The story of a dam

Print edition : September 10, 2004

IT was a decision to irrigate the Krishna delta with the waters of the great river nearly 150 years ago that brought prosperity to Vijayawada city, once an insignificant village on its banks.

A view of the Prakasam barrage.-VIJAYA BHASKAR

The English East India Company suffered a revenue loss of Rs.2.27 crores in 1832. There was a famine and there were starvation deaths. According to an estimate, 40 per cent of the population succumbed to the drought conditions. But even during this time, the Krishna was "three-fourths full".

Gordon Mackenzie, the Collector of "Kistna", chronicled in 1883 that the East India Company constructed the Bezwada anicut, the first dam across the Krishna, in 1852. Mackenzie recorded in his manual that the river had a course of 800 miles (1,287 km). The average fall of the river in the 259 miles (417 km) above Vijayawada was 3.5 feet (1.05 metres) per mile. But after the river leaves its narrow rocky bed among the hills at Chintapalli it widens and flows past the Kondapalli range of hills, and the average fall was only 1.5 feet per mile.

At Vijayawada, the river was confined between two gneissic (a type of metamorphic rock) hills. The width of the gorge was about 1,300 yards (3,900 feet, or 1,170 m). At this point the velocity of the river current in flood was over 6.5 miles an hour (10.5 kmph) and the maximum flood discharge was 7,61,000 cubic feet per second.

Vijayawada, then known as Bezawada, Mackenzie recorded, was about 47 miles (75.63 km) away in a direct line from the sea, but the river tended to flow to the south and had a course of 60 miles (96.56 km) below the city before it opens into the Bay of Bengal. The construction of the anicut brought prosperity to the otherwise small town of no special importance. According to the 1881 Census, the population of Bezawada was 82,895. Nuzvid, a small town, had a population of 1,25,165. Similarly, the population of Nandigama was 1,07,288, Gudivada 1,28,791 and Guntur 1,36,083. The population of Bandar, a port town, was 1,75,482, more than double the population of Bezawada. Vijayawada has overtaken all these towns in population and significance.

Major Beatson, an officer of the East India Company, first called attention to the facilities for irrigation in Kistna district. The next year, Michael Topping, an astronomer, was sent to investigate the subject. He took some levels, but he died in Machilipatnam in 1796. Nobody bothered about tapping the potential of the river for nearly four decades. The terrible famine in 1832 aroused interest in it again, but even after the famine it took two decades to build the anicut. Captain Buckle prepared the first report in favour of a dam across the river in 1839. Only after Sir Arthur Cotton of the Godavari anicut fame approved the views of a few more engineers who made surveys was the project sanctioned, on January 5, 1850.

A great retaining wall with a crest 15.5 feet above the summer level (six feet) was constructed across the river, which was 3,860 feet wide between the Bezawada hillock (now called Indrakeeladri hillock) and the Sitanagaram hillock on the right bank of the river. The great retaining wall was supported by four lakh cubic yards of rough stone. This stone apron sloped away downstream for 257 feet. At a distance of 100 feet, on the apron of this great retaining wall, was constructed a second retaining wall, the top of which was six feet lower than the crest of the great retaining wall. The space between these two walls is tightly packed with stone.

Caption Charles Alexander Orr, who supervised the construction of the dam, in his report submitted on August 9, 1885, said that it cost Rs.7,48,765 (3.3 per cent of the revenue loss caused by the famine) to build the dam.

The anicut lasted its full life of one hundred years and breached in 1952. The existing barrage was built in 1954-57 and a road bridge was constructed on it a couple of years later, making Vijayawada a road and railway junction in Andhra Pradesh.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

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Editor, Frontline

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