Dammed it you dont: The hydraulic origins of the divergence between the Raj, India and Pakistan


Historians have put forth the the idea that complex political states originated as ‘hydraulic empires’, a need for ancient societies to manage vast water systems. Governments have evolved from their ancient origins to do a lot more beyond managing water. However, we shall see in this post that attitudes towards water can lead to important differences in the evolution of spatially and temporally adjacent political entities.

In terms of hydrology and geology, there are striking contrasts between the Indo-Gangetic plain and peninsular India. The Indo-Gangetic plain is drained by perennial rivers, fed by both Himalayan glaciers and monsoonal precipitation. Peninsular India, on the other hand, is drained only by monsoon-fed seasonal rivers. Geologically, the Indo-Gangetic plain is blessed with alluvial soil which is both fertile and holds groundwater. Peninsular India is composed of harder rocks, which leads to more runoff and less groundwater retention. Water has always been a much harder challenge in peninsular India than the Gangetic plain.

The British Raj and its successor state of India, had vastly different attitudes towards the hydro problems of peninsular India. However, the Raj’s successor state of Pakistan never had to deal with the water challenges of peninsular India. Pakistan remained agriculturally more productive per worker than India till 2017. India had to construct 5264 medium and large dams (compared to Pakistan’s 150) to overtake Pakistan on that count. A side effect was an advanced industrial and technical base.

We first discuss the dam policy of the British Raj, which is known for its investments in railways and canals. A striking rarity in the Raj’s impressive portfolio of grand infrastructure projects are mega dams. It is not that the British did not build significant water-works in India, but these were overwhelmingly barrages and canal irrigation projects. And the absence of large dams was not due to a lack of technical expertise, indeed, elsewhere in the empire, (notably Canada and Australia), British engineers pioneered the techniques that underlie the construction of modern, large scale dams.

So what explains the Raj’s dam reluctance in their richest canvas ? It is likely that the politics of British India underlies the inhibition towards dams. The centre of gravity of the British Indian empire was the Indo-Gangetic plain. It was the most populated region, the region which produced the most recruits for the British Indian army and the region they really needed to manage. And this region did not need dams. The large dams the British built were mainly in deep South India, the largest dam there was a project conceived by the king of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wodeyar.

The modern day Republic of India found itself in a very different political situation. The elites of peninsular India were organized and had the numbers to match their Gangetic counterparts. Prime minister Nehru, although Gangetic, was deeply influenced by the economic philosophy of the Soviet Union. At the time, the Soviet Union was a master of building mega dams. A massive dam building project ensued, all across India. In the Gangetic plain, this meant increased agricultural yields, but in peninsular India, the dams were a game-changer. Vast tracts of land in Madhya Pradesh were brought under productive cultivation. Interior Maharastra developed a sugarcane belt. Gujarat has become a leader in cotton, tobacco and groundnuts.

Equally important, dams made large cities viable outside the Gangetic plain. Dams and their reservoirs are the only reason the nascent urban centres of peninsular India (Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Hyderabad) could become the dynamic mega-cities they are today. In contrast, Gangetic plain cities continue to get their water from the perennial rivers that they are set on (Delhi-Yamuna, Lucknow-Gomti, Patna-Ganges, Kolkata-Hooghly and so on).

It is conceivable that the extreme importance of large dams and water management structures pushed India’s post-independent elites to invest heavily into engineering education. The public and private enterprises in charge of dam construction, irrigation boards, and hydroelectric machinery provided employment for the labour produced by these elite institutes. These projects thus serviced the needs and aspirations of both urban elites and the vast rural voting masses.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s situation was quite different. With the exception of Islamabad, Pakistan’s cities get their water in the same way Gangetic Indian cities do, surface water and ground water. Developing state-of-the-art water management technology was never an imperative for the Pakistani elite.


The Tears of the Rajas: One Family’s Experience of Serving the East India Company


From my personal blog:

Ferdinand Mount’s The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905 (Simon & Schuster 2015) tells the story of his grandmother’s family—the Lows of Chatto–who spent a century serving the East India Company. The book focuses on Mount’s  great-great grandfather, John Low, who arrived in India in 1805 and finally retired after the Mutiny of 1857 (the First War of Independence as it is known in India). John’s sons also served the Company, with one of them—General Sir Robert Low—being involved in the 1895 relief of Chitral, the northernmost outpost of British India (now in Pakistan).  The Lows were also related by marriage to other prominent British Indian families, including the Thackerays (which included the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray) and the Metcalfes. John Low’s daughter Charlotte married Theo Metcalfe, the son of Thomas Metcalfe, the British Resident at Delhi.  Through the stories of these families, Mount provides an enlightening perspective on what life was like for the British as they consolidated their Indian Empire during the 19th century.

It is ironic that John Low, who firmly believed in leaving native kingdoms alone whenever possible, was involved in the deposition of several princes from their thrones.    The first of these was the Maratha Peshwa, Baji Rao II.  In 1817-18, Low was the assistant to Sir John Malcolm and was responsible for getting the Peshwa to surrender and go into exile in Bithur, a small town just outside Cawnpore (modern Kanpur).   He also served as Baji Rao’s jailer in Bithur. The Peshwa’s surrender brought an end to the final Anglo-Maratha War.

Later, while serving as the British Resident at Lucknow, Low was responsible for deposing Munna Jan, the boy-king of Oudh (Awadh).  In 1837, after the death of Nawab Nasir-ud-din Haider, the British decided to put his uncle, Muhammad Ali Shah (Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s grandfather) on the throne.  However, the late Nawab’s stepmother, The Padasha Begum, had other plans and led a coup in favor of Nasir-ud-din’s son, Munna Jan.  Low thwarted this rebellion and sent the Begum and Munna Jan to Chunar Fort, near Benaras, where they were locked up for the rest of their lives.  A sepia drawing by Monsieur Dufay de Casanova, the Court Painter, entitled The Begum’s Attempt to Usurp the Throne of Oudh for Moona Jan, 7th July 1837 “conveys the darkling chaos with the heroic Resident standing firm and his brother-in-law John Shakspear with his huge black mustachios being manhandled by the supporters of the Begum, who is just visible in her palanquin below the throne” ( Mount 295).

In contrast to John Low, who did not believe that the British should annex territory, various Governors-General were interested in increasing the revenue of the Company and expanding the area under direct British rule.  The chief example is Lord Dalhousie, who is responsible for the final annexation of Oudh that sent Nawab Wajid Ali Shah into exile in Calcutta. Mount writes: “Across the path of these vital modern communications there still lay a wodge of native principalities, as much a barrier to the spread of British justice as to the British spirit of modernity. The petty princes of Bundelkhand, the greater rajas of Nagpur and Jhansi and above all the King of Oudh were an offense to His Lordship’s pious and impatient eye. With their eunuchs and their dancing girls, they stood, or rather rolled, in the way of progress” (416).  John Low was against Lord Dalhousie’s intent to annex territory, arguing that deposing native rajas who had not broken their word to the British alienated the people as did “remitting large portions of the revenue for pensions and salaries in England (which bring no return to India), instead of spending such revenues within the countries which produce them” ( 421).  He went further and wrote that “the natives of India are in one respect exactly like the inhabitants of all other parts of the known world, they like their own habits and customs better than those of foreigners” (423). Low recognized that British annexation was the cause of great resentment among the Indian people.

However, for Lord Dalhousie, Oudh was “a cherry which had long been ripening” (430).  In February 1856, Wajid Ali Shah was deposed. Mount writes: “Wajid Ali Shah was the last of the weeping Rajas to discover how much British friendship was worth. Every native prince’s dealings with John Low and his clan seemed to end in tears” (443).

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