Reservoir Gods

How the Cauvery was dammed, through the eyes of the project’s foremost champion, M. Visvesvaraya—and his fiercest critics.

Reservoir Gods by Aparajith Ramnath; Illustration by Akshaya Zachariah for

Paris and the Eiffel Tower, San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, Kolkata and the Howrah Bridge: some cities are fused in the imagination with iconic engineering works. If the more modestly sized city of Mysuru has such a symbol, it is the Krishnarajasagara or KRS reservoir and dam, constructed across the Cauvery River between 1911 and 1932.

The KRS, located about 20 km north of the city, is a constant presence in the lives of Mysoreans. Every summer, the newspapers are full of reports about the water levels in the reservoir, which irrigates large agricultural tracts and supplies drinking water across Karnataka. Locals and tourists encounter the KRS when they picnic at the Brindavan Gardens, laid out with shimmering lights and musical fountains in the shadow of the towering 130-foot dam. In the rains, many drive up to the dam’s waste weir to watch the water gush through the open sluices. Behind the dam lies the reservoir, a gigantic sea of blue—the sagara named after Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, erstwhile monarch of the state of Mysore.

But the KRS’s story is more closely tied to another, larger-than-life historical figure: Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya. It was during his time as Chief Engineer of Mysore that the project was green-lit; it was during his subsequent tenure as Dewan, or prime minister, that the early phases were constructed. In the villages and towns of Karnataka, the KRS is inseparable from Visvesvaraya. As one jaanapada geete, or folk song, has it:

Katṭide Kannambaḍi kaṭṭeya
Kotṭihe usiranu koṭi jīvake
Huṭṭali ninnanta
Nūrāru Cetana
Kāveri jaladhāra Visvesvaraya. [1]

You built the dam at Kannambadi
And breathed life into crores of people
May hundreds of inspirations like you be born
O embodiment of the Kaveri, Visvesvaraya. [2]

As a public project, the KRS was unprecedented, and not just by the standards of a princely state in colonial India. When it was sanctioned, even the Tennessee Valley Authority—the grand American project that was to inspire the Nehruvian ‘temples of modern India’—was two decades away. The British had, of course, constructed large canals across the subcontinent from the nineteenth century onwards. But dam-building was relatively new territory even for colonial engineers. They had built dam-and-reservoir projects in the preceding decades, but only a handful, and none as large [3] as the project that Mysore was contemplating near the village of Kannambadi.

What is truly intriguing about the KRS is not its design or execution: it is the fact that it exists at all. What possessed a princely state and its cadre of Indian engineers to undertake it? The answer is a complex one, but Visvesvaraya is at its centre. It took him well over a year of driving complex debates and negotiations just to get started on this ambitious—some contemporaries said reckless—project. He had to reckon with a wide variety of issues: technical, financial, and political. They may have played out over a century ago, but these backstories anticipated, to a stunning degree, some of the debates that surround large public works even today.

Lie of the Land


he village of Kannambadi lay eight miles upstream of Seringapatam [4] , the pre-colonial capital of Mysore. It was here that the river, having emerged in the rain-fed hills near Coorg in the west, began its unimpeded flow through the agricultural plains of Mysore. For centuries, this stretch of the river valley had appealed to rulers as a suitable site for irrigation works: a Persian inscription from the reign of Tipu Sultan in the late eighteenth century suggests that Tipu planned to build a dam in the vicinity. From the 1870s onwards, Mysore’s British engineers had tried, on and off, to identify a suitable location for a dam-and-reservoir project on the Cauvery.

Mysore was, at this time, a princely state. The British, who defeated Tipu in battle in 1799, had reinstalled the Wodeyar dynasty, which predated the Sultan and his father Haider Ali, in 1881. Overseen by the colonial government, the Wodeyars had, nonetheless, considerable autonomy within their kingdom. A series of bold, modernising Dewans headed the administrative machinery. They initiated several industrial projects, often backed by foreign capital and technology: railway lines were laid, and expatriate mining companies developed what became the Kolar Gold Fields.

In 1902, Mysore established one of India’s first hydroelectric works at an island on the Cauvery called Sivasamudram, [5] where a series of spectacular waterfalls marked the ideal setting for a power plant. This allowed the Mysore government to supply electricity to the mining companies of Kolar, promoting the gold-mining industry and bringing in valuable revenue.

But it turned out that during summer, the water levels in the Cauvery were too low to permit the plant to function at full capacity. This ended up becoming a nuisance for the state, which often defaulted on its commitments and had to pay large fines to the mining companies.

A wiry 48-year-old of average height, Visvesvaraya dressed distinctively in impeccable three-piece suits, gleaming leather shoes, and Mysore turban.

For a while, the government tried to address this issue through what it called ‘conservancy measures,’ which involved using sandbags to shore up the water at various check dams along the river. But this wasn’t enough, and soon, officials decided that building a large reservoir upstream of Sivasamudram might solve the issue. In the monsoon, it would capture rainwater before it ran off to the sea. Come summer, the water could be released downstream, providing the hydroelectric works with a flow steady enough for its turbines.

Mysore’s Public Works Department, headed by its long-serving Chief Engineer William McHutchin, now began systematic surveys of the region. These were conducted by his young deputy, Captain Bernard Dawes. [6] In 1908, Dawes drew up an ambitious proposal for a multipurpose reservoir at a site more than 50 miles upstream of Sivasamudram: Kannambadi.

This new reservoir was to irrigate vast tracts of land, and help generate electricity both for Mysore’s gold fields and for industrial buyers outside the state. But the idea was as expensive as it was technically complex, and the stupendous projected cost of ₹440 lakh seems to have discouraged the government from acting immediately. The scheme went into limbo.

The following year, McHutchin reached the age of retirement, while Dawes, aged just 31, died in a worksite accident: he was swept away by the Cauvery as he tried to save a workman from drowning. The Mysore administration sought to appoint an Indian Chief Engineer for the first time. Their choice fell on Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya.

Visvesvaraya’s homecoming


 wiry 48-year-old of average height, Visvesvaraya dressed distinctively in impeccable three-piece suits, gleaming leather shoes, and Mysore turban. Photographs from the time show him standing almost diffidently: his shoulders slightly hunched, his moustache slender and drooping, his eyes bearing a hint of melancholy. But appearances can be deceptive, for the engineer was supremely confident in his professional abilities. Twice widowed and once separated by the age of 30, he had long been a single man whose life revolved around his work.

Visvesvaraya had recently taken early retirement from the Bombay Public Works Department (PWD) after working there for close to a quarter of a century, but he hailed from Mysore. Born in 1861 near Bangalore and educated in that city, he had first gone to the Bombay Presidency for a degree in civil engineering at Poona’s College of Science. After his studies, he joined the Bombay PWD, where he built a solid reputation, earning lavish encomiums from his superiors. (Senior British officials variously described him as ‘excellent,’ ‘talented,’ and, in one instance, ‘one of the ablest officers, European or Indian, of the Public Works Department, with whom it has been my pleasure and honour to work.’)

These plaudits came at a time when Indian engineers faced considerable prejudice. In a profession dominated by white Britons, Indians were paid less than their colleagues, and rarely rose to the highest ranks. Yet Visvesvaraya rose rapidly. For many years, he served as Sanitary Engineer to the Bombay government, designing water supply and drainage systems for cities across the Presidency. He administered large irrigation works in the Deccan region, introduced an innovative system of water distribution on the Nira Canal near Poona, and provided valuable testimony to the Indian Irrigation Commission of 1901-03. Nevertheless, he had higher aspirations, and the job in Mysore promised the freedom to explore these.

When he took over the reins of the Mysore PWD in 1909, one of the first things Visvesvaraya did was revive the idea of damming the Cauvery. In the Deccan, he’d studied and worked on the big dams at Bhatghar and Khadakwasla. The experience had convinced him that in regions without perennial, snow-fed rivers––in other words, most of peninsular India––large reservoirs were necessary to rationalise irrigation. He knew of the great multipurpose projects emerging around the world, and was especially inspired by the Aswan Dam on the Nile, which he’d seen during a world tour he undertook privately before taking up the Mysore position.

In 1910, Visvesvaraya had his team of Indian engineers [7] undertake fresh surveys and sketch preliminary proposals for a dam-and-reservoir project at Kannambadi. His plan differed from Dawes’s proposals on some key technical points; it was also more practical, while promising to be less expensive. [8] But it was a lot more than a quick fix for the immediate requirements of the mining companies—it was, in fact, a part of Visvesvaraya’s grand vision for Mysore. This vision involved a modernised system of irrigation, the promotion of commercial agriculture and a market economy, and the fostering of industrial enterprises.

Visvesvaraya’s reservoir was to be built in stages over a decade, finally reaching a capacity of around 39 thousand million cubic feet (39 TMC). It would bring 125,000 acres of land under irrigation, staving off famine in drought years and allowing cultivators to grow cash crops like sugarcane. It would also boost the flow at Sivasamudram, so the state could generate more electric power—not just for the mining companies but also for the new industries that he planned to promote in Mysore.

Visvesvaraya made astoundingly confident predictions about his project. In around a decade, he argued, ‘the return on the irrigation share of the capital may amount to as much as 8 percent,’ and at that stage Mysore ‘may get produce valued at about [₹] 1 ½ crores from irrigation alone.’ He also thought the project would help generate enough power to net the government more than ₹30 lakh per year in revenue.

All this was remarkable considering that for some four decades, the creation of a Cauvery reservoir had remained purely in the realm of theoretical possibility. The implications were manifold and the challenges—financial, legal and logistical—enormous. But Visvesvaraya was a man in a hurry. Over the next year, he threw himself into the task of getting the project under way. Consequently, he got involved in multiple, simultaneous, and frenetic negotiations.

Kolar’s Mining Companies


s the Sivasamudram plant struggled to meet their need for electric power, the mining companies of the Kolar Gold Fields began to fret. They pressed the Mysore government to build a reservoir to shore up power generation, and tried to negotiate a fresh deal.

Strictly speaking, it should have been the Dewan, T. Ananda Row, who negotiated on behalf of Mysore; but so complete was Visvesvaraya’s identification with the reservoir project that he took on the job himself. He drove a hard bargain. On the afternoon of 30 November 1910, the mining companies’ representative, Arthur Taylor, called on Visvesvaraya at his office in Bangalore. Taylor hinted that if the government did not accept their offer of £11 per horsepower of electricity supplied—a small increase over the £10 they were currently paying—the companies had the option of producing their own power using oil engines.

‘If you have not come here to assure us of the willingness of the Company to pay £2 more per H.P. for power already supplied and £12 per H.P. for any additional power you might want,’ Visvesvaraya told Taylor brusquely, ‘you need not waste your breath in carrying on negotiations with this Government.’ [9]

Visvesvaraya didn’t want the deal to fall through, for his reservoir project depended on it. But he was no pushover either. Over the next month, the parties went back and forth several times.  Eventually the mining companies agreed to pay £12 per horsepower for the first ten years following the commissioning of a reservoir. [10]

Yet, after all this, Mysore were unable to guarantee that they would build a reservoir. As the months rolled on without a decision, the mining companies grew restive. But Mysore’s ability to get started depended on a number of other negotiations which were playing out simultaneously. Of these, the main challenge came from the government of the neighbouring Madras Presidency.

Negotiations with Madras


or decades, Mysore and Madras had been locked in battle over the major river they shared. Flowing eastward through the plains of Mysore, the Cauvery entered Madras territory, where the river and its tributaries irrigated a fertile delta in the vicinity of Tanjore before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. According to an agreement signed in 1892, Mysore was to seek Madras’s go-ahead before constructing any irrigation works that impounded water before the Cauvery entered Madras. Madras, meanwhile, was bound to give its approval unless there was a threat to any ‘prescriptive right already acquired and actually existing.’

In October 1910, the Dewan of Mysore informed the Madras government about his state’s plans to build a dam on the Cauvery. Madras, unsurprisingly, raised concerns. They argued that the project would seriously deplete the volume of the Cauvery as it entered Madras and endanger the welfare of farmers across the sprawling Tanjore delta.

But this was not the only objection. It emerged that Madras had been planning their own reservoir on the Cauvery—a much larger one than Mysore’s—at Mettur, near Salem. Now they worried there wouldn’t be enough water left in the river at Mettur to make this a viable proposition.

In late November, Visvesvaraya travelled to Madras, where he parleyed with his counterparts in the PWD. A million acres of land were being irrigated in the Cauvery delta, the Madras engineers told him. To safeguard crops, they needed water to flow into the delta at a particular rate, represented by a reading of seven feet on the Upper Anicut near Trichy. In years when the flow measured less than this, the proposed reservoir in Mysore should not be permitted to store water.

Madras, meanwhile, was bound to give its approval unless there was a threat to any ‘prescriptive right already acquired and actually existing.’

Visvesvaraya said not to worry: Mysore’s reservoir project would not materially reduce the flow of water into Madras. Figures showed that around 150-300 TMC of water ‘was going to waste into the sea’ each year. The proposed Mysore reservoir would only store 40-50 TMC. He was confident he’d made out a convincing case to the Madras engineers, who had been affable in meetings.

But he soon found they had dug in their heels. Around ten days later, the office of Madras Chief Engineer C.A. Smith wrote that they could not proceed without seeing the complete design of Mysore’s proposed reservoir and its irrigation system. Smith worried that Mysore would impound water in drought years, precisely when Madras needed it most. If a strict system of monitoring was not put in place, Mysore’s farmers might take more than their fair share from the canals. [11]

A long and tortuous correspondence followed. Dewan Ananda Row now took the lead for Mysore, while Visvesvaraya continued to advise him on technical details. [12] Ananda Row pointed out that irrigation in the Cauvery delta could hardly be under threat if the Madras government themselves had plans to construct an 80-TMC reservoir upstream of the delta.

The inference was that Madras was not just trying to safeguard its existing irrigation in the Cauvery delta, which was its legal right, but also its proposed expansion of irrigation in the future. Visvesvaraya added impishly that ‘any objection to the construction of a reservoir [at Kannambadi]...must apply with greater force to the Madras proposal’: their Mettur reservoir was to be much larger.

Both sides argued adroitly, indulging occasionally in sophistry, tossing out the odd red herring. Madras stalled; Mysore pressed. Finally, Mysore asked the Government of India to intervene. This initially backfired, with the Inspector-General of Irrigation issuing an extensive note heavily favouring Madras’s claims. All this while pressure from the mining companies was mounting.

Then, around September 1911, things began to move. It appears that Mysore was able to garner some support from Viceroy Lord Hardinge, whose government suggested that Madras might be amenable to Mysore building a smaller reservoir, with a capacity of around 11 TMC. Mysore put this to Madras, while deciding that even if they built a smaller reservoir, they would lay the foundations of the dam wide enough to allow for the raising of its height later.

In late September, the Madras government relented—partially. They agreed that Mysore could build an 11-TMC reservoir, provided the extent of the lands irrigated under it did not exceed 25,000 acres. They also made it clear that if Mysore went ahead and built the wider foundations, they could not use that fact later to demand permission to raise the dam. Mysore accepted these conditions, and the Government of India gave its blessing.

It was a dispute that would outlast every other between the regions. For the moment, however, Visvesvaraya and Ananda Row had won their first battle: they could now begin to build their dam. But they could do so only because they had, in parallel, wrestled successfully with a third challenge: to convince stakeholders within the Mysore government to approve the project.

Chakravarti’s Prudence


isvesvaraya’s proposals for a reservoir first came before his colleagues in October 1910, as part of his programme of public works. He had whittled down Dawes’s previous estimates, but the projected costs were still enormous: ₹160 lakh for the complete reservoir (an estimate that would later be revised upwards), ₹94 lakh for expanding Mysore’s railway network, and a few lakhs each year for sundry other projects.

Mysore’s Financial Department and the executive branch of government, the Dewan and his Councillors, had to scrutinise these projects before they could be greenlit. Taken together, they formed an array of influential and spirited individuals with their own worldviews and institutional interests. While the Dewan was firmly in his corner, Visvesvaraya had to work hard to win the others over. In particular, he was up against a formidable opponent in the Financial Secretary, J.S. Chakravarti.

Jnan Saran Chakravarti was a precocious 35-year-old official with a sterling academic and professional background. Hailing from Bengal, he had been a star student at Presidency College, Calcutta. In addition to holding degrees in science and mathematics, he was considered an exceptional scholar of English and Sanskrit, and had dabbled in legal studies. He began his career as a teacher, but soon joined the Imperial Finance Department after topping its nationwide selection exams. He served for a decade in Rangoon, Allahabad and Calcutta before being deputed to Mysore, on generous terms, in 1908.

Chakravarti was reared on principles of financial prudence, and challenged Visvesvaraya’s attempts to rush through proposals requiring large expenditures. On 22 November 1910, he produced a painstaking memo scrutinising every argument raised by Visvesvaraya in favour of the KRS and other projects.

Was it really necessary to spend scores of lakhs on a reservoir, he asked, just to slightly augment the power available to the mining companies? Would it not be much less expensive, and equally effective, to strengthen existing efforts at river conservancy? Gold deposits were finite, he pointed out. Data suggested ‘that Mysore gold mining has in all probability passed its zenith…the chances of the demand for power increasing considerably beyond the present standard are very remote indeed.’

As for the project’s additional irrigation component, he argued it was totally unnecessary. Visvesvaraya had claimed that the reservoir would irrigate 125,000 acres, resulting in substantial agricultural revenues a few years down the line. Chakravarti thought this was unrealistic, because the Cauvery valley in Mysore simply didn’t have the density of population needed for labour-intensive farming of the kind Visvesvaraya had in mind. Citing the report of the Indian Irrigation Commission issued some years previously, he emphasised that storage reservoirs designed to store rainwater were expensive to build and unlikely to yield high returns.

Most importantly, the projected cost of ₹160 lakh was unthinkable. The government coffers contained only around ₹124 lakh, of which ₹54 lakh was available for investment, assuming—and this was a crucial point—that they spent no money on anything else. Visvesvaraya and the Dewan wanted to borrow money from public deposits in savings banks in order to make up some of the shortfall. Chakravarti was against this, as it ‘really amount[ed] to incurring a loan which should be quickly repaid to avoid possible embarrassment.’ In sum, the reservoir project would drain the treasury while preventing the state from addressing other necessary issues.

Visvesvaraya retorted that Chakravarti had ‘grievously misunderstood’ the situation. Irrigated land would not depend exclusively on water from the reservoir; that was only in addition to the water available in the river during the rainy season. His ego had been pricked by the fact that the younger man had opposed his arguments by citing the report of the Irrigation Commission, the same body Visvesvaraya had so impressed a decade previously. ‘I am not likely,’ he wrote, ‘to recommend any proposal which the Irrigation Commission would not have approved.’

He also lectured Chakravarti on the principles of finance in progressive countries. ‘Whatever may be the case in old-fashioned Native States, modern Governments do not accumulate money. State accumulations are not meant to be locked up as they are in Mysore, earning a low rate of interest, but to be utilized to the fullest extent in attracting capital and developing the resources of the country.’

If they waited until Madras had built its reservoir at Mettur, Visvesvaraya warned, Mysore’s hopes of proceeding with its project would diminish. The mining companies would not wait endlessly either. ‘If counsels of inaction and timidity should prevail, a great opportunity would slip out of our hands.’ He was not above employing pressure tactics in negotiating with his Mysore colleagues. He also demanded from them a certain degree of trust and deference, and didn’t always bother to give detailed defences of his projections. [13]

But Chakravarti was not cowed by Visvesvaraya’s manner. He protested that he and his colleagues were not given all the relevant papers to see, and when they were, they were given very little time to digest them. Over the next few months, in the midst of meetings and discussions, Chakravarti produced a series of further memos, arguing eloquently against hasty decisions, demanding justifications, and trying to safeguard the financial security of the state.

Chakravarti eventually conceded that the state did need a reservoir, at least to guarantee electricity to the mining companies. He was still unconvinced about the irrigation component, a huge waste of money in his view, and the subject of some sleight-of-hand from Visvesvaraya. ‘It is financially fallacious,’ Chakravarti argued, ‘to couple the returns of the electric side and the irrigation side of the scheme and say that the return will be so much on the whole.’

When Visvesvaraya and the Dewan proposed building a first stage with foundations large enough to permit the eventual raising of the dam, Chakravarti argued this was risky unless they were absolutely sure that Madras was going to allow them to build a bigger reservoir eventually. Otherwise, it would mean a loss of ₹30-40 lakh.

Both combatants were equally spirited. The Financial Secretary thought Visvesvaraya’s plans were seductive but irresponsible. ‘[T]he idea of almost unlimited future development has a very powerful charm; and an advocate of the less expensive scheme runs the risk of appearing in the light of a narrow and short-sighted individual,’ he acknowledged. But huge expenditures required scrutiny. Visvesvaraya pressed his point in his response:  Chakravarti, he said, was unable to see the larger social and economic benefits of the proposed projects, ‘[concerning] himself solely with debt heads, cash balances and interest charges.’

A difference of worldviews and temperaments lay at the heart of the debates. Chakravarti was not the only official to have misgivings about Visvesvaraya’s proposals, but he was certainly the most vocal and the most articulate. The finance officer was careful and scholarly; the engineer was expansive and impatient, not wanting to miss the wood for the trees. The former thought the state’s primary responsibility was to maintain enough funds for times of distress; the latter believed bold steps were needed to make such distress redundant.

The stalemate could easily have continued for years. But Mysore, for all the checks and balances in its system of government, was a monarchy. So after a marathon run of correspondence, meetings, and negotiations, it fell to the Maharaja to take a final decision. And Visvesvaraya had his ear. Although no decision was forthcoming for several months, Krishnaraja IV finally sanctioned the reservoir project in October 1911.

The finance officer was careful and scholarly; the engineer was expansive and impatient, not wanting to miss the wood for the trees.

Visvesvaraya later described his role in precipitating the decision. In the months when the proposals languished, he had contemplated quitting. He then went on leave, and into a sulk that lasted into his return. ‘I kept aloof,’ he recorded in his memoirs, ‘and confined my activities for some time only to the punctual execution of the routine duties of my office.’

The Maharaja, sensing something was amiss, asked what was troubling him. ‘I told his Highness the truth,’ the engineer recalled, ‘that I was disappointed with the facilities given me to carry on new works and progressive developments. As there was no work in the State to be enthusiastic about, I wanted to leave the service. His Highness’ reply was: “Don’t be hasty, I will do what you want.”’


ork on the first stage of the project began in 1911. [14] Meanwhile, Visvesvaraya’s star was rising: in 1912 he succeeded Ananda Row as Dewan. His successors in the PWD took over the daily management of the project, but he kept abreast of its progress, even after he stepped down as Dewan in 1918. In 1924, he was invited back to head a committee overseeing the construction of the project’s principal irrigation canal.

The dam rose steadily, beginning to serve its function of impounding water even before it was complete. By the year 1915-16, farmers served by the project’s irrigation canals were growing sugarcane. Around the same time, the power plant at Sivasamudram began producing additional electricity for the mining companies as promised.

Mysore’s gamble in building a large foundation paid off when an arbitrator ruled, in 1914, that Madras must not stand in the way of their raising the dam. Although further disputes were to arise, there was no turning back now. As the reservoir took shape, it was christened the Krishnarajasagara. By the early 1920s, the dam stood at 80 feet, the height planned for the first stage. Work on the second stage of the reservoir was in progress.

Through all this, the construction turned up many financial and engineering challenges. Chief Engineers came and went, as did Dewans, some of whom were financially conservative. It was during the Dewanship of Mirza Mohammed Ismail, whose vision was more in line with Visvesvaraya’s, that the project finally reached completion. The year was 1932.

The Legacy


n the decades after Indian independence, the KRS became a symbol of a progressive Mysore, and helped transform the Cauvery valley, and the district of Mandya in particular, into a prosperous sugar belt. On a visit to the district in the summer of 2019, I saw sprawling green fields of cane and paddy under a glorious blue sky.

Locals told me that their ancestors initially grew rain-fed crops like ragi and maize. They had been able to switch to lucrative crops like rice and sugarcane only after irrigation began under the KRS project. On the highway near the village of Dudda, an enthusiastic young man told me that India depended on Mandya for its food grains, and if there had been no canal water, there would be no hope of grain in Mandya.

The KRS and its irrigation canals are clearly central to the lives of many, for whom Visvesvaraya remains the face of the project. The district reportedly has hundreds of memorials to the engineer. In one village, I saw a small Ganesha temple with busts of Visvesvaraya and Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV in the yard. The former was described as annadaata, provider of food. In a public park in the centre of Mandya town stands a towering statue of the former Dewan, sponsored by the government-owned Mysore Sugar Company.

All of this suggests a near-deification of Visvesvaraya in the present day. But Visvesvaraya’s vision was contested in his time, and his legacy is not without its opponents today. One set of critics claims that he has received too much credit for the KRS. When, in 2020, the Karnataka government decided to put up statues of Visvesvaraya and Krishnaraja IV at the South Gate of the KRS, protestors argued against placing the two men on the same footing. The benevolent and far-sighted Maharaja was the key figure behind the project, they said; Visvesvaraya only carried out his wishes as a part of his job. Moreover, he only played a peripheral role in a project that took two decades to complete. He was not even the originator of the project; that honour should go to the intrepid Captain Bernard Dawes. [15]

There is no doubt that the execution of the KRS was the work of several capable engineers, and any attempt at moving away from a simplistic, Great Man version of history is welcome. Even in Visvesvaraya’s time, his subordinates played key roles in the studies that undergirded his proposals. It is also true that Dawes had prepared a scheme before Visvesvaraya.

Yet, as our story indicates, it is also true that the idea was languishing before Visvesvaraya showed how it could be implemented in a relatively practical and self-contained manner. Moreover, only someone with Visvesvaraya’s nation-wide reputation as an engineer, his clout, and his immense drive could have got the project cleared in the face of the numerous obstacles it faced. In this sense, he was undoubtedly the pivotal figure behind the project.

Ultimately, the backstory of the KRS raises questions far more interesting than an apportioning of credit. Visvesvaraya’s approach was an early instance of the technocratic thinking that became a centrepiece of public policy in modern India, and its history shows us both the triumphs and the limits of such an approach.

Large technical projects seem to be imbued with the cold light of reason. But they can’t be divorced from political considerations, which necessarily touch upon questions of distribution and equity. These projects materially transform lives and economies; but they often come with serious environmental consequences. When, and in what circumstances, do they make sense? To navigate these big questions—as much of this time as of a century past—we need not only the brilliance of lone heroes, but also political and intellectual debate that incorporates a wide range of perspectives.

Aparajith Ramnath is a historian of science, technology and business, and teaches at Ahmedabad University. He is the author of The Birth of an Indian Profession: Engineers, Industry, and the State, 1900-47 (Delhi: OUP, 2017). He is working on a book on Sir M. Visvesvaraya, to be published by Penguin Random House India.

Note on Sources:

This article is based primarily on a close reading of official correspondence from the 1910s, collected under the following heads and running to hundreds of pages:

  • ‘The Cauvery Reservoir Project (Mr. M. Visvesvaraya’s Scheme).’
  • ‘The Cauvery Reservoir Project (Mr. M. Visvesvaraya’s Scheme). Negotiations with Messrs. John Taylor and Sons’ Committee, Ooregum.’
  • ‘The Cauvery Reservoir Project (Mr. M. Visvesvaraya’s Scheme.) Effect of the Project on the River Supply in the Madras Presidency.’ 
  • Public Works Department, Government of Mysore, Cauvery Reservoir Project (Mr. M. Visvesvaraya’s Scheme.) Select Papers from the Correspondence with the Government of Madras (Bangalore: Government Press, 1913).

These are preserved in Visvesvaraya’s private papers, of which copies exist in institutions in Delhi, Bengaluru and Mysuru. I consulted them at the Institution of Engineers (India), Mysore Local Centre.

To reconstruct the story I have also consulted old newspaper reports, the memoirs and reminiscences of Visvesvaraya and some of his colleagues, annual administration reports of the Mysore government from the 1910s, other government publications of the time, and various archival sources. I have also referred to published works on Mysore’s history and its personalities including Visvesvaraya.


I’d like to thank the library and archive staff at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi; the Institution of Engineers (India), Mysore Local Centre; and the Maharashtra State Archives, Mumbai. I’m grateful to Mr Siddaramu of Mandya district, and the residents of B. Hattana, Maadla, Dudda, and Saudenahalli to whom he introduced me while acting as interpreter. I’m also indebted to many other people, too many to list here, who have helped me with the larger book project from which this work emerges.