Not many people know Kusum Nair today. The simple description of “agricultural economist who wrote from a cultural perspective” perhaps describes her scholarship but is woefully inadequate to describe her as a person. She was considered brilliant in her insights and was unafraid to criticise Nobel laureates in Economics like Gunnar Myrdal and Theodore Schultz to their face. Despite that—or perhaps because of that—they and numerous other scholars were her friends.
My wife, Leela, and I were graduate students in the USA when we first met her in the university café one day. Over the next two years that Leela and I spent getting our Master’s degrees and over the years that followed, Kusum became a close friend–unknown to all of us, these were what would become the last few years of her life. She died in 1993, seventy-four years old. She called us “her children” and telephoned us even on the day she died—we were in Philadelphia and she in Kansas. Leela was perhaps the last person she called.
Kusum was sharp, acid-tongued, and even bordered on being ego-centric. But she was forthright, enormously generous and would fight with all her soul for the underprivileged. Her book titles are characteristic of her—In Defence of the Irrational Peasant (1979), or The Lonely Furrow (1969), for instance.We loved her despite all her eccentricities because she made us think—to see things in a different way, to courageously challenge orthodoxy when necessary, and she made us always look at things from the human perspective. During the Desert War of 1991, she insisted that the three of us should go and watch a re-run of “All Quiet on the Western Front”—one of the best anti-war movies ever made, I think—and she was equally firm about sitting between the two of us. Throughout the movie, we listened to her curse the folly of the war in Kuwait and Iraq. And to think that this woman had played a significant role in the 1946 “Indian Naval Mutiny” in Bombay—to use the British term for the movement. She was disgusted and angry that I was going to work with a Wall Street firm. “India needs people like to you to go back and join politics!” I did not have the guts to tell her that I did not have the guts to say no to the job offer. She was only mildly appeased when I left the Wall Street position to go back to graduate school for my Ph.D.
In any case, why would I begin a business and strategy blog post with Kusum Nair? In 1961, Kusum wrote a seminal book called Blossoms in the Dust: The Human Factor in Indian Development. It was primarily a journal that recorded her travel through the agricultural regions of India where she found that despite all the propaganda, the Indian government’s five-years plans were providing no benefits to the Indian farmer. As she recounted to us, “Sometimes the farmer did not even know we were independent of the British!” She began the book as follows:
On the stroke of midnight on 14th August, 1947, the Tricolour was hoisted to the strains of the national anthem. India became independent.
The monsoon night was starless but aglow with the brilliant illuminations below. Every man, woman and child was out to witness the supreme, historic moment and the air was filled with jubilant cries of “Jai Hind!”.
An elemental force had burst its confines and swept like a flood across the land. Would it also wash away the cobwebs, the inertia and deadness of centuries? Would it create overnight a brave new country in which everything would be perfect? Anything seemed possible.
Next morning, the sun rose in the eastern sky to reveal the same squalor, the staggering poverty and hunger, the deep inequalities as the day before. Myriads of flowers, yellow and orange marigolds and pink rose petals, lay scattered on the ground, stale, scentless, trampled.
The municipal sweepers came and swept the streets, and the blossoms mingled in the dust.
My post is about one such blossom that we have swept into the Indian dust. “Frugal innovation” is today being termed by some as a “new paradigm”—but there is a nearly 2000-year old blossom—an Indian engineering marvel—that holds lessons for frugal innovation. Here is the story.
An innovation blossom in the dust
The flow of the Kaveri, the great river of south India, is arrested at Tiruchirapalli by a stone dam built by the Chola kings in the 2nd century AD. Locally the dam is called Kallanai (Kallu=stone; anai=dam in Tamil) but it is more popularly known by the name the colonising British gave it—“Grand Anicut” (anicut is perhaps a corruption of anai=dam and kattu=build).More technically, the anicut is not a dam, but a stone weir—a rather low structure that breaks a river into multiple streams. The Grand Anicut— a 5.4 m high wall that is 29 m long and 20 m wide—separates the Kaveri into four streams: Kollidam, Puthu Aru, Vennaru, and Kaviri.
Our story begins much later than the Cholas, however. In 1827, a 24-year old British engineer, Maj. Arthur T. Cotton, was charged with the task of inspecting the Grand Anicut. The young engineer recommended some minor but urgent repairs to the structure, but the British Government of Madras dragged its feet. It was not until 1830 that Arthur Cotton and his younger brother and assistant, Frederick Cotton, also an engineer, were commissioned to cut sluices in the Grand Anicut so that the silt sediment would flow through.
The Madras, or the Cheap School of Engineering
Lady Hope, Arthur Cotton’s daughter recounts a memorable event in her biography of Arthur Cotton: Upon cutting the anicut, Frederick discovered a strange fact: to his amazement, he found that the Grand Anicut, “was hardly more than a mass of rubbish, mud, stones, and logs of wood, the safety of which depended solely on its then plastered surface.” As Bret Wallach sums up, “It was an important, perhaps even a revolutionary discovery: simple inertia had been great enough to withstand 1,600 annual floods.” What is important to us today is that for Arthur and Frederick Cotton, this discovery gave rise to what they termed, “The Madras, or the Cheap School of Engineering.”
In his next project, which was to build the Coleroon Anicut slightly downstream—Coleroon was the Anglicised name for Kolidam—Arthur Cotton applied what he had learned from the Grand Anicut: instead of a grand European style of dam, he chose a minimalist design inspired by the Grand Anicut. And we can say that he learned the lesson well for the Coleroon anicut stands even today irrigating a vast tract of about half a million acres. Some modern refurbishments had to be made over the years, and a subsequent similar dam further downstream had to be constructed when the river threatened to change course, but despite this, the Coleroon anicut is a shining example of the Madras Cheap School of Engineering.
Emboldened by his experience at replicating the design of the Grand Anicut in his work on the Coleroon anicut, Arthur Cotton used the same minimalist, resource-savvy design elsewhere. As Frederick Cotton writes, “it may be of interest to those who are following Sir Arthur in his work in Hydraulic Engineering that the most important step in his education was the lesson he learned from the builder of the so called grand anicut…it gave him, even with the slender means extended to engineers of that period, the power to control and master the greatest river of the country.”
And the greatest river Frederick Cotton is referring to here is the Godavari in Andhra Pradesh. The British estimated that the maximum discharge of the Godavari was more than 200 times the water of the Thames and 3 times that of the Nile. Arthur Cotton took the lessons from the Kaveri and applied them in the four anicuts he built across the Godavari. Indeed, Arthur Cotton is worshipped even today by the people in Andhra Pradesh for transforming through his irrigation engineering the once-famine struck delta regions of the Godavari into the rice-bowl of India that it is today. Frederick Cotton writes about his brother:
The fact was learned from an engineer of old times, but the courage with which Sir Arthur put the idea into practice in his great works was all his own….The four anicuts he built across the Godavari are not solid masses of masonry, but surface coatings of stone over the sand of the river bed, for which he substituted cut-stone for the plaster of the early engineers, but the principles are the same. …Indeed, the cheap School of engineering, which he did much to introduce is, it appears, set aside for the extravagant system of England. And after all, what is good engineering but economy! Any engineer can do anything with money; the question is how to do great things at little cost.”
If there is one lesson that Arthur Cotton’s life and work teaches us, it is that blossoms in the dust can teach us much. The 2000-year old Kallanai across the Kaveri in Tiruchirapalli is one such blossom.
There are many other innovations across the world that we have forgotten. For instance, James O’Kon, an American engineer discovered recently that in the seventh century AD, the Mayans built with hemp and stone, a 600-ft suspension bridge with two piers and three spans—this bridge was the world’s longest suspension bridge for 700 years. O’Kon believes it can hold lessons for bridge technology today.
I’d love to hear if you know about other blossoms in the dust.