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Ramesh, Aditya (2019) Water technocracy : dams, experts and development in south India. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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This thesis excavates the origins of the multipurpose river valley project in colonial India, examining the first large multipurpose project, the Mettur dam on the River Cauvery, finished by Madras government in 1934. While most studies of the multipurpose reservoir have examined it in light of the Nehruvian developmental state, cold war politics, and narratives of resistance, this thesis locates its development in practices of finance, expertise, environmental change and technology that emerged in colonial times. The thesis argues that the construction of large dams in India became technically and financially feasible in the second half of the nineteenth century through a system of public borrowing from the Bank of England. Large infrastructure projects, such as dams, were known as ‘productive works’, and rooted in practices of debt financing whereby provincial governments that borrowed money to construct them were required to repay loans from the earnings of the project. The thesis then turns its attention to the Mettur project on the Cauvery River. It shows how constructing a large dam involved the mobilization of engineering expertise from across the world, was enmeshed in the changing political scenario in British India and had to negotiate local water politics. While the Mettur dam was initially envisioned as a dam meant solely for irrigation, in the decades following the First World War, the colonial state sought to make ‘productive’ and earn revenue from dam in new ways. A new set of experts, electrical engineers, believed that producing hydroelectricity from large dams a way to both earn more revenue from dams and expand the ‘economy’. Having acquired large tracts of land around the Mettur dam which produced electricity, engineers, urban planners and revenue officials invited industrialists to setup industries, and convert the dam-site into a planned industrial township. In the inter-war years, while heavily contested, the technocratic establishment assembled around the Mettur dam converted it from a dam meant for irrigation to a multipurpose project. Finally, the thesis examines how the Second World War changed the perception of large dams, and the Mettur dam in particular, from an inefficient source of irrigation to a powerful engine of ‘development’. Taken together, the three moments, i.e., shifts in late nineteenth century finance and public works policy, the inter-war economy and the Second World War, definitively shaped the emergence and place of the multipurpose river valley project in colonial and postcolonial history. Further, the multipurpose reservoir had three important effects on southern India. First, it inaugurated a new economic imagination, centrally driven by electrification, which was to make every facet of life, including agrarian, industrial and urban life, more productive. Second, due to the expanding reach of the multipurpose reservoir, a new class of experts, such as electrical engineers, urban planners and agricultural scientists acquired new powers to extend their control over the agrarian countryside and emerging industrial-urban enclaves. Third, large dams allowed for the use of river water in unprecedented ways and quantities leading, by the 1970s, to serious conflicts over water and water scarcity.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses
Supervisors Name: Shabnum Tejani
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 04 Feb 2020 09:53

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