Sailing through the 75-year history of shipbuilding in India

SS Jala Usha, the first modern steamship of free India, was launched from the slipway of the Hindustan Shipyard Limited in Visakhapatnam on March 14, 1948

Updated - March 14, 2023 12:47 pm IST

Published - March 13, 2023 08:35 pm IST - VISAKHAPATNAM

The 8,000-tonne Jala Usha lying in its slips before being launched by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in Visakhapatnam.

The 8,000-tonne Jala Usha lying in its slips before being launched by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in Visakhapatnam. | Photo Credit: HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

March 14, 1948 has registered itself in golden letters in the annals of the history of Visakhaptnam and India. It was on this day 75 years ago, the first modern steamship SS Jala Usha was launched from the slipway of the Hindustan Shipyard Limited (HSL), heralding an industrial surge by free India.

“Shipbuilding Industry in India will not suffer and will go on at all costs and at every cost. Rest assured that the government is intimately interested in encouraging this industry,” the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru had said while launching SS Jala Usha on this day.

The HSL was founded by industrialist Walchand Hirachand and was then called Scindia Shipyard, which was part of the Scindia Steam Navigation Company Limited.

“During the Swadeshi Movement that was launched by Mahatma Gandhi, two businessmen from erstwhile Bombay—Walchand Hirachand and Narottam Morarjee—wanted to enter the challenging business of shipping by establishing a company and as per old records, they realised that the shipping industry could grow only when it is supported by the shipbuilding industry,” says Edward Paul, history chronicler of Visakhapatnam.

Initially, Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Bombay (now Mumbai) were their choices, but later Walchand zeroed down on Visakhapatnam, because of its natural inner harbour, adds Mr. Paul.  

The company had initially acquired 55 acres for the shipyard and another 300 acres for the township.  The foundation stone for the shipyard was laid on June 21, 1941, by the then President of Indian National Congress Rajendra Prasad, who later became the first President of the free India.

According to Mr. Paul, this move by Walchand was in defiance to the deliberate curtailment of the construction of ships in India to safeguard their own shipbuilders back at home.

Jala Usha

The construction of Jala Usha was started in 1946 and it was envisaged to build an 8,000-tonne cargo vessel. The naming of the ship was also done by Jawaharlal Nehru.

On the eve of the launching ceremony, the engineers and officers of the shipyard had faced a challenge as they were unable to slide the ship from the slipway smoothly and they did not have enough grease to do it. One worker had given the idea of placing tonnes of ripe bananas on the rail and the slipway to ensure its free movement. At the time of launching, a thick layer of a mixture of tallow, soft soap and bananas was spread between the sliding ways and ground ways. About 30,000 bananas were used for this.

The vessel was delivered to Scindia Steam Navigation Co. Ltd on October 26, 1948. The overall length was 415 feet, width 52 feet, draft 25 feet (when fully loaded), speed 11 knots, steam engine of 2600 HP and DWT 8,179 tonnes.

No looking back

After going through many ups and downs, the shipyard was nationalised in 1961 and was renamed as Hindustan Shipyard Limited. It was brought under the Union Ministry of Shipping. However, it was transferred to the Union Ministry of Defence in 2010.

Since its inception, the HSL has built and delivered more than 200 ships and completed repairs of around 2,000 ships, including major refits for Indian Navy submarines.

The HSL has not only built commercial vessels, but also a number of naval ships including the hi-tech INS Dhruv which is jointly operated by the Indian Navy, National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) and Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO).

Earlier, Chairman and Managing Director of HSL, Cmde Hemanth Khatri had said that the shipyard had a number of orders from the Indian Navy, including a few DSV (Diving Support Vessels) and major expansions and orders are in the anvil.

In the last fiscal, the HSL clocked a turnover of ₹750 crore, the highest so far, and recorded a profit of ₹51 crore.

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