ARTICLE NO. 1

The Most Celebrated Indian Engineer

MOKSHAGUNDAM VISVESVARAYA

"Progress in every country depends mainly on the education of its people. Without education, we are a nation of children. The difference between one man and another, apart from birth and social position, consists in the extent of knowledge, general and practical, acquired by him. We may safely assume that man in all countries within certain limits start with the same degree of intelligence. A civilised nation is distinguished from an uncivilised one by the extent of its acquired intelligence and skill."

Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya


Today perhaps many people know Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya as one of the ablest engineers of India and creator of the Vrindavan Garden but very few really know his role as one of the builders of modern India, his role in industrialising India, his views on education and planning and so on. He was a real Karmayogi. Visvesvaraya, as A. Ramaswamy Mudaliar said, "was one of the greatest patriots of India belonging to no party, adopting no slogans, attached to no shibboleths but dedicated to the upliftment of his countrymen." He is undoubtedly the best known engineer of India. He was an able administrator, educationist and foresighted planner. His name ranks high among those who promoted industrialisation of India. He is known for his dictum `Industrialise or perish'.



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His public life spanned from Mahadeo Govind Ranade (1842-1901) to Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964). Though he enjoyed considerable power and influence over half a century there had never been the slightest whisper against him of misuse of power for personal ends or for his near ones. His field of activities was vast and varied. The services he has rendered to the country as engineer and as Dewan of Mysore state to make it a model state are immense. He was an expert in irrigation. He played an important role in controlling the rivers Ganga, Sindhu, Mahanadi, Moosi, Easi, Kaveri, Tungabhadra and others.

Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya was born on August 28, 1860 at Muddenahalli, a village in Kolar District of the then Mysore State (now Karnataka). Visvesvaraya's ancestors had migrated from Mokshagundam/ Siddanur village in Kurnool District of Andhra Pradesh. His father Srinivasa Sastry was a well-known student of sastras, astrologer and physician. Srinivas Sastry died when Visvesvaraya was only 15 years of age. After his father's death Visvesvaraya moved with his mother Venkatalakshamma to Bangalore where his maternal uncle H. Ramaiah lived. Before coming to Bangalore Visvesvaraya studied at the Chickballapur Middle and High School, where he completed his lower secondary courses. At Bangalore his maternal uncle had him admitted to the Wesleyan Mission High School in 1875. After finishing his high school education Visvesvaraya joined the Central College from where he graduated with distinction. He then moved to Pune (then Poona) to join the College of Science (in those days the College of Engineering was so named) to study engineering. He passed his engineering examination in 1883, standing first. He specialised in Civil Engineering.

The Block System of Irrigation, a scheme prepared by Visvesvaraya, was a big achievement. The scheme, which was prepared by Visvesvaraya at the instance of the President of the Indian Irrigation Commission, Sir Colin C. Scott Moncrieff, 'to make irrigation works in the Bombay Presidency more popular and profitable and yield a reasonable return on the outlay that Government had incurred on them.'

The objective of the Block System of Irrigation was 'to distribute the benefits of an irrigation work over a large number of villages and to concentrate the irrigation in each village within blocks of specified limits and in selected soils and situations'. The irrigation system was a great success. Sir John Muir Mackenzie, a senior member of the Government of Bombay, said in the Bombay Legislative Council in June 1908 : "The case in favour of these (irrigation) works has been eminently strengthened by the complete success of what is known as the

Block System of Irrigation on the Nira Canal which has succeeded in paying nearly 3.5 per cent on the capital outlay and we hope to see it paying 5 per cent. The development of this system is due entirely to the genius of Mr. Visvesvaraya, certainly one of the ablest officers, European or Indian, of the Public Works Department, with whom it has been my pleasure and honour to work."

In 1884 Visvesvaraya joined the service of the Government of Bombay as Assistant Engineer in the Public Works Department. He served the Bombay Government till 1908. During his stay in Bombay Presidency he came in close contact with men like Mahadeo Govind Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915) and Bal Gangadhar Tilak(1856-1920). In fact Ranade knew him from the time when he was student in the Central College when Visvesvaraya was first posted at Nasik in 1884, Ranade gave him a letter of introduction to the Deputy Collector of Nasik.

As part of his usual work in the Public Works Department he was engaged in road construction, maintenance of public buildings and laying out plans for city developments, in many important towns. In addition to his routine work he was often consulted by the Bombay Government on matters like flood-relief and strengthening of embankments and construction of water works. He prepared the schemes for provision of water supply to the cities of Kohlapur, Dharwar, Belgaum, Bijapur and others. He also did the construction of water works at Sukkur in Sindh (which was then a part of the Bombay Presidency) which earned him recognition both from within and outside India. The job was to supply drinking water from the river Sindhu. The Municipal Council of Sukkur had accepted a plan that water to be pumped from Sindhu river to the nearby hill, filtered and then to be supplied to the town through pipes. But the Municipality could not afford to erect the filters. The problem was solved by the ingenuity of Visvesvaraya. He dug a circular well in the river and got it connected with a tunnel dug under the river. The water that reached to the bottom of the well had to pass through the sands and thus got filtered and purified. The water stored in the well was pumped up to the tank on the hill and then supplied to the city through pipes. After this success Visvesvaraya was posted at Surat to make arrangement to provide drinking water to the city from the river Tapti.

Visvesvaraya designed automatic gates for increasing the storage of water level in dams. These gates were first used at Khadakvasla dam to control the flood of the Mootha Canal flowing through Poona. Visvesvaraya got the gates (Automatic Sluice Gates) Patented in his name (1901-03). Here we quote what Visvesvaraya wrote on the working of the gates designed by him : "The reservoir overflowed every year upto a height of six to eight feet above the crest of the surplus weir. A system of automatic gates was designed by me to raise the storage water level of the lake permanently by about 8 feet (over 2 metres) above the original surplus weir. This increased the storage in the reservoir by about 25 per cent without raising the dam. The gates held up water in the lake till it rose to the full height of the previous floods but whenever water rose above that level the gates automatically opened and allowed the surplus water to escape. When water in the lake again fell below the 8 feet (over 2 metres) level over the surplus water the gates automatically closed and stopped further loss of water." The gates similar to the ones developed by Visvesvaraya were later used in the Tagra Dam in Gwalior, Krishnasagar dam in Mysore and other large storage dams.

His services were requisitioned for organisation of irrigation, sanitary and water works in all parts of the Bombay Presidency. He was also deputed to the Port of Aden, a military settlement of the British Government. Port of Aden occupied a very important strategic position in the British Empire. Aden is the first sea port when one enters the Suez Canal from India. If a ship does not go via the Suez Canal it will have to make a big detour. Visvesvaraya went to Aden in 1906. His tasks were to lay out an effective underground drainage system and to prepare a scheme to provide drinking water. In solving the problems of Aden he not only demonstrated his ability as an engineer but also exemplified his far-sightedness. In recognition of his valuable services Visvesvaraya was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind medal.

At the invitation of Nizam's Government Visvesvaraya took up the appointment of the Chief Engineer at Hyderabad on April 15, 1909. His tasks were :
i)    To advise and assist in the reconstruction of Hyderabad City
ii)    To frame proposals for future protection of the City from floods; and
iii)    To prepare a complete scheme of drainage for Hyderabad City and Chadarghat.

It may be noted that the year before Visvesvaraya joined the Nizam's Government flood waters caused widespread destruction in the Hyderabad City. For flood control Visvesvaraya advised construction of two reservoir dams - one across the river Musi and other across its tributary Easi. He also advised to raise the banks of the river within the city and convert the area on either side into walks and gardens along the river front.

    f-3.TIF (638538 bytes)He had prepared a modern underground drainage scheme for the city, making use of drainage water for agriculture; to widen the road and demolish certain unhealthy areas and construct house for the poor. Rosco Allen, a well-known engineer in Madras service, while commenting on Visvesvaraya's schemes for Hyderabad wrote that they are "as sound as what one might expect from the distinguished engineer who drew them up. He has shown the way to turn dire misfortune into a positive blessing. The proposals are without blemish. I strongly advocate carrying out the scheme." The dams constructed across the Moosi and Easi are known as Himayatsagar and Osmansagar respectively. These dams provide water to the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secundarabad. Today Hyderabad is one of the most beautiful cities in India and this is largely due to ingenuity and far-sightedness of Visvesvaraya. Visvesvaraya also drew a drainage scheme for Secundarabad at the request of the then British Resident.

On November 15, 1909 Visvesvaraya joined the Mysore Service as Chief Engineer. By his official position he was also Secretary to Government for Railways. He persuaded the Mysore Government to set up two Committees one for technical education and the other for industries. Visvesvaraya worked as Chairman for both the committees. The committee for industries took the form of the Mysore Economic Conferences. The first Economic Conference took place in 1911. The other important works that he undertook were :-
    i)    Large irrigation and hydro-electric scheme
    ii)    Reorganisation of the railways in the State.

After three years of his working as Chief Engineer Visvesvaraya was appointed as Dewan of the Mysore State by its ruler, Krishnarajendra Wodeyar, Maharaja of Mysore. Visvesvaraya served as Dewan for six years and galvanised the State into new activity. Before Visvesvaraya took special initiatives technical and social education received hardly any attention in the State. Short-term course in Kannada were started for the benefit of small farmers. Special courses were initiated for small shop-keepers in elementary account-keeping, banking, and commercial geography. Schemes were prepared for imparting general instruction in civics, duties and responsibilities of the citizens, business and social ethics. Agricultural schools and experimental farms were established in the State. An agricultural school was opened in Hebbal, near Bangalore, in 1913. Visvesvaraya f-4.TIF (873336 bytes)wanted to establish experimental agricultural farms throughout the state. Schools for the teaching of crafts were founded in all the District Headquarters. A Technical and Industrial Training Institute was started in Mysore. Industrial workshops were established both as control and district units. Public libraries were started in Mysore and Bangalore. District and rural libraries were established. There were also mobile libraries in rural areas. Visvesvaraya was instrumental in establishing the Kannada Sahitya Parishad or the Kannada Literary Academy. He wanted the Academy to pay special attention to the preparation of simple, easy books on science in Kannada. The University of Mysore which came into being on July 1, 1916 was largely due to the initiative taken by Visvesvaraya. Thus at its first convocation on October 19, 1919, the Maharaja of Mysore said: "I feel that I should acknowledge on this public occasion the debt of gratitude from myself and my people to Sir M.V. Dewan of my state. It was chiefly his patriotism, his enthusiasm and his unflinching advocacy which converted what was once little more than a dream of future into living creation and his name will always be remembered above all others as the man to whom University owes its being".

With the initiative taken by Visvesvaraya an Engineering college and Women's college and hostel for women students were established.

f-5.TIF (998424 bytes)Visvesvaraya was associated with the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore, since its inception. In fact before its establishment he had written to the Mysore Government to help the Tatas. As we know the Mysore Government sanctioned the land free of cost for locating the Institute and an annual grant for its sustenance. In 1913, Visvesvaraya then Dewan of Mysore was nominated to the Council of the Institute by the Government of Mysore. Visvesvaraya was the President of the reconstituted Court of the Institute for nine years (1938-47). As President of the Court of the Institute, Visvesvaraya gave a new orientation to the Institute's work. His association with the institute had its impact on the applied researches of the Institute. He strived to "secure proper co-relation between pure and applied research. Several new departments like these of Power Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Aeronautics, Industrial Combustion and Engineering etc. were opened". During its Golden Jubilee celebrations the Institute conferred the Honorary Fellowship Visvesvaraya alongwith Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) and Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (1888-1970).
Visvesvaraya was a staunch supporter of modern progress. In the
Preface to Reconstructing India(1920) Visvesvaraya wrote: "The Indian mind needs to be familarised with the principles of modern progress, a universal impulse for enquiry and enterprise awakened, and earnest thinking and effort promoted. A new type of Indian citizenship purposeful, progressive and self-respecting should be created, and self-reliant nationhood developed."

In a speech delivered on March 16, 1912, at Central College Bangalore Visvesvaraya said: "As compared with Europe, our climate and traditions all pre-dispose us to a life of inaction and ease. We are influenced either by religious sentiment, class patriotism or belief in kismet, whereas the activities of Western nations rest on an economic basis. While they think and act in conformity with economic necessities, we expect to prosper without acquiring the scientific precision, the inventive faculty, the thoroughness, the discipline and restraints of modern civilisation." On some other occasion he said: "Progress on modern lines is a necessity. We cannot afford to ignore scientific discoveries which have almost vivified material nature. Past ideals were for past times. We must adopt ourselves to the everlasting conditions of existence or be content to be left behind in the race for material prosperity."
Visvesvaraya pleaded for a "self-examination not moral or spiritual, but secular - that is, a survey and analysis of local conditions in India and a comparative study of the same" with those in other parts of the globe.

It is interesting to note here what Gandhiji and Visvesvaraya thought of each other's views on 'solving the problem of the overgrowing poverty of the masses'. Both had tremendous respect for each other. In 1934 Gandhiji in his letter to Visvesvaraya wrote : "In spite of strength of my conviction, I have certain great regard for your fine abilities and love for the country and that shall be unabated whether I have the good fortune to secure your cooperation or face your honest opposition... I see that we hold perhaps diametrically opposite views. My conviction based upon extensive experiences of village life is that in India at any rate for generations to come, we shall not be able to make much use of mechanical power for solving the problem of the ever growing poverty of the masses."

In response to above Visvesvaraya wrote : "You say we hold perhaps diametrically opposite views. You are for developing village industries and I favour both heavy industries and village industries. To the extent that you f-6.TIF (1167634 bytes)propose to advance village industries, I am at once with you. I can never persuade myself to take up a hostile attitude towards any constructive work, from any quarter, least of all towards work attempted by one with your brilliant historic achievements in public life... I am in favour of heavy industries because heavy industries will save the money that is going out of the country in large sums every year; heavy industries are required to provide the local manufactures of machinery and equipment required by our railways and for defence forces and heavy industries are required also for supplying machinery and tools for the village industries themselves. I recommend more extended use of mechanical power because it produces results for the country much more rapidly than human power. The object is to get food and commodities required by our people for a decent standard of living as speedily as possible ..."

When disagreed with others, irrespective of their positions, he never hesitated to express his opposition. In a letter (January 3, 1917) to R. H. Campbell, Private Secretary to the then Mysore Ruler on the subject of nomination to the Mysore University Senate he wrote: "The university organisation has just begun to work and as we have not yet got over all our difficulties, we are badly in need of active workers. The Senate is not a body created for honoring people but to promote a specific object, namely, the development of university education...You will have to search very hard and very long to find a single instance of act or word on the part of any of the gentlemen named by you which betrays enthusiasm or even approval of our University scheme."

Visvesvaraya was associated with the Tata Group of Industries. He helped them in the management of their steel and iron factory. He was one of the Directors of the Tata Iron and Steel Co. for 28 years.

He was the President of the All Indian Manufactures' Association (AIMO). As a President of AIMO he had drawn up a Rural Industrialisation Scheme and which was submitted to the Government of India in 1949. He believed that without advancement of life in village communities no long-range improvement could be ensured for the country. He wanted to organise the villages into efficient economic units. The Bank of Mysore was started in 1913 to provide short-and-medium terms capital for trade and commerce. The Bank of Mysore was the first modern banking institute started in Mysore. The Mysore Chamber of Commerce came in to existence in 1916. Among the important industries started in the Mysore state during the Dewanship of Visvesvaraya were Krishnarajandre Textile Mills (1916) Sandal Oil Factory (1916) the Government Soap Factory (1916) and Metal Factory (1916). The Iron and Steel works at Bhadravati was a great mining and manufacturing enterprise initiated by Visvesvaraya.

In 1921 Visvesvaraya presided over an All party Conference at Bombay Convened by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya (1861-1946)

He was a member of the Committee appointed by the (British) Government of India in 1922 for formulating a sound scheme for the construction of the Viceroy's residence, central government office, Assembly buildings etc., in Delhi, the new capital. The Committee was presided over by Sir Malcom Hailey.

He was the President of the Indian Science Congress in 1923 held at Lucknow.
In recognition of his distinguished public service, the Government of India conferred on Visvesvaraya the award Bharat Ratna (the highest honour that the Republic of India can confer on the most illustrious among its citizens) in 1955.

Visvesvaraya died on April 12, 1962, at the age of 102 years.

  1. M. Visvesvaraya by V. Sitaramiah, Publications Division, Govt of India, New Delhi , 1971

  • Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya by V.S. Narayana Rao, National Book Trust, India, New Delhi, 1988

  • Reconstructing India, by M. Visvesvaraya, P.S. King & Son Ltd. London, 1920

  • Memoirs of My Working Life by M.Visvesvaraya Bombay 1951

  • Brief Memoirs of My working Life by M.Visvesvaraya, Bangalore, 1957

  • Planned Economy for India by M. Visvesvaraya Bangalore, 1934.

  • Subodh Mahanti