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Probing The Ganga Canal

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 By: Ganesh Saili

There is a Church that is no longer a church; in a Castle that is no longer a Castle (and with due apologies to the poet) one could add ‘in a hill station that is no longer a hill station.’ It was here at the All Saint’s Church, in September 1838, Frances Bacon, aka Fanny married Capt. Proby Cautley. Later they lived in what is marked on the old maps as Cautley’s Cottage, now known as Dumbarnie, on the hill station’s western edge.

Five men with a Mussoorie connect from the nineteenth century, achieved outstanding merit, each in their own chosen fields. Men like Young, Everest, Falconer, Wilson and Cautley left their mark on the sands of time. Take Cautley for instance, while awaiting approval for his dream project, he designed two smaller canals, barely five feet wide, in the valley of the Doon: the eleven mile long Bijapur Canal that irrigates 7,500 acres west of Dehradun, where to break the severe slope, he incorporated 96 artificial falls and the twelve mile long Rajpur Canal, which brought drinking water to the Doon. It has 10 watermills along its length. Perhaps these were forerunners for what became the magnificent obsession of his life – the Ganga Canal.

For late comers, first a quick a recap. The Doab refers to the land between the Ganga and Yamuna rivers, where the terrain is tough, seasonal rivers play havoc and to build a canal in uneven country, was, at best, a mad man’s dream. Imagine a steep gradient where the rush of water rises up to a hundred times in the monsoon and where raos or torrents sweep away anything and everything in that comes in their path.

I see Cautley as a Taoist, when he could not go under, he went over or vice versa. When I think of him, I see a lone man on horseback, riding along the banks of the canal. At Ranipur, he took the canal under a rao; down-stream at the Ratmau rao, he took it under and at the Solani river, it went over. Nothing! Nay nothing could stop a man possessed.

‘Leakages will breed mosquitoes!’ the Worriers harped.
But there were none. A unique mortar guaranteed no seepage.

When famine followed drought in 1837, it forced the East India Company to sanction the Captain a pittance. Nonetheless he set out to survey his kilometre canal and for six months, he scoured the jungles, walked the swamps, measured levels and distances before they were transferred to maps. The Grumps of the East India Company objected. And so did the irate priests of Hardwar. With alacrity, Cautley left a narrow gap in the dam so that the river could flow freely to Har-ki-Pauri. Twenty six years later, in 1845, his failing health forced him to go home, where he used his time lobbying with the Directors of John Company to give him some lag. On their relenting, he returned and work began in earnest. To get some idea of the gigantic task at hand, consider the fact that after many a failed experiment, some 300,000,000 bricks were baked. Burnt bricks, in the millions, were crushed into powder and used as mortar. To feed the hungry fires, 250 square kilometres of forests were cut down to be used for firewood. A hundred thousand tonnes of lime went into the mortar, as did jute, ground lentils, wild fruit, gur and finely ground surkhi used as paste. This combination proved to be more durable than concrete.

Most of the work of digging was done by the Oades – the tribal gypsies –lovers of solitude and vast open spaces. But they preferred digging in forests areas and refused to work in populated areas. In such places, scouts scoured the countryside looking for people willing to do the digging. Cautley brought out the first steam engine and laid a railway line. Among the many firsts, was the setting up the Thomson College of Engineering at Roorkee to train engineers to help with the work at hand. But that’s another story for another time.

Men like Proby Cautley need no statues. There is a 570 kilometre long memorial – every centimetre of the way.

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide