, however, were discontinued as the Arkwright and other spinning and weaving inventions made use of by British manufacturers greatly cheapened the production of such fabrics and made the Indian cloth unprofitable. No other industry took their place, and there was much suffering among the people. Deterioration set in There was nothing but the soil for the erstwhile spinners and weavers to turn to.

The distress was terrible all over those northern districts. In the adjoining district of Guntoor, two out of five of all the people died. Guntoor had five hundred thousand inhabitants when the famine began : there were but three hundred thousand when it had passed away. In Godavari itself one out of four perished.

But after working in the area for decades and weaving canals across the Godavari that extended till the Krishna river, the local average revenue increased by 250%.

Increase in revenue 

From all sources in 1843-44 Land Revenue only in 1898
Rs 17,25,841 Rs 60,19,224

Increase of Rs 42,93,383 – Nearly two and a half times greater

Source: Sir General Arthur Cotton, page 84

More importantly, the abundance of water saw the crop pattern and diet change from being corn-based to rice-based, which continues in Telugu-speaking states till today.

“The prosperity of the ryots is evident to the most casual observer.”

” The gradual substitution of tiled houses for thatched”,

“the better dress which is being worn by the ryots,

“the more universal adoption of rice as an article of diet rather than Indian corn and other dry grains formerly in almost universal use.”

In the last decade of the century, the Godavari districts generated the most amount of revenue for the presidency, second only to Tanjore, which too had its irrigation set up by Sir Cotton.

“The district, as a whole, from a revenual point of view, has leaped from the thirteenth place among the twenty-two districts of the Madras Presi­dency to the second place. The first place, nevertheless, is Arthur Cotton’s: it is the Tanjore district. His dis­tricts are, respectively, first and second, unchallenged, unchallengeable.”

Statue of Sir Arthur Cotton. Credit: YouTube

Great men often tend to find themselves in situations where their expertise is questioned by those in the bureaucracy. But unlike many of the arrogant geniuses that pop-culture has fed us in the recent past, Sir Cotton remained calm and answered over 900 questions while facing a select committee in the House of Commons in 1878.

“This is why so much space and consideration are given in this chapter to the enquiry of 1878. While more than nine hundred questions were asked of him, in that year, less than three hundred were asked in 1872.”

It is important to note that not only did the committee not have irrigation engineers, it barely had civil servants who had served in India.

“Here was a body of Englishmen, fairly representative Of the composite character of our nation, not one of whom was an engineer ; not a single one of them had had the slightest acquaintance with irrigation engineering. Of actual Indian administrative experience there was only Sir George Campbell.

Sir George Campbell ought not to have sat on this Com­mittee. As a witness he might be of service ; as a judge he was in the position of one who had already made up his mind so far as irrigation was concerned.”

Sir Cotton did seem to reserve his venom for the British obsession with railways. When asked if all of the British administration was at fault for dreading cheap transit, he replied with a concise ‘Yes’. “I only say what are facts,” he added.

“Do you really mean to say that you think that for the last twenty years every Viceroy and every official con­nected with the Public Works Department and the Council of India generally, and all the Secretaries of State, have been actuated by, as you put it, the dread of cheap transit? ”

“Yes, I only say what are facts. I ask, Have you finished anything irrigationally? It is not what I say. These are facts,”

Mr. Sampson Lloyd was much puzzled at these state­ments ; he could not believe what he had heard. “Why should any man dread cheap transit ? ”

Readily came the reply: “Because it would stultify the railways; that is the sole point”

It’s not tough to understand why that meeting worked against his favour, and why more funds weren’t granted for irrigational purposes.

In his later years, he retired in England and spent much of the time focussing on new elements: Earth and air.

He experimented with various combinations and conditions in order to increase crop and soil productivity.

“It was a great enjoyment to him to lay out the gardens of our new house at Dorking, trenching them after his own fashion, three feet deep, and at the same time manuring highly ; afterwards he considered it a mistake to do this on too rich a scale. He took immense pains with the production of both flowers and vegetables ; his efforts were rewarded with remarkable success.”

He converted his garden into different soil plots and sowed wheat, potatoes, rye etc. At the age of 84, he realised that farming techniques required radical change and set out to figure out what they were. His conclusion was aeration – that soil needed to be treated with air by breaking the clumpy nature of soil when ploughing.

“it weighed, so that he might know exactly what the produce would amount to per acre. By degrees he in­terested himself intensely in agriculture, experimenting on wheat, oats` and Indian corn. He found that he could produce seven times the ordinary result from one grain of wheat. In the “Appendix” to this chapter will be found a description of his working out of this problem. He would aerate the ground two or three feet deep, pulverising the soil, his theory being that plants needed air as much as water.”

And the secret ? Aeration—simply a fuller and deeper aeration of the soil. Instead of ploughing six inches only, and with the old style, clod-making plough, Lord Tweeddale had ploughed (with four horses) to a depth of sixteen inches with a plough that made no clods.

But before he could finish his experiments, he passed away at the age of 96, reciting prayers from the Bible.

“my mother again writes :-

On the night of the 14th July he was feverish and restless, and it may have been that he became aware then how ill he was. He poured out a remarkable prayer—pleading God’s promises, and committing himself and those he loved to the gracious Promiser in a way – never to be forgotten ; the remembrance is full of comfort to..”

In his last days, he took a keen interest in the situation at Transvaal, the wars being fought in the Empire and Russia’s relationship with China. But nothing captures the man as perfectly as knowing that his last written printed words to the general public were condemning the British government for giving India “more iron than water”.

“It is interesting to note that my father’s last communica­tions to the Press were in the form of letters to The Times. concerning famines in India. The final words which, for public purposes, came from his pen, were in condemnation of ” giving India iron instead of water.” ” This,” he de­clared, ” was the sole cause of all this awful loss of millions of lives and hundreds of millions of money in the value of crops and cattle.”

Of course there’s more to be discovered about the man and given the times, it’s never wise to deify any figure. As our understanding of eco-systems has increased over the years, the idea of river-interlinking projects has come under controversy. Sir Cotton is not the first person to work intensely to construct irrigational facilities that tamed India’s rivers and helped manage its moody monsoons. The Raya dynasty had worked hard to construct percolated tanks with the help of Portuguese travelers. The southern part of Andhra Pradesh is named after the dynasty and many myths are woven around the dynasty’s magnanimity. But that people dig into medieval histories for public policy solutions is a reflection of the state of affairs in the region.

What is striking about Sir Cotton’s journey seems to be the sheer perseverance against the administrative machinery, 40 years of continued service and going against the popular tide that many of his countrymen followed. Even though ‘The Great Indian Railways’ are a romanticised part of the Indian identity, his case against it and his imagination of an India that travels through its waters (not necessarily substituting trains, but complimenting them) does open up a can of ‘what-ifs’.

Mukesh Manjunath graduated with a masters in development studies from IIT-Madras, Chennai. He is a budding stand-up comedian and humour writer, who writes for Weirdass Comedy.