M. Visvesvaraya – A Protagonist For Development of India

Sri Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya or simply Sri M. Visvesvaraya was a renowned Indian civil engineer and the 19th Dewan of Mysore. He was born to parents Mokshagundam Srinivasa Sastry, an ayurvedic practitioner, and Venkatalakshamma, a homemaker on 15th September 1860 in the Chikballapur district of Mysore, Karnataka. Some of his most well-known projects include Krishna Raja Sagar Dam, Mysore Iron and Steel Works and the University of Mysore. As a major force behind India’s development, he has been the recipient of some of the highest honours like the Bharat Ratna and Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In a period of colonialism where the British had supremacy and not many Indians could manage to have extreme success, Visvesvaraya succeeds all expectations and achieved immense success. He lived a long and fulfilling life and died at the age of 102 years on 12th April 1962 and was cremated in his birthplace as per his wishes. 


M. Visvesvaraya - biography


Visvesvaraya as a student 


Visvesvaraya’s years as a student were marked by diligence, perseverance, and discipline. In his early years, most of his education was under his parents and his uncle H. Ramiah, from who he got his quality of discipline. He later attended middle school in Chikkaballapur. At the age of 15, tragedy struck Visvesvaraya’s family when his father passed away during a pilgrimage trip to Rameswaram. After this event, he was sent to Bangalore with his uncle where he finished his high school education from Wesleyan Mission High School. After completion of his high school education, he joined the Central College for a degree course and it was during this time that Visvesvaraya has to start earning for his education, therefore he became a private tutor to His Highness the Maharaja of Mysore.

His hardworking and sheer intelligence made him an excellent student and his abilities were noticed especially by the principal of Central College, Charles Walters, who also used to make him teach certain mathematical problems to other students. In fact, he had so much affection and admiration towards Visvesvaraya that he gifted him a copy of Webster’s Dictionary and after retiring back to London, came back only to specially present Visvesvaraya gold cufflinks as a memento. He went to pass his degree course with distinction in 1880  and then study engineering from the College of Science in Poona through the scholarship for bright students to help them get education out of the state. In 1883, he completed is L.C.E and F.C.E.L and secured first rank in the Bombay Presidency, showing his academic brilliance. 


Working in Bombay and Hyderabad 


As the first ranking student in the Bombay Presidency, Visvesvaraya was offered a job as an assistant engineer at the Bombay Public Works in Nasik. His first assignment was a construction of a syphon on river Panjra, which proved to be a challenging one. Monsoon had made the construction difficult and Visvesvaraya calculated that it would be a smarter choice to build the syphon after monsoons are gone, a suggestion that his superior rejected and insisted that the syphon be constructed in this weather itself. Since Visvesvaraya was all about staying true to his public duty, he did not give up and even took to swimming to the camp himself even if it ensured that his work was done on time, which he managed to do.

His dedication to his work earned him the admiration of his superior, executive engineering H. G Palliser, who encouraged him to take the practical exam for promotion much earlier than one would normally do. He passed this exam with flying colors and earned a quick promotion to work under the executive engineer in Poona for roads and buildings. He did his job remarkably well and earned praises of his superiors and the people he benefitted from his work. Later, he was posted in Sind and became in-charge of water supply and drainage in Sukkur. Sukkur was a place with bad climatic conditions. The task of supplying water to this area from the Indus River was difficult as the water was not fit for usage.

Visvesvaraya had to come up with a cost-effective and efficient way of filtering the water from the river so that it could reach the people of Sukkur. The task at hand was challenging, but once again Visvesvaraya put his innovative genius to use. Instead of using filter beds, he got a circular well dug in the riverbank and connected it with a tunnel dug under the river where there would be percolation of water through sand and filtered water reached the tanks on a nearby hill. After the success of his project in Sukkur, he carried out a similar project to supply water from the Tapti River to Surat. Another example of Visvesvaraya’s great innovative mind was the automatic flood gates he designed and patented for Lake Fife, from which Poona got most of its water supply. The flood gates were installed with the aim of increasing storage capacity as most of the water from the lake used to flow out, but thanks to Visvesvaraya’s thinking, water supply in Poona increased by 25%. This project garnered him more respect and prestige as an engineer by officials and non-officials alike. This model was also used for the Krishnarajasagar Dam in Karnataka.

He also helped out the agriculture sector of Poona by devising a way to utilize the water from Musa Canal for irrigation of suburb lands. The water was to be supplied by a system of rotation to prevent wasting of water. This was initially opposed by the ryots in the area but Visvesvaraya managed to convince them by informing them about the benefits of this system and even gave them control of the rotation, after which they agreed to implement his plan and in the process, also developed a lot of respect for him for the way he addressed their concerns.

Visvesvaraya became increasingly known for his abilities by this time. He also gave the scheme of block irrigation to the Irrigation Commission of India whereby a given amount of water would be used to irrigate a large amount of land with triennial rotation of crops. Later in 1904, he became the sanitary engineer for the Bombay Government, where he made and implemented multiple schemes related to sanitation and drainage. He visited the port of Aden to work out a scheme for water supply and drainage in 1906, as it was huge problem in that area and people spend a lot of money on getting water. Therefore, he got a well sunk in Lahex river and water was supplied to Aden through conduit pipes. This also turned out to be a success and the Bombay Government was very satisfied with the results.

Visvesvaraya got quick promotions due to his merit and excellence but he felt he could do much more if he was appointed as the Chief Engineer. However, he still had to wait for a few years for that but the chances were still highly slim as only Britishers could be appointed to such high posts at that time period. Due to this, he resigned from his post after 23 years of service but because of his contributions, the government made an exception for him and considered him eligible for additional pension even though he would have to serve for two more years to be eligible for it by the rules. This shows how highly revered he was in his workplace. After retiring from his post in Bombay, the Nizam of Hyderabad offered Visvesvaraya a job as a special consulting engineer in Hyderabad. The reason why the Nizam called him to Hyderabad was to solve the problem of monsoon floods caused by the Moosi river that would cause havoc in the area – the consequences of which were too catastrophic.

Visvesvaraya, assisted by his team of other engineers and personnel, conducted a thorough survey and investigation of the land and after calculating upon it, came to the conclusion that the problem could be solved by the construction of two reservoirs above the city that can appropriate the flow of this excess floodwater. While he did not stay in Hyderabad to oversee the entire project coming to life as he had already accepted a posting in Mysore, he visited Hyderabad at regular intervals to check on the progress of the project. In addition to that, he had also developed several development schemes for the town and formed a report on the deficiencies and correct measures for Hyderabad for developing the city more, which was received positively and implemented as such. 



 Services as the Dewan of Mysore 


After retiring from his post at the Bombay Government and finishing the task he had at Hyderabad, Visvesvaraya came to Mysore as he was offered the post of chief engineer by the Maharaja and the Dewan. He accepted this post on the condition that he would be given full freedom for carrying out and implementing his plans for the development of the state.

Three years later, he became the Dewan of Mysore himself. His goals as the Dewan were focused on the betterment of education, commerce and industry, and public works. He also wanted some organisation and planning among the leaders. For this purpose, he set up the Mysore Economic Conference, headed by the Dewan as the chairman, a few high officers of the state and some leading non-officials. This body had committees for three areas – education, agriculture and industry.

Several organizations were established to conduct surveys and collect statistics all over the state and were dedicate to spread technical and scientific knowledge in people and encourage them to join hands in Visvesvaraya’s mission of achieving rapid socio-economic growth in Mysore. The main aim of this body was to make a combined effort of the leaders and commoners of the state towards development by formulating specific targets. This made Visvesvaraya a pioneer in the road to a planned economy.

Visvesvaraya was also very democratic in his mindset and attempted to bring some beacon of democracy in the state of Mysore step by step. His first measure in this sphere was to replace the Instrument of Transfer with another Treaty between the British government and Mysore rulers that gave the Maharaja greater autonomy and powers for internal matters. Next, in 1881, he formed the Representative Assembly for the purpose of addressing the grievances of the common people and the members were nominated to speak for the people of Mysore. More powers were given to this Assembly as they later earned the privilege of discussing budgetary issues in half-yearly sessions. Later a Representative Council was also established and Visvesvaraya presided over both the houses. The Council could raise objections to government provisions, encouraging debate and discussions.

Visvesvaraya wanted to further democratize the state of Mysore but the efforts were rejected by the British government as the Great War was ongoing during that time. He also promoted local self-governance by replacing deputy commissioners with presidents of district boards and making room for more elected elements in taluk and district boards. Visvesvaraya’s democratic outlook also extended to him advocating for freedom of the press.

He was against the Mysore Press Act of 1906 that would majorly curb freedom for editors and journalists but could not get it repealed, so he resorted to making it less stringent and did not use it much against editors and newspapers. He also advocated for better treatment for women and their rights. He believed most in merit and efficiency and so, he modeled the Mysore Civil Service Examinations to recruit efficient young men for the state. He promoted a healthy office environment that included effectiveness, ambition, organization, uniformity, and punctuality.

He would also tour around the state to get a first-hand view of the situation everywhere and encouraged the heads of different departments to do so as well. He used these tours to make reports for potential developments for the state and formulated micro-level targets for every area. Visvesvaraya gave up his position as Dewan of Mysore and resigned on 9th December 1918 due to differences between him and the Maharaja over how to tackle the issue of rights and opportunities for the backward castes. But this did not put an end to his love for Mysore and he was still interested in seeing Mysore develop as he envisioned and told the Maharaja that he could render his services anytime. He was honored for his contributions to the modernisation of Mysore in an issue of the Mysore Gazette Extraordinary. 


Work for the nation 


After relinquishing his office as the Dewan of Mysore, Visvesvaraya went on to render his services to the national government and headed several governmental committees. In 1921, he presided over the All-Party Conference in Bombay as chairperson for discussion of political issues and to demand a Round-Table Conference with the Viceroy to discuss issues like swaraj and other related problems as raised by the Indian National Congress. In 1924, he headed a committee as the Retrenchment Advisor in Bombay to suggest ways to secure the economy and make corporate administration efficient.

The committee headed by Visvesvaraya formed a comprehensive report and suggested certain remedies like decentralization of functions and review of corporate work to remedy the existing issues. An Indian Economic Enquiry Committee was set up in 1925 to look into the economic conditions of India. This committee was also headed by Visvesvaraya as the chairman. Committee members visited several parts of the country to take into account the problems of the Indian economy and looked at issues like resource allocation, per capita income, etc.

He also served as the technical expert in the Backbay Enquiry Committee in 1926 to look into the Backbay Reclamation Scheme and recommend changes in future operations. The Committee gave a thorough report of faults and corrections and the recommendations of the committee proved very useful in carrying out future operations. He also presided as chairman in the Bangalore Political Disturbances Enquiry Committee to look into the reasons for communal riots in Bangalore in 1928. The committee was responsible for suggesting what measures could be undertaken by the government to restore harmony.

He also helped in the establishment of the Chemical Technology Institute in Bombay after Visvesvaraya, as chairman of the committee prompting Bombay University to promote chemical industries, made his recommendations in 1930, which the university accepted. He was also the chairman of the Irrigation Enquiry Committee that was to look at the general irrigation policy for agriculture, industries, and railways. This committee recommended the block system of irrigation. He was also invited by the Indian National Congress to become a member of the All-India Planning Committee, set up in 1937, with Jawaharlal Nehru as the chairman. The idea of this planning committee was inspired by the Economic Conference established by Visvesvaraya in Mysore during his time was Dewan.


Contribution to education and automobile industry 


Visvesvaraya put major emphasis on education as a means of development and believed firmly that backwardness and social evils could only be remedied if people were given an education. His first step was to introduce compulsory primary education at some centers at Mysore as an experiment and then spread it out to other centers. Grants and subsidies were offered for the construction of schools and for making education more accessible to the depressed classes. The Maharani’s College was established to promote education for girls and a degree course in Bachelor of Arts was offered in the college along with separate women’s hostels. The first university in the state of Mysore, University of Mysore, was also established because of Visvesvaraya’s efforts in July 1916.

It was established in order to inculcate intellectual ability in the people of India. He had some opposition while establishing this institution but he overcame them with his good offices and later managed to get it recognition. He also formed a committee for figuring out a way for promoting technical knowledge and then established the Jayachamarajendra Occupational Institute which trained students in 15 branches of technical knowledge ranging from civil engineering to cinematography.

He also made efforts into making agricultural science a subject for farmers to learn seeing as a majority of the Indian population was involved in agriculture. He opened several agricultural schools and experimental farms and later, the Agriculture School where farmers were taught short-term Kannada courses with farmland for practical work. These efforts led to the establishment of the University of Agriculture. He also established a Commerce School for small shopkeepers to learn accountancy and banking and introduced commerce in schools as well. Several libraries were also established by him.

Visvesvaraya also desired to set up an automobile factory in Bangalore and for that purpose, he even visited certain sites abroad to do more research about the feasibility of setting up a factory. He then sent a report to the Indian government containing schemes and budget estimates for establishing an automobile industry in India. In partnership with the Chrysler Corporation, the automobile factory to be set up in India was to manufacture 11,000 per annum. However, this initial proposal was rejected on account of a war hindering this project. This did not break Visvesvaraya’s spirit and his efforts finally resulted in the establishment of the Premier Automobile Company in 1939 by Walchand Hirachand.

He also influenced and supported Hirachand to set up an aircraft factory in Bangalore. The Government of Mysore contributed land, water and electricity supply, and the funding came from Hirachand as well as the Government of India. Visvesvaraya regularly visited to observe the activities taking place and learn more about the nitty-gritties of the aviation industry. He was of the belief that such heavy industries would help India move a step towards rapid industrialization and development. 


Foreign travels 


Visvesvaraya was always keen on gaining more knowledge to make his work better, and so to learn more, he undertook certain travels to other countries to gain more sight of development. His first travel was in 1898 to Japan on his own expense to see how rapidly it had been developing in terms of industries. He observed the developments over there and took very thorough notes for three months. His second travel in 1908 was a more extensive one where he visited Canada, St. Petersburg, Sweden, Holland, Denmark, and USA to learn more about engineering developments in the field of water supply, drainage, and irrigation. He also visited Milan, Italy to study underground sewers to know more about drainage. In the US, he met a few Indian businessmen and traders to know further about the economy and also visited the Ford Automobile Factory in Michigan. His learnings from this trip were applied to his work for Mysore. His third trip in 1919 was with a bunch of industrialists from Bombay with whom he visited Japan, Britain, America, and Canada. His book, “Reconstructing India”, is based on his findings on this trip. His next trip was a visit to London to study wood distillation and steel manufacturing methods in different parts of America and Europe as an engineer member of the Backbay Reclamation Committee. His findings from this trip were applied in his efforts to bring about industrialization in India.

He went on the fifth trip to various automobile factories to Europe and America as he was moved by his desire to set up the same in India as well. He was particularly fascinated with the Fiat model in Italy and also visited the Ford and General Motors Corporation factory. The purpose of this trip was to assess the feasibility of setting up an automobile factory in India. He also negotiated certain agreements with the Chrysler Corporation which led to the establishment of the Premier Automobile Company in India. His sixth trip was at the age of 86 where he led a delegation of All India Manufacturers’ Organisation to various developed countries of America and Europe. Within this organization, every delegate was to form an elaborate report on the scope and development of an industry of their choice, ranging from automobile to textiles. These reports were later published by the organization.


Awards and honors


Visvesvaraya was an extremely humble natured man who did not seek fame or publicity through his work; he worked only because he was passionate about his duty and wanted to contribute to the development of India selflessly. It is due to his relentless passion towards the betterment of India, the people have won over and his excellence that he had been bequeathed with many awards and honors, such as –  

  1. Kaisar-i-Hind Award 
  2. C.I.E (Companion of the Indian Empire)
  3. Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire (KCIE) medal
  4. The Bharat Ratna 
  5. Durga Prasad Khaitan Memorial Gold Medal
  6. Election as an Honorary Life Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (London)
  7. Honorary Membership of London Institution of civil Engineers




Visvesvaraya lived a long and fulfilling life before dying at the age of 102 on 12th August 1962 and as per his wishes, was cremated at his hometown, Muddenahalli. A beautiful memorial to honor him can also be seen in Muddenahalli where his awards, titles and some personal belongings are exhibited. Visvesvaraya has left a long-lasting impression on the country with his sheer excellent, and so to remember him each year, his birthday, 15th September is also celebrated as Engineers’ Day. 


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