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Dr Ambedkar: Pioneer of National Water Resources Development Policy

Dr Ambedkar served as Member (Labour), Viceroy’s Executive Council, from July 20, 1942 to June 29, 1946. These four years and eleven months witnessed the social visionary’s intense nation building activities. On his 129th birth anniversary, A.K. Biswas focuses on one aspect of this phase of his activities, about which widespread ignorance prevails.

At the inauguration of the Maritime Investment Summit 2016 in Mumbai on April 14, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, the father of the Constitution was also the architect of the water and river navigation policy. In highlighting this little known role Dr Ambedkar played as a builder of modern nation, he said, “Many of us may not know that Babasaheb created two powerful institutions related to water, navigation and power. They were: The Central Waterways, Irrigation and Navigation Commission and The Central Technical Power Board. Dr Ambedkar is also the architect of the water and river navigation policy in India.” [1]

The tragedy, let it be emphasized out at the outset, is that a powerful lobby has been at work labouring to divest Dr Ambedkar of his unique accomplishments in the field of development of India’s national water policy and resources. Despite voluminous official records, there appears to be a calculated intellectual denial of the visionary’s rightful recognition in academic as well as public discourses.

Ambedkar talking to people as a member of the Viceroy’s Council

Fortunately, a 307-page commemorative volume titled ‘Ambedkar’s Contribution to Water Resources Development’, originally published in 1993 to mark his birth centenary, was reissued in 2016 by the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. Uma Bharti, union minister of Water Resources, in her message for the volume noted Dr Ambedkar’s focus on the holistic approach to development and management of India’s water resources:

Dr Ambedkar evolved a new water and power policy during 1942-46 to utilise the water resources of the country to the best advantage of everybody and the Tennessee Valley Scheme of USA was an ideal model to emulate. He rightly visualised that only multipurpose project can be a fine prospect for the control of the river, a prospect of controlling floods of securing a fine area for perennial irrigation with resultant insurance against famine, much needed supply of power and uplifting the living standard of poverty-stricken people of India.

Dr Ambedkar was instrumental in evolving multipurpose approach for water resources development on the basis of river valley basin, and introduction of the concept of river valley authority which are summarily now-a-days termed as Integrated Water Resources Management.

The river valley projects which were under the active consideration of the Labour Department during 1944-46 were the Damodar River Valley projects, the Sone River Valley projects, the Mahanadi (the Hirakud Project) and the Kosi and others on river Chambal and rivers of the Deccan.

These projects were conceived, commented the Minister, “essentially for multipurpose development with flood control, irrigation, navigation, domestic water supply, hydropower and other purposes. The Damodar River Valley Projects and Hirakud Multipurpose Project are standing monuments to the memory of this great visionary.” [2]

Lest the nation continue to ignore Dr Ambedkar’s nation-building contribution, Ms Bharti did added,

The Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956 and the River Boards Act, 1956 are a well-thought vision of Dr Ambedkar to deal with the matters of the interstate rivers. The former provides, in the words of its preamble,  ‘for the adjudication of disputes relating to the waters of inter-state rivers and river valley’. [3]

Ambedkar poses for a photo with other members of the Viceroy’s Council

Confrontation between Viceroy Wavell and Dr Ambedkar

These major contributions to India’s development did not come without an epic confrontation. Dr Ambedkar had to confront Viceroy Lord Wavell, the  supreme authority of the British empire in India, to ensure India got the best expertise in the world. As documented by the doyen of Indian journalism, Durga Das:

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.  The forceful logic and weighty eloquence of the fearless Labour member silenced the Viceroy and he had his way. In the circumstance, the first technical expert for the DVC from USA inducted by Dr Ambedkar was W. L. Voorduin, with profound experience of Tennessee Valley Authority. Appointed to head the DVC, he reported for duties in no time and in August 1944, Voorduin submitted his ‘Preliminary Memorandum on the unified Development of the Damodar River.’ [4]

Indian Information, April 1, 1946 reported that Ross M. Riegel and Fred C. Schlemmer, both leading engineers, also from the Tennessee Valley Authority [TVA], reached India on a mission to advise on the plans being made by the Central Technical Power Board for the Maithon, Alyar and Panchet Hill Projects. Both of them were in India for eight weeks, “their services having been made available to the Government of India by the Tennessee Valley Authority, with the approval of the State Department, Washington”. [5] A meeting presided by Dr Ambedkar held on April 25 and 26 in Delhi attended by representatives of the Central, Bengal & Bihar Government recommended for starting construction of the [first] Tilaiya Dam at Rs 55 crores. [6]

Dr Ambedkar, as the Executive Member (Labour), addressed five conferences between November 15, 1943 and November 8, 1945: two on the Damodar Valley Project (Calcutta, January 3 and August 23, 1944), one on the multipurpose development of Orissa’s rivers (Cuttack, November 8, 1945) and two on electric power (Delhi, October 25, 1943 and February 2, 1945). [7]

The Central Water, Irrigation and Navigation Commission established in the year 1945 is what is now called Central Water Commission. The Central Water Commission, under the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, is today the spearhead of formulation, guidance and implementation of Government’s national policy for water.

Maithon Dam, in Jharkhand, is owned by the Damodar Valley Corporation

M.S. Reddy, chairman, Central Water Commission, in 1993 addressed what Dr Ambedkar was responsible for:

… [1] the emergence of a definite all-India policy with regard to the development of water and electric power resources in India; [2] the creation of the Central Waterways, Irrigation and Water Commission and the Central Technical Power Board, now known as the Central Electricity Authority, as the administrative apparatus and technical bodies at the Centre to assist the states in the development of irrigation and electric power respectively; [3] introduction of the concept of River Valley Authority or Corporation for the integrated development of the rivers in the regions; [4] introduction of the concept of multipurpose development of the river valley basin for the first time in India; amending entry “74” in the Constitution and bringing part of it to the Union List and introducing article 262 regarding the adjudication of disputes relating to waters of inter-state rivers or river valleys; and [5] initiation of some important present-day river valley projects, particularly in Damodar, Sone and Mahanadi river basin. [8]

Appropriating Ambedkar’s achievement

A biography on the late S.P. Mookherjee has recently staked a claim to the effect that:

In accordance with the government’s industrial policy, the Chittaranjan Locomotive Works (at Chittaranjan, West Bengal) the Hindustan Aircraft Factory (Bangalore), the Sindri Fertilizer Factory, (Sindri, Bihar), the four most successful and gigantic ventures, were conceived and organized by Dr  (S. P.) Mookerjee.

Emphasizing further, the biographer underlined that

The multipurpose Damodar River Valley Project, which was modelled after, but was far more complicated than, the Tennessee Valley Authority is another outstanding achievement of Dr Mookerjee. Its need had been particularly felt after a devastating flood on the Damodar River in 1943. [9]

This claim with respect to DVC seems to have been made without any shred of evidence to prove Dr Mookerjee’s contribution. If that’s not bad enough, PM Modi in his Mann Ki Baat radio talk on June 24, 2018 also made a similar claim: “There was also a special emphasis by Dr Mukherjee on … Damodar Valley Corporation and other river valley projects; Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee contributed significantly.”[10]

It is a matter of record that independent India’s first Council of Ministers, including Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee and headed by Jawaharlal Nehru, took the oath of office on August 15, 1947. It is a wonder how anybody could be confused to give credit to Dr Mookerjee for the DVC which was initiated a good three years before he was sworn in as Minister for Industry and Supply.

In the face of unassailable facts with regard to Dr Ambedkar and the DVC, the claims on behalf of Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee appear to be attempts to create confusion in the minds of readers and scholars. This only substantiates the essence of the time-honoured proverb, “Success has many fathers.”

[1] News 18 April 14, 2016, ‘Dr Ambedkar Also the Architect of Water, River Navigation Policy: Modi.’
[2] Commemorative Volume on Ambedkar’s Contribution to Water Resource Development by Ministry of Water Resources, Water Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Central Water Commission, New Delhi, 2nd Edition, 2016, pp. 233-274.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Durga Das, India—-From Curzon to Nehru and After, Collins, London, 1969, p. 236.
[5] “T.V.A. EXPERTS TO ADVISE ON DAMODAR VALLEY PROJECT” @ Indian Information, April 1, 1946, quoted in Writings and Speeches of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Vol. 10, Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, p. 403.
[6]  Ibid., p. 682.
[7] Commemorative Volume on Ambedkar’s Contribution to Water Resource Development by Ministry of Water Resources, Water Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Central Water Commission, New Delhi, 2nd Edition, 2016, pp. 233-274.
[8] Commemorative Volume on Dr Ambedkar by Ministry of Water Resources.
[9] Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Life and Times, Penguin Viking, 2018, p. 247.

About The Author

A.K. Biswas

The writer is a retired IAS officer and former vice-chancellor, Dr B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar. His PhD was on inland and overseas emigration of working classes from Bihar in the 19th century

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