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The Canals of Dehra

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The Doon Valley Down the Age

Contributed by Sudhir Arora
The British, on taking control of the Doon, directed their energies towards its development. Apart from carrying out periodic land settlements, efforts were made to introduce irrigation and new crops, apart from the traditional ones grown by the local population. As the Valley’s geology rendered the profitable construction of wells impossible, the very existence of villages, except those near perennial streams, depended upon the canals. Therefore, the Administrators having found the ancient Rajpur Canal (believed to have been built by Rani Karnavati) in existence, soon turned their attention to the possibility of constructing canals in other parts of the Doon. The value of canals in the Doon is not restricted only to irrigation. To many villages they carry water for drinking purposes, though not for irrigation; and so people are able to live on and cultivate land which would otherwise, for lack of drinking water, be unpopulated and barren.

In 1823, Lieutenant de Bude was deputed to make a canal survey with a view to the construction of new canals and the repair of those that had fallen into a state of decay. Because of neglect, a number of villages which depended on them for their water supply had been deserted by the inhabitants. In 1826, a water tax was imposed on the gardens of Dehra, the money so collected being applied to the repair of the Rajpur Canal. Later, under Young’s administration, Captain Cautley (the builder of the Roorkee or the Ganga Canal) and Captain Kirke (also Adjutant of the Sirmur Battalion) were placed in charge of the canals. Improvements and extensions took place, more and more villages came to be settled. In the year 1900, there were approximately 83 miles of canals in the Doon.

Tradition credits the construction of the Rajpur canal and the locality of Karanpur to Rani Karnavati and her consort, Kunwar Ajab Singh alias Ajbu Kunwar (after whom village Ajabpur is named), who administered the Doon district on behalf of the Rajas of Garhwal. He had his headquarters in the village of Nawada. Later, the work of maintaining and repairing this canal was entrusted to the Mahants of Guru Ram Rai’s Gurudwara. In 1817, Mahant Har Sewak claimed full proprietary rights over the canal. This claim was rejected by the Company’s Government on the ground that it was built by the Rani long before the arrival of Guru Ram Rai in the Doon. Later again, the Sirmur Battalion undertook its repairs. This water course was originally designed to convey drinking water to the people of Dehra. Later, its waters were used less for drinking purposes than for irrigation of flower gardens and lawns in the town. The canal consisted of two branches, the Dehra branch flowing past the Head Post Office and the Dharampur or the East Canal branch.

When the East Canal branch was being made, the English engineer-in-charge decided to take French leave and go up to Mussoorie. The view from there of his project was so clear that he started supervising the construction by means of messengers and a pair of field glasses. While still at Mussoorie, an unexpected visit by his boss at the work site, exposed his game, resulting in an immediate transfer. During the rains, the view from Mussoorie is at its best. In the old days, when regular horse racing was in vogue in Dehra, people with good binoculars could follow the racing horses. The lights of Haridwar, Roorkee, Saharanpur and at times Ambala were visible at night with the naked eye. Once again, the Rajpur canal waters are being used purely for drinking purposes as they have been merged with the town’s main water supply from Bindal River.

Captain Cautley can be compared to Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Frenchman who built the Suez Canal, as Cautley built the Ganga and other canals in the North West Province. In 1840-41, Cautley designed the Katapathar Canal, which gets its supply of water from the Yamuna and irrigates a large area in the Western Doon. The Bijapur Canal was designed by him in 1837 to irrigate the triangular tract between the Tons, the Asan and the Bindal Rivers. Its waters flow past and through the Forest Research Institute and the Indian Military Academy. In addition to the canals already mentioned, including his main one – the Ganga Canal – he also made the Eastern and Western Yamuna canals in the Saharanpur and Ambala Districts. He was also a geologist of international repute.

In 1859-60, the Kalanga Canal was constructed while in 1863-64 the Jakhan Canal was completed.

[Excerpt from “Doon Valley Down the Ages” by late Prem Hari Har Lal – a most comprehensive history of the Doon Valley from antiquity onwards. The revised edition of 2019 is distributed by Book World, Dehradun. Contributed by the publisher].