Saturday, March 21, 2009

River water harvesting- 1812

The general impression that the history books prescribed in our schools, and the various ‘patriotic’ films manage to convey is that the intentions of the British were consistently malevolent and even technological developments such as the railway network were meant only to serve the purpose of looting the country and transporting the entire produce back to England.

Thankfully, Google Books enables us to dig into writings that date back to the eighteenth century and to gain a different perspective. In an earlier post, I had linked to a feasibility report prepared by a British engineer in 1847, on the wisdom of introducing a railway system in India. Justifying the commercial soundness of the project, he also talked of the benefits it would bring to the pilgrims and travelers in India.

Similarly, I came across a publication dated 1812, that suggests a system of water storage to benefit the poor peasant of India.

Lieutenant H. Harriott, 36th Rcgt. M. N. I., writing in the Madras Journal of Science and Literature, (pages 113-114)in the year 1812, offers hints for establishing a new system of supplying tanks with water, adapted particularly for the Carnatic, to enable the cultivation of rice and agriculture in general, to be carried to an indefinite extent without being dependent on the fall of rain in any particular district for a supply of water.

“Throughout the Carnatic there are large and rapid rivers which during some period of the year are filled from bank to bank, and during the remainder are mere beds of sand. Hitherto the useless waters have pursued their rapid course to the ocean without benefiting the country through which they pass, except in some cases, where the surface of the plain has been favourable to directing the stream into artificial channels and by that means irrigating a considerable portion of land, but this plan is naturally contracted in its operations and it depends on the ingenuity of man to retain those vast floods of water, which now flow by unused and unheeded.

I have generally observed that near most rivers and in many cases connected with them, are deep, and extensive ravines. It appears to me that at a small expense, small in comparison with the enormous sums lavished in keeping in repair the numerous tanks throughout the country, these ravines might be formed into basins, capable of containing an immense body of water, the said basins having a canal (the neck as it were attaching the head to the body,) between them and the river, with floodgates to be shut or opened at pleasure, should the nature of the ground be adapted for the purpose, and in most situations such will be found to be the case, the sides of the basin may be elevated considerably above the level of the river. To fill the basin, under such circumstances, a steam engine would be requisite for raising the water from the river and conducting it into its allotted channel.

And, then Lt Harriott speaks from his heart:

How often in this country, it may be asked, has the toil of the peasant and the seed been thrown away from the want of a small quantity of seasonable rain to bring the crop to maturity; so partial indeed is the rain, that whilst one part of the country is comparatively deluged, another within so short a distance as 50 miles is almost dry.

But, what about the expertise involved in operating the engines? Well, he says, the Indian natives can easily manage that.

At first from the novelty and difficulty of' procuring Engineers the expense of cultivation will be greater than when clever and scientific natives are brought forward, and I am sure there are many to be found both capable and willing after a little instruction to superintend the management of the engines : in proof of this opinion 1 would adduce the instance of how closely all mechanical improvements from England are copied by the Indian artisan.

Lt Hariott, goes on, to work out other details:

The path dividing the plots of paddy ground might be planted with palmyras and cocoanut trees, which during their growth would be useful in many ways and when old could be cut down and cut up into logs for the fires To prevent evaporation as much as possible, the form of the reservoir should be an oblong oval, the banks or bands turfed and planted with the most umbrageous trees, the roots of which striking into the earth, will give a stability to the soil, whilst the branches shade the water from the direct rays of the sun.

And concludes:

Surely no project can be more deserving of the attention and encouragement of a liberal government, than, the introduction of steam engines for the purpose of improving the agricultural process in India, as it will be the means of bringing large tracts of land into cultivation, which are now lying waste, and of rendering these territories independent of requiring foreign aid, as at present, in every occasion of scarcity.

There are numerous other advantages likely to arise from the adoption of this scheme, which are too obvious to require any lengthened comment, and I am sure that every generous mind would rejoice in the prospect of seeing India rise from her depressed state and condition by the very means which has raised England, to her present commercial superiority.

Incidentally, the Madras Journal of Science and Literature seemed to have provided the forum for the British located in Madras to understand the local customs, rituals, issues, etc and share with each other.

1 comment:

കിനാവള്ളി said...

Yes, quite often I wonder why the British period is depicted as a dark phase in our history and there is a competition of sorts to erase any connection with them by renaming streets, towns and institutions. For every colonialist who robbed this country, there were several others who contributed, in no small measure, to what we are today. The fact that we are able to communicate in English is a good example as also the system of justice and administration.