For Indians, Ganga is not just a river but a life-giver that has nourished successive civilisations. This is the Doab region, the large swathe of land between the Ganga and Yamuna rivers in North India, which has some of India’s most fertile land.
But when the rains failed to arrive in 1837-38, the region was hit by a calamity of epic proportions. Famine was declared, taking the lives of nearly 800,000 people and sparking mass migration. The relief work cost the then British government in money spent and losses from land-revenue not less than Rs 1 crore.
The scale of the devastation was so great that Governor-General Lord Auckland commissioned an irrigation scheme, which resulted in the building of the Ganga Canal. But no one expected a plan that started out as a drought-proofing measure to become a marvel of engineering, then unparalleled in the world.
In 1839, a British engineer named Major (later Sir) Proby Cautley was granted funds to survey the swathe of land from Haridwar to Kanpur, the projected course of the canal that was around 500 km long. In 1841, his report as well as his plan was enthusiastically approved by the Court of Directors of the East India Company. It generated much excitement as an enterprise of such grand proportions had never been attempted in India.
But Cautley’s ambitious plan was not without its share of challenges. As soon as work commenced by opening the excavation work between Kankhal and Haridwar, the new Governor General, Lord Ellenborough, halted it on grounds that money could not be spared for a project that was ‘unsound’ from an engineering point of view. After much persuasion, he allowed a grant of Rs 2 lakh a year, which was totally inadequate even for those times.
In 1844, James Thomason, the Lieutenant Governor of the North-Western Provinces announced that the canal would not only be used for irrigation purposes but also for navigation and would earn revenue through the transportation of goods. The grant was increased by Rs 1 lakh a year!
However, this was a formidable combination (irrigation and navigation) to attempt at a time when hydraulics was at its nascent stage. Also, the requirements of the two canals were different and this made it more challenging. But Cautley was determined to press ahead and he made preparations for smooth entry and exit points for boats.
But, in 1845, his health deteriorated and he returned to Britain to recuperate. But there was no rest for this ambitious engineer, who used the time to study contemporary waterworks in the United Kingdom and Italy. On his return to India, he found the political climate more conducive to the Ganga Canal plan than it was when he had left, with Governor General Lord Hardinge at the helm of affairs. The Governor General commissioned more surveys, visited the head works himself and finally sanctioned a grant of Rs 20 lakh a year. Fortunately, his successor, Lord Dalhousie, was an equally strong supporter of public works.
The canal’s financial problems had finally ended but the project faced fresh challenges. The Hindu priests at Haridwar felt that the construction of the dam at the mouth of the canal would ‘imprison’ the holy waters of the Ganga. So Cautley assured them that he would leave a gap in the dam from where the water could flow unchecked. He further appeased the priests by undertaking the repair of bathing ghats along the river. He also inaugurated the dam by invoking the blessings of Lord Ganesha, the Hindu god of new beginnings.
Just as the canal’s social problems had been set to rest, technical ones surfaced. The Solani river bed in Roorkee obstructed the canal and a bridge had to be built. But there was a greater challenge – Cautley did not have skilled subordinates to pull off such a feat. This resulted in the setting up of India’s first engineering college, which evolved into IIT-Roorkee. The college trained British officers and Indian locals to help with the canal’s construction.
The Solani problem gave way to the building of India’s first aqueduct, a benchmark in brick masonry structure, and the most stupendous work on the whole line of the canal. Interestingly, this also led to another first - India’s first steam engine in 1851. The line was built to carry soil needed for the construction of the aqueduct from Piran Kaliyar, 10 km from Roorkee.
Finally, three years later, thanks to the dogged perseverance of Cautley, the Ganga Canal was opened on 8th April 1854 with much pomp. People across India and engineers from all over the world came to witness the Ganga’s waters embark on a new course, one that would bring peace and prosperity to the region it nourished.
The Editor of The Statesman, Ian Stone had then remarked, “It was the largest canal ever attempted in the world, five times greater in its length than all the main irrigation lines of Lombardy and Egypt put together, and longer by a third than even the largest USA navigation canal, the Pennsylvania Canal.”
The project, in its entirety, cost Rs 1.5 crore and initiated a new era in Indian public works. Though canal navigation stopped around 1930 when alternative faster means became popular, the irrigation is still the lifeline of a population that has swelled manifold today, 165 years after its waters set a new benchmark in global engineering.
Cover Image: The Canal at Roorkee where once two lions sat at one end to mark the beginning of the canal’s irrigation area.