by Nivedita Nath

THE PUBLIC WORKS DEPARTMENT (PWD) was founded as a separate branch of the Government of India under the initiative of Governor-General Lord Dalhousie in 1855. While the East India Company had initiated road and irrigation construction from as early as the late eighteenth century, a distinct department was subsequently established in an attempt to relieve the military of sole responsibility over infrastructure as well as to centrally supervise projects underway in separate provinces. The PWD had its immediate precedent in a civilian Department of Public Works founded in 1849 in the newly acquired territories of Punjab. Prior to this date imperial and provincial public works came under the purview of the Engineering Department of the army which managed infrastructure through three Military Boards in the presidencies. The programs of these boards were often interrupted by the demands of military campaigns. Chief Engineers under the general supervision of a Central Public Works Secretariat at Calcutta were therefore appointed to replace the boards in the hope that this would quicken the progress of public ‘improvements’.

In nineteenth century India ‘public works’ broadly encompassed the construction and maintenance of railways, roadways, tolls, post offices, prisons, barracks and irrigation works. Historian David Arnold suggests that between 1780 and 1840 British improvements to roads and canals were driven by military and revenue considerations respectively. In the post-Mutiny era, colonial observers argued that expanded communications were crucial for the security of the empire against a potentially rebellious native population. The relative weight given to ‘military works’ as opposed to ‘civil works’ can be ascertained through records of finances. From 1854 onward expenditure on public works were consolidated in the form of an Annual Budget and subsequently monitored through an Annual Retrospect, which was to ‘place before the Local and General Governments in one view…the actual state of the works carried on in the different Provinces.’ The first PWD budget of 1845-55 claimed a total cost of 223 lakhs, twenty-five percent of which was expended on military works (including cantonment roads and accommodation for troops) while seventy percent was expended on civil works (including dak bungalows, roads, post offices, salt mines, canals, toll houses and even churches). The PWD surveyed and printed the records of private railway companies, but did not include the costs of rail construction in its budget. The railways and other civil works such as trunk roads were classed as ‘remunerative works’ through which the state could extract revenues in the form of tolls. While part of the PWD budget was furnished from government revenues, Dalhousie sought to finance remunerative works either through loans or by tendering contracts to private companies that were induced to carry out projects on the promise of returns.

Claims made regarding the expansion of public works allowed colonial officials to draw comparisons between the British and the Roman Empires. To take one instance, the civil servant and economist William Thornton argued in 1875 that though the British had found India ‘as trackless as Britain was before the Roman invasion’ they had managed to render it as well connected as Georgian England. However, considerations of cost often dictated the character of public works more than any notion of imperial munificence. While large scale irrigation projects such as the Ganges Canal (completed in 1854) were celebrated as modern marvels of hydraulic engineering, ‘minor works’ were often built upon existing wells, tanks and canal systems. This continuity in infrastructure was particularly evident in the early nineteenth century through the repair of dams such as the Godavari anicut. Nevertheless, the scientifically trained engineers of the PWD imbued a spirit of ‘technocratic paternalism’ to the implementation of projects. Even though the PWD was dissociated from the army, it continued to be dominated by military officials recruited from bodies such as the Bengal Engineers. Attempts were made to expand the hire of civil engineers through the opening of colleges such as the Thomason College of Civil Engineering in Roorkee (est. 1847) and the India Office’s Royal Indian Engineering College (est. 1872). Reports such as the Civil Engineers Grievances (1869) indicate that the PWD continued to offer preferential recruitment and pay to military officials despite these measures. The influence of ‘military habits of thought’ substantially shaped the character of public works. Engineers often envisioned their projects in terms of an adversarial relationship with nature, as evidenced by Alfred Deakin’s evocative (or beguiling) description of a canal as a ‘battle with the river for miles’.

Labor-intensive modes of building were employed to keep costs low. While convict labor was used in the early nineteenth century, towards the second half of the century employment was increasingly offered to the victims of famine. In response to the devastating famines of the 1830s, 1870s and 1890s public works were upheld as ‘anti-famine’ measures. As Mike Davis argues, free market ideas of Adam Smith combined with Benthamite principles of punitive relief measures shaped the late Victorian response to famines. The Famine Commission Report of 1878-1880 maintained that India could not be governed as an ‘alms house’. A distinction between public charity and public works was thus taking shape. In keeping with the British administration’s treatment of India as a ‘revenue plantation’, efforts were made to minimize wages paid to labor employed in the construction of public works. Under officials such as Sir Richard Temple, conditions at ‘relief camps’ were rendered worse than conditions in prisons. Davis quotes the account of an official visitor to a project implemented during the Bombay Deccan Famine of 1877 who compared a road works to a ‘battlefield, its sides being strewn with the dead, the dying and those recently attacked’.

Opposition to such appalling labor conditions at camps established in the name of ‘public improvement’ was accompanied by criticism of the environmental consequences of some of the PWD’s initiatives. In the late nineteenth century colonial observers such as A F Corbett noted that irrigation works were leading to problems of waterlogging, contamination and the spread of malaria. Nationalists such as Dadabhai Naoroji further argued that not only was the ‘drain of wealth’ from India retarding the expansion of public works, but ostensible improvements such as the railways were being constructed at a profit to Britain. These criticisms notwithstanding, public works became the cornerstone of the effort to legitimize the British Empire, particularly in the post-Mutiny era. While the Queen’s Proclamation (1858) reassured natives that ‘due regard would be paid to [their] ancient rights, usages and customs’, it also promised to enhance the moral and material conditions of India through the promotions of ‘works of public utility and improvement’.

The framework of Dalhousie’s PWD survives in postcolonial India in the form of the Central Public Works Department. Furthermore, contemporary debates over the economic utility of schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in some respects echo the logic of colonial economists, who grudgingly conceded employment in public works as a form of famine relief. However, the discourse surrounding public works has arguably shifted away from the paternalistic assertions of the colonial state towards one of rights and entitlements.