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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 17 New Delhi April 16, 2016

Ambedkar, the Architect of Damodar Valley Corporation

Friday 15 April 2016, by A K Biswas

April 14, 2015 marks Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary. The following article is being published on that occasion.

Sometime in April 2003 a Bengali engineer of the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC), posted somewhere near the Jharkhand-West Bengal border, met me at Patna with the request to address a seminar to mark the Ambedkar birth anni-versary celebrations organised by their employees’ association. I enquired from him if he could relate the leader anyway with the Damodar Valley Corporation, the first ever river valley project of India. He was unaware of it but he told me that Dr Meghnad Saha, the eminent physicist, is remembered in his organisation for planning the river valley project. Ambedkar is not recalled for any role in this respect. To put it very mildly, this is simply the result of intellec-tual profligacy, leading to complete black-out of information about his great foresight and leadership for the pioneering river valley project.

Last November (2015), I met the DVC Chair-man, Andrew W.K. Langstieh, at his head-quarters at Kolkata to gather information if the Corporation has any archival materials throwing light on the role Dr B.R. Ambedkar played in the establishment of the river valley project for water management in the country. The Corporation’s librarian, after due search, informed me that no such material was available there. Dr Ambedkar is not known to the employees. This sounds like the case where the children are unaware of their father!

Wavell and Ambedkar Crossed 

Swords over DVC

As a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, Dr B.R. Ambedkar held charge of Labour and Public Works. In present-day parlance, he was the Minister for Labour and Public Works of the Union of India. In that capacity Ambedkar was actually the architect of the Damodar Valley Corporation which was the first river valley project in India. Following successful implemen-tation of the DVC, independent India embarked upon a massive programme for implementation of multipurpose river valley projects all over India in the Five-Year Plans for economic development. Lord Wavell was the Viceroy of India when the first river valley project was taken up for formulation.

The Viceroy had in mind a British engineer for the top slot of the upcoming venture. The veteran journalist of yesteryear, Durga Das, focused on an epic clash of the two titans—Viceroy Wavell and the member of his Executive Council, Ambedkar—were arrayed against each other over the issue:

A chief engineer was needed to head the commission to draw up plans for flood control in the Damodar Valley Corporation in Bihar. Wavell favoured the choice of a British expert who had been adviser on the Aswan Dam project in Egypt. Ambedkar, however, wanted an American who had experience of the development undertaken by the Tennessee Valley Authority. He argued in support of his demand that Britain had no big rivers and its engineers lacked experience in building big dams.1

The Viceroy was the supreme authority repre-senting the British Empire in India, extending from the Khyber Pass to Burma and the Himalayas to Kanyakumari, embracing Pakistan and Bangladesh and Burma of the present-day. India was far larger than the truncated India today. Under the colonial dispensation the Viceroy enjoyed unrivalled power and authority over the subcontinent and hardly anybody was expected to challenge that Supreme Paramount authority; any such challenge was tantamount to indelible audacity.

Can we imagine that a Cabinet colleague in independent India takes a position on any issue of public interest and crosses swords with the Prime Minister or, for that matter, a State Minister with his Chief Minister as Ambedkar did with the Viceroy of India? If anyone at all does, he does not survive as a Minister thereafter even for a minute. But anybody who stands up and presses for ideas different from the Paramount must be a man of indomitable courage and commitment for public cause. As a matter of fact, Ambedkar responded to the call of his inner conscience and humbled the supreme authority of the Empire in India. He could do it because he did not espouse his personal agenda in self-service. What he did was in the best interest of the country.

Commenting on his indomitable spirit and moral courage, Durga Das again noted: “Ambedkar was perhaps the most erudite member of the Executive Council and was a powerful speaker. He was a nationalist to the core.....Once an Indian colleague proposed a Bill to apply economic sanctions against South Africa because of maltreatment of Indian settlers in that country. The European members opposed the measure. Ambedkar thundered the table in anger and said India’s self-respect was at stake. His spirited intervention proved decisive and the Council approved the Bill.”2

 Nevertheless, Arun Shourie in 1997 had launched a tirade against Ambedkar in his work, Worshipping False Gods. He presented Ambedkar as “the loyal Minister”3 of the Empire to the glee of many loaded with malice against the Executive Member. Ambedkar’s only objective in the case of the DVC was that an American engineer with working experience in the Tennessee Valley Authority would be befitting for the assignment in the interest of eastern India where the Damodar was the river of sorrows for Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand. In the downstream, the ferocity of the Damodar inflicted untold miseries on millions of villagers in Bengal for year after year over decades and perhaps centuries. Devastating floods of Damo-dar having inflicted widespread damages without parallel in 1823, 1848, 1856, 1859, 1863, 1882, 1890, 1898, 1901, 1905, 1907, 1913, 1816, 1923, 1935, and 1843 are on record. He did not fight with Wavell for setting up a river valley project in his home Bombay Presidency as is the norm these days. His difference with the Governor-General was based on principle.

We can imagine the scene in the Executive Council’s meeting inside the Cabinet Chamber. The Viceroy wanted a British engineer for the DVC. Ambedkar stood up to veto the Paramount’s proposal. Not only did he oppose it, but successfully torpedoed the move also. Imagine as well the carping and conspiratorial Anglo-Indian press reporting the event next day for their powerful dailies. The tone and tenor of their despatches were all but venomous. They did not conceal their disdain in hurling insinuation at the Viceroy for his failure to tame a native member of his Council. The Anglo-Indians were joined by the well-heeled loyal Indians, a powerful and privileged class, in hurling abuses in the vilification campaign against Ambedkar.

How come Ambedkar was still not dismissed from the Executive Council? Were the colonialists so generous and accommodative of a rebel in their ranks at the higher echelons of adminis-tration? His courage was fired by his unmixed patriotism that had trounced them not once but twice. He risked his position in the Executive Council with studied nonchalance and calcu-lated objective. In the given circumstances,      Dr Ambedkar unleashed an earthquake in the Executive Council’s Cabinet meetings. The alien ruling class, together with the Anglo-Indian community, was scarcely accustomed to pocket it. Shourie is a motivated author who lacked honesty about Ambedkar.

Ambedkar’s Vision for National Water Policy

His historical role as the Minister of Public Works in creating the Damodar Valley Corpo-ration is all but forgotten. Or has he been swept under the carpet beyond public eyes? We recall his mission and put his vision in the correct perspective.

Dr Ambedkar visited Calcutta at least twice besides Patna. In Calcutta he addressed meetings in January and September 1945 at Rotunda, Writers’ Buildings to initiate the groundwork for the DVC project. According to him, “My purpose is to tell you that the Government of India is very much alive to the disadvantages arising from the state of affairs and wishes to take steps to evolve a policy which will utilise the water resources to the purpose which they are made to serve in other countries.”4

Dr Ambedkar wanted the DVC to be a multi-purpose river valley project for utilisation of enormous water resources for comprehensive development of the country. “The project is a welcome one to the Government of India. It very clearly shows a fine prospect of the control of the river, a prospect of controlling floods, of securing a fine area for perennial irrigation with resultant insurance against famine and a much needed supply of power. I am sure it will be more than welcome to the governments of Bengal and Bihar, if they realise what the project will mean to them and their people.”5

The objectives of the project were outlined in the following terms:

1. An aggregate controlled reservoir capacity of about 4,700,000 acre-feed;

2. Sufficient water for perennial irrigation of about 760,000 acres, besides water navigation purposes;

3. Electrical energy amounting to 300,000 kilowatts, and it would promote directly the welfare of five million people and indirectly of many more millions.6

The model Ambedkar had in mind was the best known river valley project in the world. It was the Tennessee Valley Scheme in the United States of America. While addressing a meeting on January 3, 1945, the visionary articulated the objectives as follows: “The Government has very much in its mind the Tennessee Valley Scheme operating in the United States. They (technical experts) are studying the Scheme and feel that something along that line can be done in India if the Provinces offer their cooperation and agree to override provincial barriers which has held up so much of their progress and their prosperity.”7 Ambedkar spelled out further steps in the direction taken by the government. “As a preliminary step for securing the best use of the water resources of the country, the Government of India have created a central organisation—called the Central Technical Power Board, and are contemplating to create another to be called the Central waterways, Irrigation and Navigation Commission.”8 The objectives of “these two organisations,” clarified the Executive Member, “is to advise the Provinces on how their water resources can be utilised and how a project can be made to serve purposes other than their irrigation. The Damodar river is the first project along this line. It will be a multipurpose project. It will have the object of not only preventing floods in the Damodar river but also have the object of irrigation, navigation and the production of electricity.” Here he declared that the authority which “will be in charge of this project after it is completed, will be more or less modelled, as far as may be possible, on the Tennessee valley Authority”.9

“There is only one thing, which the Government of India expects from the Provinces to do. It expects the Provinces to bear in mind the absolute necessity of ensuring that the benefits of the project get ultimately right down to the grassroots, i.e., everyone living in the Valley and some of those in the vicinity. This, in my view, is essential, and it is for this reason that we want the establishment of some agency early enough so that that agency can set about planning at once in which its essential and ultimate object can be secured.”10 Tracing out the constitutional difficulty as he anticipated, he spoke out his mind in no ambiguous terms: “Irrigation has been the only objective of our waterways policy. Further, we have not taken sufficient account of that fact that there is no difference between railways and waterways, and if railways cannot be subjected to provincial boundaries, neither can waterways at any rate those that flow from province to province.”11

The disadvantages of this error are many and obvious. “To give one illustration, a province needs electricity and wishes to utilises its water resources for the purpose but cannot do so because the point at which water dam lies in another province, which being agricultural does not need electricity and has no interest in it or money to finance the project, and would not allow the needy province to use the site. Complain as much as we like, a province can take unfriendly attitude and justify it in the name of Provincial autonomy.”12 Dr Ambedkar sounds absolutely prophetic if we consider the internecine disputes over the Kauvery river running through Tamilnadu and Karnataka. Both the States are at daggers’ drawn over its water resources.

Clarifying the Central Government’s position, Ambedkar said in the second meeting at Calcutta: “The Damodar Valley Project is a matter of grave urgency, and it would be criminal folly not to come to an early decision, without which it is not possible for us to proceed further in the matter. I, therefore, hope and trust that, with your cooperation, we should be able today to return with our decisions fully and firmly made.” 13 Continuing further he said: “Let me tell you that the Government of India is very keen, very earnest, and is prepared to play its full part in carrying through its project.”14

He committed the Government of India’s resources for the project. “The Government of India is prepared to assume direct responsibility for securing staff and organisation necessary to carry out all further preliminary investigations in such manner as will facilitate and expedite construction with assistance as the two Provinces can render without serious detriment to their post-war development works. The Government, however, realise the shortage of engineering manpower in Bengal and will endeavour to find the necessary staff by drawing upon services, if found available, of a military unit and its equipment to assist the preliminary investigation. This will avoid drawing on the strained resources of the province at a large extent that is necessary and will secure a most rapid supply of equipment.”15

There is an element of irony in the authorship of the first river valley project falling into the hands of Ambedkar. He not only laid the foun-dation of the prestigious project but also he inaugurated the National Water Policy. The same man, when a student in school, used to be denied access to the water source or taps for drinking water. His untouchability stood against him driking water from the common source. And yet he was the architect of the National Water Policy, no matter even though the vast DVC and the countrymen have forgotten that historical fact.


1. Durga Das, India—-From Curzon to Nehru and After, Collins, London, 1969, p. 236.

2. Ibid 

3. Arun Shourie, Worshipping False Gods, HarperCollins Publishers India, 1997, p. 100.

4. Dr B.R. Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, vol. 10, Bombay, 1991, p. 286.

5. Ibid.

6. Dr B.R. Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, vol. 10, Bombay, 1991, p. 286.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid, pp. 222-223.

10. Ibid. p. 288.

11. Ibid. p. 221.

12. Ibid. 221.

13. Ibid. p. 287.

14. Ibid. p. 287

15. Ibid. p. 287.

Dr A.K. Biswas is a retired IAS officer and a former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur (Bihar)

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