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August 01, 2017 Tuesday 12:22:49 PM IST

Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton: The Champion of Indian Farmers

Radicals & Visionaries

On 15th May of every year, thousands of people of Andhra Pradesh in India gather around the statues of an English man in several places in Godavari districts, especially in Rajahmundry and Eluru cities.


The crowd consists of a large number of farmers from the twin districts of Godavari besides engineers, administrators, academics, politicians and common men. They offer pooja with manthra and abhishekam with milk on the statues which they adore.


The statues referred to here are those of Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton, a British engineer who came to India in 1821 with a mission to develop irrigation systems in the country. It is estimated that more than 3000 statues of this great man exist in the East and West Godavari and Krishna districts of Andhra Pradesh. I have seen during my extensive travel in Andhra Pradesh common man speaking high of this English man. Even the illiterate man in the village who called him Dorai will say Cotton gave them food. His  photographs adorn the walls of houses of common farmers in the East and West Godavari districts.


Cotton started his career in India in the Thanjavur district of erstwhile Madras Presidency as an irrigation engineer. He transformed Thanjavur district into the rice bowl of Madras by constructing dams across the Cauvery.


Sir Arthur Cotton was born on 15th of May in 1803 in England, as the tenth son of Henry Calvely Cotton. At the age of 15 in 1818 Cotton joined as a cadet in military  at Addiscombe in Britain. When he was sixteen, his first assignment was survey for ordinance in Wales in England. He was later appointed at Royal Engineers without any examination as second lieutenant in the year 1819.


He moved in to Madras in India in 1821 and was attached to the office of the Chief Engineer of Madras Presidency. His talents for constructing irrigation structures were soon recognized by the British government and he was entrusted with the task of constructing a dam across Cauvery river in the then Madras Presidency. Cotton was promoted to the rank of Captain in the year 1828 and was entrusted with the work of investigation of irrigation scheme. The success of Cauvery scheme paved the way for greater projects in Krishna and Godavari to be undertaken by Cotton.


His master piece work that will be remembered by Telugu speaking people of India perhaps is the construction of Dowleshwaram barrage across the Godavari in Andhra Pradesh. In the year 1844 Cotton recommended construction of a barrage; an anicut (small dam) with a net work of canals field channels embankments and roads in the Godavari delta. Godavari is the most revered and long river after the Ganga in India.


Dowleshwaram is a village within the vicinity of Rajamundry city, where the small dam was to be constructed. Here the Godavari is around 4km wide. Before the Dowleshwaram barrage was commissioned the people of Godavari district had a different story to tell.


When the rains in the Western Ghats become heavy, the Godavari is in spate and all the nearby lands are inundated. During summer, the Godavari appears dry and nearby areas are gripped by drought. In 1800 the agricultural lands of Godavari were inundated by heavy floods. Subsequently people suffered from lack of food and drinking water due to droughts in 1833. People started moving en masse to other districts deserting their lands before the anicut was constructed. At the time of construction of Dowleshwaram barrage Godavari was a single district. In 1925 Godavari was divided into East Godavari and West Godavari districts. Thanks to the efforts of Sir Arthur Cotton, East Godavari is now the most populated and prosperous agricultural district of Andhra Pradesh. Curiously, much of the rice needed for Kerala comes from this district.


Young Cotton wanted water to reach the farm lands all over the district of the Godavari through a network of canals and channels for the farmers. He submitted a detailed proposal for constructing a barrage across the Godavari. Despite some reservations the British government granted sanction to construct the barrage in Dowleshwaram. The construction work started in 1847. In the year 1848 Cotton had to leave for Australia due to ill health. It caused him great concern about his dream project.


In 1850 he returned to India and was soon promoted as Colonel. The work started in full swing. Colonel Cotton spent hours in supervising the work and spent sleepless nights visualizing what should the project be like. A work force of 1500 people was employed for the mega project for round the clock activity. Innovative simple techniques were employed for excavation of earth and lifting of materials. Arthur Cotton was particular that only local materials should be used for the work. The work was completed in 1852. The barrage has a length of 3.5 km at a height of 4 meters. The anticipated area of irrigation was initially 80,000 acres which was raised to 16 lakh acres. The sad demise of his daughter due to snake bite while the barrage was under construction did not deter Cotton from his commitment to the farmers of Andhra. Cotton predicted a life of 100 years for the barrage; but, even after 160 years, the structure remains safe today.


During his journey on horseback he would stop to enquire about the welfare of a farmer and he often felt sorry for the pitiable condition of the farmer. Cotton had a vision to bring prosperity to the villages of  Godavari by providing water. His mission was to make farmers happy and ensure they will not desert their lands.


After the completion of Dowleshwaram barrage, Cotton shifted his attention to Aqua duct in the Krishna River. He later envisaged storage of Krishna and Godavari water. He also had a vision to connect the  major rivers of India. His contributions to developing irrigation system have no parallel in India and he is still remembered by the common man. It is the most significant award a country can give to a foreigner who worked with devotion, humility and commitment.


Sir Arthur Cotton retired from service in 1860 and was knighted in 1861. He was honoured with KCSI (Knight Commander of Supreme India) in 1877. Independent India remembers Sir Arthur Cotton for the outstanding contributions he made to the uplift of ordinary farmers of India. Sir Arthur Cotton passed away on 24th July, 1899, aged 96.

A museum and an institute established in 1899 in his honour in Rajahmundry are a befitting monument which deserves to be further uplifted as a Centre for Irrigation development and Research in India. In Hyderabad city the only statue of a foreigner seen along the tank bund is that of Arthur Cotton.


After hectic efforts, the Andhra Pradesh Hindi Academy and the Telugu Association could locate his tomb in Dorking 50 km from London. The inscription on the tomb reads, “Irrigation Cotton”.

13/07/2020 10:54:37 IST
ajith kumar p: a very informative piece of information. His efforts and vision regarding inland water transport in India can also be supplemented. this biographical sketch is very good.