Water History

, Volume 11, Issue 3–4, pp 107–124 | Cite as

Colonial modernity shaping the pipe dream: a historical account of advent of the modern water supply system in Trivandrum

  • Gautam GanapathyEmail author
  • N. C. Narayanan


The history of introduction of a “gravitation” water supply system in Trivandrum illustrates how a distinct colonial engineering ethos, amidst the prevailing state of affairs in the Travancore princely state, shaped critical decisions including coverage area, service level, and disposition of engineers towards traditional water bodies. The paper argues that the attempt to replicate an integrated hydrological system of the type adopted in London or Paris contained in itself a germ of failure from a financial standpoint. In addition to correspondence between engineers and administrators, the paper relies on the proposals submitted by colonial engineers to the Government of Travancore between 1882 and 1923 to illustrate the process of conception and introduction of the modern water supply system in Trivandrum. The continued focus on replicating this ideal, without any meaningful engagement with the local social and environmental context, partially explains the prevailing inequitable access to service provision and the acute public financial constraints faced by India’s small and medium towns.


Urban water supply Urban history Water policy Colonial India Governance 



We thank Prof. D. Parthasarathy for his comments on an earlier version of this paper. We are grateful for helpful comments from Ellen Arnold and two anonymous reviewers. We would also like to express our gratitude to Rekha Bhangaonkar for her assistance in preliminary data collection. This paper has been partially supported by L’Agence nationale de la recherché (ANR) as part of the ENGIND (Engineers and Society in India, from C. 1850 to Present Times) project. We thank ANR for the support. All errors and omissions are our own.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas, Indian Institute of TechnologyMumbaiIndia

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