HL Deb 11 July 1893 vol 14 cc1257-61

asked the Secretary of State for India whether the Periyar irrigation project would soon be completed; and whether he could give the House any information as to the progress of the works; and whether any steps had been taken to utilise the large amount of water which would be available for industrial purposes other than agriculture? He said, he need not remind the House of the vital importance of irrigation works in India and of the inestimable boon which the British Government had conferred on the people by those works. By their operation it was not too much to say that millions of lives had been saved in years of scarcity and famine, and abundance of food was grown for many millions of people in times of prosperity. In the Madras Presidency alone, besides many minor systems, there were three great ones—those connected with the large Rivers Cauvery, Kistna, and Godavery. The Cauvery system irrigated 900,000 acres, the Kistna 400,000 acres, and the Godavery 600,000 acres. Without irrigation this large extent of land would be practically waste. It was also pleasant to remember that, though these works were of great magnitude, they returned a substantial percentage on their total cost. The Cauvery returned 24 per cent., the Kistna 12 per cent., and the Godavery about 11 per cent. But besides this substantial direct pecuniary return to the Government, it must be readily apparent that the benefits conferred on the people by these works were incapable of being estimated in money, however great. In the south of the Madras Presidency the Madura district was one which suffered very severely from drought, and its condition had always caused suffering to the people and anxiety to the Government. In the famine of 1876–7 about £20,000 was spent on relief works and £40,000 on gratuitous relief in this district alone. The Periyar project was intended to ameliorate the condition of this district. It was no new scheme, for it was talked of 50 years ago, and about 25 years ago a Report was made on the project to the Madras Government by Major Myers, of the Royal Engineers. From that time till six years ago the subject was constantly under the consideration of the Government. The project was not a very large one from an irrigation point of view compared with many others in India, as it purposed to deal only with about 150,000 acres, and was estimated to cost only about £500,000 sterling; yet from an engineering point of view it was in many respects unique, and the difficulties to be overcome were very great. Their Lordships were aware that along the mountainous coast on the western part of the peninsula, particularly in the dense and uninhabited forests of Travancore, there were many rivers which run down to the western ocean, carrying a superabundance of water, which flowed down to the western coasts in great and unutilised volume, whereas on the eastern side of this ridge of mouutains, on the thickly-inhabited plains of Madura, all was dry and barren. The object, therefore, was to divert the waters of the Periyar from the Travancore mountains on the west of the peninsula into the plains of Madura on the east. This object was being attained by the construction of a huge dam of masonry and concrete across the Periyar River—a dam which would be about 180 feet high, varying in thickness from 140 feet at the bottom to about 12 feet at the top, the largest work of the kind in the world, he believed. The River Periyar, being thus arrested and taken charge of, would form a great lake overflowing many valleys, varying in area from 4,000 acres to 8,000 acres, according to the monsoon or the season of the year. From this lake the water would pass through a tunnel 6,000 feet long under the ridge of hills dividing Travancore from the Madura plains. It would then be conducted about 80 miles by natural watercourses, where the irrigation or distribution works would really commence, and the water would enter upon its beneficent operations upon the plains about 2,000 feet below, about 100 miles away from its place of capture in the mountains. He would not touch upon the larger subject of the enormous difficulties which had been encountered and overcome in the progress of the works, particularly in forming this huge dam across a large rapid river, liable to violent and sudden floods in a wild, mountainous forest country, full of fever and malaria, and wild beasts, and far away from a railway, where everything, from a bag of rice to a steam engine, had to be imported on men's backs or on the backs of beasts of burden, and where incessant rain made work impossible for six months in the year. But he believed, notwithstanding all these difficulties, owing to the perseverance and ability of our officers and men, British and native, the main difficulties had been overcome, and the works showed a fair amount of progress. He did not know whether the works would form an exception to all other works of the kind in India, in that the estimates would not be exceeded; but if they were exceeded he hoped the excess would be slight. He recollected some years ago reading a speech which the noble Marquess (Lord Salisbury) made at Cooper's Hill, in which he used some such words as these—"Crowns and Empires rise and fall, dynasties fade away; one thing never changes—namely, the tendency of engineers to exceed their estimates." He did not know whether the Periyar was to prove an exception, as far as estimated cost is concerned, to all other works of the kind in India; but he had reason to hope that the estimated revenue would be considerably exceeded, as he knew that the estimated revenue was taken at a very low figure. With regard to the latter part of the question, he was not sure that it was put in sufficient fulness to make it intelligible. Without interfering with the irrigation works at all, water would be available for the generation of power to an enormous extent at a very moderate cost. He hoped the Government would do their best to encourage the utilisation of it in this way, which he felt confident would produce satisfactory results. This was a most interesting question, but he would not upon this occasion go into details on the subject. He begged to ask the Secretary of State for India the question standing in his name.


My Lords, these works at Periyar are very important irrigation works, and the largest now in progress in India. I am glad to be able to tell the noble Lord that the project will probably be sufficiently advanced to come into operation in the course of 1896. The main dam, which will rise to a height of 155 feet from the bed of the river, is about one-third completed. The level of the water above the river bed has been raised to 60 feet, the minimum level required before water can flow down to Madura being 130 feet. The tunnel (5,643 feet) through the watershed is about two-thirds completed; this, and the approach to it, will be finished in 1894. Serious difficulties have been experienced, but they are now overcome, and the works are in steady progress. Then, with regard to the last part of the question, whether any steps have been taken to utilise this water, I am glad to be able to toll the noble Lord that a committee of experts, of which the designer of the Periyar project, Colonel Pennycuick, R.E., the able chief engineer, and Secretary to the Government of Madras in their Public Works Department, who is now on furlough, is a member, has been sitting in London, and is now about to report as to the best means of utilising the water power which will be available, on the completion of the works, for manufacturing and other purposes. I cannot conclude my remarks without saying that the exertions of the staff employed on the construction of this very important irrigation project have, I am informed, been very severe, and the manner in which they have been performed worthy of high commendation. I cannot answer the question as to the estimates, as that point was not included in the question upon the Paper, and, consequently, I have not looked it up. I can only echo the noble Lord's hope that there may not be an excess.