Guesstimating a Future: Questioning Knowledge Formation, Expertise and ‘development’ in Post Independence India            

-Ramya Swayamprakash (

Large dams represent a gamut of ideas around the asocial and apolitical nature of water itself, i.e., ‘modern water’[1], expert control, and national space that are stitched together to yield hydraulic bureaucracies or hydrocracies. In the 20th century, the ‘hydraulic mission’ (See Molle et all 2009) was accepted across the globe and entrusted with hydrocracies which became synonymous with the project of ‘development’. These hydrocracies have left an indelible mark on national economies and geographies, constructing massive damming projects i.e. what India’s first Prime Minister called ‘temple[s] of modern India’. The effects of these projects have been a mixed bag. In India, these ideas about water and technology formed a template through which the hydrocracy—which took the form of the Central Water Commission (CWC)— conceived, discussed, and justified technological interventions. Rivers were described as natural features without history, ecology, and society, making a case for greater technological control.

Santhal TRibal Lady budhni-inaugurating-the-power-station-at-the-panchet-dam-in-december-1959-photo-nehru-memorial-museum-and-library-new-delhi.jpg Photo from: The Hindu

Santhal Tribal Lady Budhni inaugurating the power station at the Panchet dam in December 1959 photo Nehru memorial museum and library New Delhi Photo from: The Hindu

Using engineering voices from the Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development (IJPRVD) and Government of India publications, I attempt to puncture the ‘tunnel vision’ of hydraulic development in India. Juxtaposing two contrasting narratives within the engineering community, the attempt is simply to bring out the spirited debate on large dams in post independence India- a fact lost in the din about which narrative won.

Except one engineer, M.Karantha who was the Chief Electrical Inspector of the erstwhile Madras Presidency, all the other engineers quoted in this post viz. A.Khosla, K.L. Vij, S.N.Gupta, Kanwar Sain etc were a part of the Central Water & Power Commission (CW&PC) before it became the Central Water Commission (CWC).[2]

Transforming Rivers into datasets Hydraulic manipulation has a long history in the Indian subcontinent. Hydraulic engineers in the 20th century recast modern irrigation as the logical conclusion of millennia long hydraulic manipulation practices- projecting irrigation, specifically dams and canals, as age-old components of the riverine landscape thus establishing continuity with the ‘unbroken’ tradition of hydraulic manipulation. This projection was selective: it did not acknowledge the colonial state’s role in establishing a radical break in hydraulic principle in the subcontinent by introducing perennial irrigation; barrages and weirs that effectively flattened a river’s variable flow. Instead, independence was projected as the watershed moment at which the millennia long project of hydraulic manipulation would reach fruition in the form of large dam projects.

Interestingly, engineers saw colonialism as helping bring modern science and technology to India; colonialism’s only limitation was ‘that it constituted an insult in that it denied that Indians could fully be partners in the enterprise of modernity’ (Klingensmith 2007: 233). Modernity in their eyes was an inevitable process, denied to India pre-independence. Modern science was a universal, emancipating category. According to S.N. Gupta: ‘[S]cientific, engineering and industrial research directed towards greater understanding and greater control of material surroundings is the keynote of the modern search for progress and power’ (Gupta 1970:3).  The unfinished business of modernity, thus, was the complete control of nature, which could only be realized through the nation-state.

A villager wondering if his village will be submerged under Hirakud Dam. Photo: Biswaksen Bohidar from:

A villager wondering if his village will be submerged under Hirakud Dam. Photo: Biswaksen Bohidar from:

A System of Limits and Solutions One of the foremost challenges facing post independent India was food security. Narratives for water control underscore this challenge. There were carefully worded alarms about scarcity and impending catastrophe. Such warnings are found with striking regularity in the IJPRVDand the Silver Jubilee Souvenir of the CW&PC. For instance, S.N. Gupta asserted:

[T]he fateful year 1947- the year of India’s independence brought both responsibilities and opportunities. The country was faced with the basic question: Adequate production of food for the growing millions (S.N. Gupta 1970: 1).

The only way to meet this ever-increasing demand was to increase the area under cultivation by providing more water: The food production has to keep pace with the ever increasing requirements of population. The principal remedy for meeting this increased demand is to steadily extend irrigation facilities (Kanwar Sain 1959: 37a).

The answer was simply put: greater investment in developing water resources to ensure that the twin challenges of a rising population and looming food scarcity could be met effectively. Technology would provide solutions to tame nature for human needs.

There are two equally important elements in human progress. They are the development of spirit and character on the one hand, and the mastery of the physical world on the other… Without mastery over nature, our earth, as it stands would support but a small fraction of the present population… I submit that hunger and poverty are no longer beyond solution. The mastery over the physical world gives us the key to the problem. The most thickly populated regions on earth can be satisfactorily fed if the most effective known methods are applied. The technical possibilities of feeding the world will probably always run far ahead of the increase in population (Kanwar Sain 1957:1).This neo-Malthusian trap anticipated more than just technological problems and solutions. The rhetoric about looming scarcity and overpopulation served as a vantage point to drive home arguments for large multipurpose projects. This was an unprecedented move by Indian engineers in conceptualizing Indian rivers. Modeled on the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), these projects would render rivers into a ledger of flows and returns. As a complete system of inter-related projects, the aim was to ensure rivers would no longer ‘run waste to the sea’ (Khosla 1951:2). Basin-wide development therefore came to be premised on the scarcity trap. These visions of scarcity were axiomatic in two ways:

1)                  The ability of science and engineers to forewarn such a possibility due to the exact nature of their science and scientific method.

2)                  The need for planned development to ensure that fragile and unreliable natural resources could be yielded into reliable flows to provide consistent maximum returns.

Without large multi-purpose dam projects to control floods, manufacture electricity, provide water for irrigation, and utilize an ‘inexhaustible source of water supply in the form of rainfall’, all that water would go to waste (Khosla 1970a: 15). These projects would meet the pressing needs of the country:

[K]eeping in view the need of the country, priority has been accorded to projects likely to yield additional food at an early date. Large multi-purpose projects have been phased with a view to an early completion of their irrigation aspect (Dhir 1959: 57).

Indeed, as K.L. Vij stated while commenting on hydro-electric resources in India emphatically:

[E]ssentially the problem is simple, in that it resolves itself into an examination of the possibilities of utilizing “available water supplies” at the maximum possible head (Vij 1959: 64).

It was only through such a thorough examination of hydraulic heads that entire river basins could function as measures of water resources. As stocks of volumes, rivers held enormous possibilities, provided they were engineered holistically so as to ensure maximum returns.


Dr Ho-Chi-Minh, president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and other party members photographed at the dam site during his visit to Bhakra dam on February 8 1958 Photo:

Burgeoning Bureaucracy It’s [sic] (the CW&PC’s) development and march towards organizational expansion has been linked up with the development and planning of projects in the country since Independence and thus the stature of the Commission today is a barometer of the progress achieved by the country in the fields of irrigation and power (Jain 1970a: 21).

Kanwar Sain summed up the times emphatically: ‘[K]ey to the production of wealth is the Kilowatt. Underlying the country’s capacity to produce anything else is our capacity to produce power’ (Sain 1959: 37b. Emphasis added). There is a clear imperative to scale up through expert-led interventions. According to H.S. Desai,

[V]iewed purely from technical angle, and given all the goodwill that such cases deserve other angles, it is felt that engineers could and should have the last word on the development of the water resources of the country (Desai and Rao, 1970: 82).

Development, it might seem, could best achieved if driven by expert-led organizations like CW&PC. This championing of a burgeoning hydrocracy helped incubate and insulate it from overt political and social questions.

Holistic Planning for Basin-wide Development Planning water resource development required rearranging rivers into basin-units instead of geographies or people. Rivers as basin-units, like the larger nation state were comparable and amenable to technological solutions for resource optimization, and wired apolitically. Sain clearly charted out a course for the same:

[T]o make effective use of waters for irrigation, navigation, power and other allied purposes, it is necessary that a careful and unified development of the whole basin is planned irrespective of that number of States or Provincial boundaries that may be involved. It is only in this manner that optimum utilization of resources of the entire water-shed can be made and waste of any potential resources of the valley eliminated. If the entire basin is not developed as a unit there is the possibility of confusion arising when each State starts controlling the river from its own point of view (Sain 1959: 37b-c).

Some of the many voices include those of M.L. Sood, A.N. Khosla and S.K. Jain:

Practically all the river systems of the country run through more than one State. Their balanced development in the interest of navigation and other objects, e.g., irrigation, hydro-electric power and flood control, demands that the entire valley is treated as one unit irrespective of State boundaries (Sood 1959:52).

Modern technology for conservation and utilization of water resources is making rapid strides. With a unified and integrated approach to the development and utilization of surface and ground waters and to problems of agriculture and irrigation, this challenge (of looming resource crunch and a steady population rise) can be met (Khosla 1970a: 14).

It has been well recognized that river basin should be considered a single unit for development of water resources (Jain, 1970:12).

A basin-based approach across rivers was thus, the most efficient means to develop the nation’s water resources: ‘[T]he water and power resources of a region, basin and sub-basin and the transfer and interchange of both water and power between regions, basins and sub-basins in the overall interest of the country and regions concerned’(Khosla 1970a:12). These arguments combined to form the basis for a National Water Grid — an idea first proposed by Sir Arthur Cotton in the 19th century. Post Independence, the grid was seen as a means to ensure that the excesses of one river basin could replenish the deficiencies of another:

Large areas in Western, Central and Southern India have a very low rainfall while in the Northern and Eastern regions heavy monsoon rains cause extensive floods and large volumes of water flow waste to the sea. The National Water Grid has been conceived for remedying this imbalance to a certain extent by transferring waters from surplus regions to deficit areas by interlinking the various river basins so that transfer of water becomes possible (Rao 1979:104).

Rivers, thus, came to be re-conceptualized as units that could be rationally developed for maximum usage through multi-purpose projects. The natural world came to be arranged as a system of excesses and deficits that could be corrected with mathematical precision to yield steady, uniform returns. To the post-independence engineering mind, the National Water Grid was not a possibility but a certainty; the question was when it would become reality & not if it is desirable, viable or acceptable:

[T]hese policies will have to be implemented sooner or later for the survival and prosperity of our country (Rao 1979:100).

Driven by a burgeoning hydrocracy, the National Water Grid would render the riverine landscape entirely legible and amenable to complete development as well as provide impetus to power sector development, with reliable flows for hydropower generation. Tapped from source to mouth, river would cease to flow freely or at all. Instead, they would populate man made lakes; the tail of one reservoir would be the beginning of another hydro-project.

Rivers were thus reified and reconceptualized as prospective models that could be reproducible; a function of heads and cusecs. The development apparatus thus acquired ‘the character of calculability’ (Mitchell 2002:92) that mediated between material realities and the abstractions of science and politics. Numerical indicators came to speak for themselves and became tangible enough to mold facts. Rivers came to be organized in a linear fashion, as reproducible units across landscapes that were framed and solved technologically.

Marking the Elisions Despite their self-assuredness, these claims faced doubts, criticisms, opposition and questions. Engineers’ own admissions about the nature of hydrology are telling:

When the position regarding the resources of the country began to be reconsidered after the attainment of Independence in August 1947, it became apparent that there was very little data to enable an accurate estimate of the power potential to the country. Even selection of schemes for immediate detailed investigations had to be done on an ‘ad hoc’ basis (Vij 1959:64; emphasis original).

Indeed, according to the Five Member Review of the Sardar Sarovar Project by Patil et al, the CWC itself admitted:

Hydrology as a discipline is different from most of the engineering disciplines. Natural phenomena, with which hydrology is concerned, though have underlying physical processes, are complex and not amenable, to deterministic approach: They do not lend themselves to rigorous analysis not offer unique solutions as are possible in engineering mechanics [sic]. Since water resource development activity cannot be delayed for want of data of adequate quality and quantity, best judgement has to be resorted to. In the field of hydrology one has to devise methods to suit the data available and come out with solutions. Accepting a solution in turn needs judgement with due consideration to sociological, economic and political situations (Patil et al, 1994:7; emphasis added, see:

Development plans preceded data, in lieu of which, projections and assumptions would have to do. Until 1958, when the erstwhile Ministry of Irrigation and Power (now the Ministry of Water Resources) set up a number of gauge and discharge observation stations on the Ganges and its tributaries to assess the flow, plans for river development were based on A.N. Khosla’s pioneering formula to calculate stream flows based on certain assumptions.

Voices of dissent constantly called for a more reflexive, inclusive, and engaged process of development. M.V. Karantha, the Chief Electrical Inspector of the erstwhile Madras Presidency was an early critic. In his article in the March 1952 issue of IJPRVD, he charged that his colleagues built for themselves and for Western observers rather than for India’s villagers. He observed that in India, like in other parts of Asia, ‘it has been the small tail of urban population that has been waging the body, the rural population’ (Karantha 1952: 11). In order to realise the true embodiments of democracy, he asked engineers to realise that engineers should utilise their education and training ‘not only for own self-advancement but also for the benefit of the common man if democracy is to be real and to survive’. According to Karantha, the common man is the single most important denominator for gauging the efficacy of engineering processes and technology. He said,

[I]f we Indian Engineers are to  be praised for what we have done and what we are going to do for our country, obviously the praise has to be for what we have done and what we are going to do for these majority people, the common man (Karantha 1952:11).

Karantha championed the need for local solutions because, ‘[O]ur economic and industrial problems are peculiarly our own’ (Karantha 1952:16). He was particularly critical of western models that were prescriptively and sometimes uncritically imported to India:

[O]nly if we realise that in the field of technology the problem of India is indeed very different from that of the Western countries whose practice we have been blindly adopting. Ours is a country in which the population has now grown beyond any easily manageable limit. Even our annual increase of population is as much as that of the entire population of some of the smaller nations of Europe. Our resources though not bad are like the property of a middle class man which has got to be divided amongst his dozen children. There is too little to go around to all to enable us to act as if we are engineers living in America. We have no great outside markets for manufactured good from which we can enrich ourselves for us to act as if we were the rich British or Swiss engineers. It will be a tremendous task to increase our prosperity yearly even to the extent our population is increasing yearly. It is exceedingly stupid and suicidal for a poor man to imitate a rich man. For a similar reason, it is suicidal for us to imitate our poor country the methods which the rich and prosperous Western countries have adopted. We have no tangible proof whatsoever that we can ever catch up with them for very many decades to come (Karantha 1952: 18).

Karantha was extremely anxious about a centralized bureaucracy:

It seems to be that there is often, for people in our country, a fascination for collecting more power for themselves and to believe that others can never be trusted to do things so efficiently. But more the centralization the less the touch with local conditions which alone are capable of being turned to advantage by way of cheapness and quickness of action, so essential for our country. Engineers sitting far away do not find it easy to tackle endless local problem of varied types. So they insist on standardization, however costly it be. They have also better chances of salaries and promotion, the more the services are centralised. But it is the common man that finally pays for all the costliness, delays and misunderstanding of local problems. Nor is over-centralisation the way to train our people in democracy (Karantha 1952: 20).

In a more focused critique, engineer Ram Kishore examined the financial aspects of irrigation works, asking questions of transparency, efficiency etc. He remarked that:

A large number of irrigation works and other development projects are under consideration, investigation or construction in India. Some of them have been completed. Figures of actual cost in the case of completed projects, and of estimated cost in the case of other projects are usually available with ease, through often very late; but figures of anticipated net profits and other figures for the comparison of different projects are usually not available to the public. They are worked out in Government offices but are not usually published, apparently in order to avoid or reduce criticism.

All estimates and forecasts are in their very nature approximate and liable to prove more or less wrong, or incorrect when the project has been built and developed, more specially when the time of construction and development is long. We all make estimates and forecasts, and it is very important to do so, even if they prove a hundred percent out in the end; only we should try and make our estimates as correct as possible, and also invite suggestions and criticism. All printed literature about Government Projects should be made available to the public, sufficiently in advance of their being sanctioned so that non-government engineers, and others can offer suitable criticism. This is very important in a democratic country, even though it will to some extent increase work in Government offices. It will most probably do a great deal of good. In the absence of correct information criticism, where made, is usually based on wrong information and does more harm than good (Kishore 1952: 29-30).

At first glance, it might have seemed that the development process in post independence India was undeterred. In questioning the centralizing tendencies of the bureaucracy and calling for greater transparency and locality in the planning process, these brief but powerful early critiques point to the frictions in development. Without remarking on which side and why, these critiques offer a radical puncturing to the ‘tunnel vision’ of hydraulic engineers. As a critique coming from within the engineering community itself, they point to the fact that maybe development did not have as much of a buy in as the early heady narratives might have had us believe.

These couple of critical voices cited above were not the only critical voices present in those initial years after independence, there were many others. But these are given here as examples to point out that there were voices even from within engineering fraternity that were pointing that alternative development paths were available, and that the path taken was not the only option available to the society. In fact even Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, in his speech before the annual meeting of CBIP in November 1958, talked about disease of gigantism plaguing Indian dam establishment (see page 6 of June 2006 issue of “Dams, Rivers & People”, see:

Why did Nehru not change the course after that speech is another question. The non-accountable culture that water engineering clan was allowed to indulge in is continuing to damage to this day. But that is another story.

Works cited:

Agnew, John. “The Territorial Trap: The Geographical Assumptions of International Relations Theory.” Review of International Political Economy 1, No. 1 (1994): 53–80.

Dams, Rivers & People, June 2006, p 6 (

Dhir, R.D. “Utilisation of Water Resources India.” Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development 2, No. 6 (May 1952): 1-8.

—. “Water Resource Utilisation in India: A Brief Review.” Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development 9, Numbers 6 & 7 (June- July 1959, CW&PC Special Number): 49-51.

Gupta, S.N. “Challenges of Seventies, Eighties ….and Central Water & Power Commission.” In Central Water & Power Commission (CWPC) Silver Jubilee Souvenir. New Delhi: Ministry of Irrigation and Power, Government of India, 1970.

—. “Challenges of Seventies, Eighties, And Central Water & Power Commission.” In Central Water & Power Commission (CWPC) Silver Jubilee Souvenir, 1-3. New Delhi: Ministry of Irrigation and Power, Government of India, 1970.

Hayath, M. “Power Development in India.” Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development 9, Numbers  6&7 (June-July 1959, CW&PC Special Number): 39-39i.

Jain, S.K. “25 Years of CWPC- A Historical Review.” In Central Water & Power Commission (CWPC) Silver Jubilee Souvenir, 18-22. New Delhi: Ministry of Irrigation and Power, Government of India, 1970a.

—. “Problems in Irrigation Development in India.” In Central Water & Power Commission (CWPC) Silver Jubilee Souvenir, 180-183. New Delhi: Ministry of Irrigation and Power, Government of India, 1970b.

Karantha, M.V. “The Engineer and the Country.” Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development 3, No. 4 ( March 1952): 11-22.

Khosla, Ajudhiya Nath. “Central Water and Power Commission: April 1945 to April 1970.” In Central Water & Power Commission (CWPC) Silver Jubilee Souvenir, 10-17. New Delhi: Ministry of Irrigation and Power, Government of India, 1970a.

—.“My Reminiscenes of The Central Water Commission.” 20, No. 3 (March 1970b, CW&PC Special Number): 107-111.

—. “Our Plans.” Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development 1, No. 7 (1951): 1-4.

Kishore, Ram, “Financial Aspects of Irrigation Works,” Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development 2, No. 5(April 1952), 29-30.

Klingensmith, Daniel. One Valley and a Thousand: Dams, Development and Nationalism. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Linton, Jamie. What is Water: The History of a Modern Abstraction. Vancouver, Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2010.

Molle, François, Peter P Mollinga, and Philippus Wester. “Hydraulic bureaucracies and the hydraulic mission: Flows of water, flows of power.” Water Alternatives 2, No. 3 (2009): 328‐349.

Patil, J., Vasant Gowarikar, Ramaswamy R Iyer, L. C. Jain, and V. C.Kulandaiswamy. “Report of the Five Member Group Set Up by the Ministry of Water Resources to Discuss Various Issues Relating to the Sardar Sarovar Project.” New Delhi, 21 April 1994.

Rao, Dr. K.L. Cusecs Candidate: Memoirs of an Engineer. New Delhi: Metropolitan Press, 1979.

Rao, G.V., and H.S. Desai. “Role of CW&PC in development of inter-state rivers.” In Central Water & Power Commission (CWPC) Silver Jubilee Souvenir, 80-82. New Delhi: Ministry of Irrigation and Power, Government of India, 1970.

Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Sain, Kanwar. “Administrative Organisations for Water Development Projects and Inter-State Rivers in India.” In Central Water & Power Commission (CWPC) Silver Jubilee Souvenir, 166-171. New Delhi: Ministry of Irrigaiton and Power, Government of India, 1970.

—. “Developing India’s Water and Power Resources.” Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development 9, Numbers 6 & 7 (June-July 1959, CW&PC Special Number): 37-37b &37c.

—. “The Engineer in the Developing Community.” Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development 7, No. 3 (March 1957): 1-7.

Scott, James. “High Modernist Social Engineering: The Case of the Tennessee Valley Authority.” In Experiencing the State, by Lloyd I Rudolph and John Kurt Jacobsen, 2006. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 3-52.

Sood, M.L. “Inland Navigation in India.” Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development 9, Nos. 6&7 (June-July 1959, CW&PC Special Number): 45-48 & 52.

Thakkar, Himanshu “Who takes decisions for large Dams? How? Why? Who profits? Who pays? Many questions, few answers” South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People, October 2005 (

Vij, K.L. “India’s Hydro-Electric Resources and Their Assessment.” Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development 9, Numbers 6&7 (June-July 1959, CW&PC Special Number): 63-67.


[1] Jamie Linton contends that the ‘modern idea of water as an objective, homogenous, ahistorical entity is complimented by its physical containment and isolation from people and reinforced by modern techniques of management that have enabled many of us to survive without having to think much about it’. He states that the twin processes of the formulation of water as a chemical formula, i.e. H2O and the development and dissemination of the concept of the hydrologic cycle represent an important contribution to the idea of abstract, modern water. In a philosophical investigation elaborating the fundamental incompatibility of modern water with people, Linton argues that despite being produced in relation to social practice, modern water is nevertheless taken to be entirely independent of social relations. Borrowing from Bruno Latour and Actor Network Theory, he claims that the ‘fictional’ independence of water from society is at the core of the ‘constitution of modern water’. This constitution of modern water holds together ‘only so long as the appearance can be sustained in hydrological and popular discourse’. See Jamie Linton, What is Water? A History of a Modern Abstraction (Kingston and Toronto: University of British Columbia Press 2010, p. 21and 175).

[2] The Central Water & Power Commission (CW&PC) was reconstituted as the Central Water Commission in 1974 & Central Electricity Authority. The CW&PC itself had a long gestation period and was a combination of a bunch of institutions that dealt with inland navigation, power generation, and hydraulic engineering.

[3] To read the story of Budhni Mejhan, see:

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