An Aarti for Cotton …

Vithal Rajan

A number of British families served with distinction in India, but none were more renowned than those with the name of Cotton. Several generations of Indians have been educated in schools set up by Bishop Cotton. Sir Henry Cotton fought hard for Indian independence. And it is General Sir Arthur Cotton who is still remembered with grateful affection by the people of the Godavari basin, where his birthday is still celebrated every year. It is appropriate to remember this great engineer during the Maha Pushkaram of the river this year.

Vithal Rajan 1As a boy of 15, Arthur Cotton enrolled as a cadet in the East India Company’s military school in Surrey, England. Three years later he joined the Madras Engineering Group as an assistant of the Chief Engineer. By the time he was 25, as luck would have it, he was put in charge of repairs to be conducted on the thousand-year old Chola grand anicut near Tanjavur. He studied the old structure and revised all the engineering knowledge he had learned in England. He called that experience the ‘cheapest school of engineering in the world.’

   He was 40 when he was posted to the distant Godavari District as a Superintending Engineer. A devout Christian, he was moved by the starvation of poor people. He determined, using the ancient Chola anicut as a model, that he would build a 7325-foot anicut across the great Godavari and irrigate a million acres. It would turn the poor region into the richest in Madras Presidency! The East India Company considered the project too ambitious and too expensive. Cotton insisted he could build the anicut at a fraction of British estimates. Finally, in 1845, his detailed report was grudgingly accepted, though none of his seniors believed that the anicut could be built for a paltry 120,000 pounds sterling.

   Lady Hope, his daughter, recounted later the hardships the Cotton family faced in camp while the dam was being constructed between 1847 and 1852. There were no luxuries, few necessities, and many dangers. Once a snake fell into the cradle of her baby sister! Then, before the project was completed, unprecedented floods washed over the incomplete structure and Cotton’s assistants feared all was lost. Cotton who was then seriously ill in bed was informed of the catastrophe. All he said was: ‘Let us leave it to God.’ When the waters receded, all were astonished to see that the structure was undamaged. Cotton and his family fell on their knees on the banks of the river and gave thanks to God. The Dhawaleswaram anicut converted  into the rice bowl of south India the rich lands between the Gouthami and Vasista branches of the Godavari.

   When a great famine occurred in South India in 1876-77, killing millions, the British Parliament debated measures to mitigate the dangers of such calamities. Some parliamentarians raised references to Cotton’s works in the Cauvery and Godavari deltas. Detailing in several pages all the statistics he could gather, Cotton argued vehemently for extension of irrigation schemes in India. He proved that the real cost of irrigation was only two pounds an acre while the value of produce from irrigation was three pounds an acre. The British had spent 160 million pounds on railways in India, which strengthened their military control. Cotton pleaded that a quarter of that sum would have provided food security for Indians.  ‘Could there be a more grievous proof of our strange want of wisdom in management of the country…’ he cried. He concluded his plea to the Secretary of State for India with the trenchant statement: ‘My Lord, one day’s flow in the Godavari river during high floods is equal to one whole year’s flow in the Thames at London.’ He was not listened to, but they made him a General and gave him a knighthood.

   During 1970, the Godavari anicut was damaged after surviving for more than a hundred years, and a barrage was constructed in its place in 1982 to stabilize the ayacut under the Godavari River. The new Sir Arthur Cotton Barrage cost Rs.26 crores 60 lakhs to build. The length of the four arms of the barrage is 3.60 km. It is now irrigating around 4.10 lakh hectares in East and West Godavari Districts.

Later many attempts were made to follow in Cotton’s footsteps and further enrich the region. The Polavaram project which is causing so much dissension among interested politicians today was first penciled in by Sonti Ramamurthi, ICS, Chief Secretary of Madras Presidency in the early 1940s. His feasibility report on the construction of a dam across the Godavari near Bhadrachalam was shelved after independence and the breaking up of the presidency into several states. Cotton himself had argued for the linking of river waters to provide food security. In 1972, Dr K.L.Rao, another famous engineer, designed a 2640-km long Ganga-Cauvery link which envisaged the withdrawal of 1680 cumec of the flood flows of the Ganga near Patna for about 150 days in a year, and pumping about 1400 cumec of this water over a head of 549 metres for transfer to the peninsular region, while utilizing the remaining 280 cumec  in the Ganga basin itself. However, the capital cost of the Ganga-Cauvery link was considered too high.

Development of the resources of the great Godavari river continues to cause intense power struggles among politicians of neighbouring states, who unfortunately have not shown the same commitment to the interests of the poor as did Arthur Cotton. All the statues of British imperial rulers have been removed from their pedestals in independent India. General Sir Arthur Cotton has the unique distinction of having a statute raised in his honour by the grateful people of independent India. It stands on Tank Bund facing Hussain Sagar lake in Hyderabad.

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