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Human Interest

General Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton, British India’s irrigation engineer remembered

Renowned delta architect, General Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton was born on May 15, 1803 in Woodcote, Oxfordshire,. The notable irrigation engineer has been credited as the driving force behind the construction of irrigation and navigation canals across erstwhile British India, most notably the Godavari river. Some of his most acclaimed works include the Doweleswaran Barrage in Rajamahendravaram, the Prakaram Barrage in Vijayawada and the Kurnool Kadapa Canal or the KC Canal located in Kurnool and Cuddapah districts in Andhra Pradesh. He was Inspired by the architectural genius of the Chola emperor Karikalan at the Grand Anicuta. Despite breathing his last on 24 July 1899 General Cotton’s legacy has survived the test of time in modern India, especially in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Following the 218th birth anniversary of the delta architect’s birth anniversary, Frontier India delves into the life and work of the military innovator.     

Life and Times of a Colonial Innovator

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One of 11 brothers, he was the 10th son to Henry Calvely Cotton, (uncle of the legendary Field Marshal Lord Combermere). Cotton began his time in the military in the year 1818 at the ripe age of 15, joining the erstwhile East India Company (EIC) through its military seminary at Addiscombe, Surrey. The following year saw him successfully complete basic training from Scientific Corps of Royal Engineers in December 1819 following which was commissioned as a sapper in the company’s Madras Engineer Group, with the rank of Second Lieutenant (2Lt). His military career began in January 1820 with Ordnance Survey at Bangor, North Wales, where his military records indicate that he manages to make a name for himself. In 1821, the following year, Cotton was deployed to British India, as part of an engineering detachment, assisting the Chief Engineer to Madras presidency. He subsequently received the appointed of being an Assistant Engineer to Superintending Engineer of the Tank Department.

Eight years into his military career, Cotton had managed to rise up to the rank of Captain (1828) and was subsequently placed in charge of inspecting the Cauveri Scheme. Capt. Cotton had begun the delicate process of getting rid of the soil settling in the Kallanai Dam and had successfully managed to use the model of the dam and was able to construct the Upper Dam in Cauveri (Kaveri) situated in Mukkombu, near Tiruchirapalli. It is also said that Cotton had built the Lower Anaicut Dam in Anaikarai. His numerous successes in these types of complex hydro projects laid the foundation stone of his hydrographic expertise and paved the way for him to spearhead major projects on the great rivers.

In 1848, almost a century before India got its Independence from its colonial overlords, Cotton was posted to Australia following medical complications. He handed over his duties to a Captain Orr before his departure and had only returned to the country two years later as a colonel. It was during this time that Cotton completed the first of his many high-profile projects with his work at the Godavari river at Rajamahendravaram in 1852.

Armed with critical experience and confidence Col. Cotton began concentrating his efforts to the building of the aqueduct on the Krishna River, a project which was sanctioned in 1851 and completed in four years (1855). Next, he envisaged the storage of the Krishna and Godavari river waters. In 1858, he began to envisage even more ambitious projects. One such plan was to connect all of the country’s major rivers and interlink canals and rivers. Cotton even recommended drought-relief measures for Odisha a place known to face issues of water scarcity. The military man retired as a General rank officer with around four decades of experience in uniform. Following his retirement in 1860, he went back to his home country and was subsequently knighted in 1861. He visited India the following two years during which he gave his professional advice on river valley projects. General Cotton’s work in India did not go unrecognised and was conferred the Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India in 1877. Over 17 years since his retirement from the military.

Despite his decorated career in service to the British Crown, her majesty’s humble servant was not liked by his superiors, in fact historical accounts indicate that he was despised, and numerous attempts had been made to boot the officer out of the service, with it having gone as far as having an impeachment proceeding having been initiated. It is believed that that the ire of Cotton’s superior officers stemmed from his empathy towards the plight faced by local Indian population in their own land. During a routine visit to some of the famine and cyclone ravaged districts of the Godavari river, the General was reported to have become distraught upon witnessing the squalid conditions the people were living in. It is this sight of the famished populace which is said to have served as a major driving force behind his efforts to provide a more efficient water supply system and had envisioned the plan to harness the waters of Godavari to serve the locals of the community living next to the great river.

The General’s intentions have not gone unacknowledged by the people of India, he is especially revered for by the people of Andhra Pradesh who have built the Sir Arthur Cotton Museum in Rajamahendravaram, the site of famous Dowleswaram Barrage Barrage in his honour. The Dowleswaram Barrage was built as an irrigation structure on the Godavari river in 1850 was rebuilt in Independent India in the year 1970. The project was rechristened under his name by the Indian government. General Cotton’s lasting legacy can perhaps be best surmised by Indian Policymaker, Gautam Pingle who said, “The idea of interlinking of rivers in India to form a national water grid, an idea which had gained much attention from the Indian government and policy-makers at the turn of the 21st century, was in fact an idea that is more than 120 years old as it was first envisioned by Arthur Cotton.”   

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General Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton, British India’s irrigation engineer remembered
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