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No rain had fallen for the better part of six months, and the snows were as yet unloosened about the shoulders of the Himalaya. Out of the foothills the Jumna issued on to the endless level, like a thread of blue water on a broad belt of dead-yellow sand and round-worn pebble. Over and under and through scrambled the scanty trickle — a profitless thimbleful, you would say, to the vast plains and dry-lipped deserts below.
Following it through the thickets and over the stones, you come to a road raised on a long embankment; and following that, you find it presently closes in on the river. The stream, confined on this side, appears to gather weight, and slides along the more swiftly, as if making up its mind to a purpose.
Then suddenly you look ahead — and there is no more Jumna! It has stopped — disappeared. Across its broad bed, with pier and buttress, bridge and battlement, runs a long dam, relentlessly solid. Between the piers you see double flood-gates, each with an upper and a lower leaf, and a travelling winch on rails above to draw them up. But at present they are all shut down, and the stream pulls in vain against that curb. Beyond it there is still the broad bed of dead-yellow sand and round-worn pebble — but only a feeble ooze through chinks, a puddle and a gutter-runnel of water struggle to lick over it. What on earth has become of the Jumna?
Next moment you see. Before you, along the right bank, is another weir with many piers and a broad road over it, double flood-gates, and a travelling-winch. The river, now bolting outright, swerves round a curved revetment, rears back from the dam in its front, and plunges madly through the arches of the other. Under the weir it is a lather of foam; a hundred yards beyond it is in hand again, galloping with a swift and solid momentum between its narrower banks. The Jumna has ceased to be the wild stallion of a river; it is broken to man's service — bitted and harnessed into a canal.
From now on it has a double use: it is a highway where there was little road and no railway, and it is a perpetual spring of fertility where there was only sand and drought. In early summer, when the melting snows bring it down in shouting spate from the mountains, the gates are opened in the transverse weir, and it tears along its natural bed as well as along the canal. When the water rises above the lower leaf of the gates the upper can either be raised to let it off or kept lowered to hold it in place. It can be held up at the transverse weir and driven down the canal, or it can be held up at the lateral weir and eased off down the natural bed.
And it takes some regulating, as the white-bearded engineer will tell you. He is simple and courteous and very keen, even after thirty uncomplaining years of canal work — now shiver, now sweat, and always work and anxiety. It is at posts like this you meet the non-commissioned ranks of British India — like this man, living with a working wife, bringing up children with difficulty, pinching the not over-liberal pay to squeeze out the expense of summers in the hills. Such men — there are hundreds of them on canals and railways, in engine-rooms and fittingsheds — are not the least heavily-burdened of the slaves of India. They hunger for Camden Town as the others hunger for St. James's Street; but there is no three-yearly privilege-leave for them. Their children must be brought up in India or not at all; and to be country-bred in India is good neither for mind, body, nor estate. In big stations there may be a club for them, and tennis with sergeants' daughters; more likely they will be pushed away where there is a white superior to talk to six times a-year and a white equal never. If you come across such, and be expected, you will find the good man in a new white topi, and the good lady in an old silk gown, and tea and Huntley & Palmer's biscuits. Sit down and talk: you seldom have such a chance to do a good deed without any virtue of your own.
So here, in his little bungalow, alone — the higher ranks of Public Works Engineers are few, and the few are here to-day, and at the other end of the canal to-morrow, and dead of enteric the next day — keeping his accounts, commanding his coolies, sits the white-bearded engineer, and governs the river Jumna. When the floods come down it is anxious work, for it needs some masonry to stand against that tugging, snorting strain. It takes some regulation to prevent the torrent from savaging banks and bottom and swallowing up gates and travelling-winch and piers and all. To get due warning of such onslaughts they have just laid a telephone-wire miles up into the hills: here is a gauge which, when the water rises to a given height, automatically rings a bell at the head works below.
Even now, when there is a bare three feet of water on the sill, there is plenty of devil in the Jumna. The four natives who man your boat row as you might know that natives would — a slice in, a languid scoop, and a good rest between the strokes; yet you race down, and the boat will have to go back by bullock-cart. You soon forget that you are navigating a canal, for this is as broad as the Thames below Folly Bridge, and curbed with rough stone jetties and streaked with cross-currents into hills and valleys of water like the very Rhine. Now your boat bump-bumps against the bottom, now spins round a headlong corner, now kicks her rudder in the air and digs her nose down a sliding cataract. Now you are caught and all but hurled against a raft of sleepers; for the canal is a main highway of the timber trade. Next you coast round a big island, where tulip-trees mosaic the intense blue with black leafless boughs and scarlet blossoms, where tribes of puff-billed waterfowl, half-duck, half-cormorant, jump off the branches and flap heavily towards the long spear-grass above the sand-shoals. Here is a village alive with calves and staring brown faces; here a soulless flat of poor pasture, where the canal is swilling great fids of bank; here another weir-bridle across the still restive stream; below it, a shoot of beryl-green water and snow-white foam into soberer, profounder reaches below.
So you could float for days, with the water-air cool on your skin and the water-rustle drowsy in your ear. . . . But wake up: this is not Nuneham or Ship-lake; this is hard business. This Western Jumna Canal is part of perhaps the most original and beneficent piece of engineering in the world. It flows thus along the watershed between the Ganges and Indus basins for over a hundred miles, giving out water into a gridiron of channels that lead it to the checkered fields, till at last what is left trickles back to its mother Jumna at Delhi. A second branch of it heads out the best part of two hundred miles to Sirsa and Hissar and the sands that fringe the Bikanir desert, where the year's rain is less than twenty inches, and generally fails at that, and two crops out of three must sponge on the canal or die of thirst. This pleasant river of tulip-trees and water-fowl spells life or death two hundred miles away.
This is only one of the great canals with which British rule has turned flood into steady moisture and desert into corn-land, has mitigated bad years and filled to overflowing the abundance of good. This particular Western Jumna Canal, it happens, was there before we came: an Emperor of Delhi — Feroz Shah, in the reign of our Edward III. — cut it and planted it with trees. Only his engineer made the tiny oversight of leading it along the line of drainage instead of the watershed, so that wheels and buckets and oxen were needed to prevent it from drying the land instead of wetting it. Left derelict till our time, it was then realigned; and its perfected principle was applied to nearly all the great rivers of Northern India.
The principle is briefly this. The rivers have eaten out low, narrow valleys for themselves; so that an ordinary dam would not be enough to raise the waters to the upper lands beyond the valleys, while simple channels could not reach them at all except at points low down the river's course: you would have to take off cuttings and lead them over miles of country before they could begin their work. The plan, therefore, has been hit on of intercepting the whole bulk of the rivers as soon as they enter the plains, and carrying it to the watershed that runs parallel with the course of the streams: thence, by gravitation, it distributes itself. Of these canals the Jumna sends out three — one eastward, one westward from Tajawallah to Delhi, and another from Delhi to Agra. The Ganges is intercepted at Hurdwar, whence four thousand miles of main and branch lead it back to the natural bed at Cawnpore; the stream that gathers from tributaries below Hurdwar is again taken up and sent to reinforce the original canal. In the Punjab the Ravi, the Seas, the Sutlej, and now the Chenab, have been similarly shed abroad on to waste places; on the latter especially colonies have come from congested districts to land-grants in what till now was desert. Of the great rivers of the north, only the Jhelum and Indus remain untapped.
These works of irrigation are brilliant, effective, popular, and — the crowning grace of public works — they pay. It was worth the while of Government to make them, even if it were not a father's duty, for the increased land-revenue they bring in; but, apart from that, they actually pay by the water-rates levied from the owners whose fields they give upon. In each village a water-registrar, corresponding to the land-registrar, keeps the account of the fields irrigated, and the headman collects the rent. The Punjab canals already pay over six per cent,, though the Chenab works are but just completed; the North-Western Province gets about the same; the patriarchal Western Jumna yields nine.
That is good hearing; the idea of charity in Government is hateful to well-balanced minds. But for the true eulogy of Indian irrigation you must go to the cultivator. Forms of Government the cultivator neither knows nor recks of; even justice he does his best to clog with perjury; but he understands and appreciates water on the land. Go into any village and mark the difference between this field and that — the dense, long-strawed, full-eared barley; the dark, thick-podded rape; the dense blue-flowering grampulse — on one side: the stunted, bloomless blotches — is it meant for crop or fallow? — on the other. Water is scarce just now; seven or ten days of full canal, then seven or ten of dry, is the usual alternation. The ryot grumbles on the dry days, as tillers of the soil will; but every village has a grey-beard old enough to remember what happened when winter rains failed in the past — in the years before the sahibs bridled the river and brought it to the village gate. And on the full days — go out at evenfall and see the ryot naked to mid-thigh scraping entrances in his little embankments with his antediluvian hoe. First one, then another, rod by rod, till the whole field is soaked. Listen to the glug-glug of the water as the last compartment gets its douse, and look at the great peace on the ryot's face. You can almost hear his soul glug-glugging with the like satisfaction.