Bangalore, 6.30 p.m., August 3, 1905. The streets leading to the old fort were filled with expectant, chattering crowds. Just outside the Delhi Gate, two shamianas had been erected and here were assembled the who’s who of Bangalore, including Dewan P.N. Krishnamurthi, Col. P.H. Benson, and H.V. Nanjundayya. Also present was J.W. Mears, the electrical adviser to the government of India. Naturally, for the event was the inauguration of electricity supply to Bangalore city.
India’s oldest and still functioning hydroelectric plant came up near Darjeeling in 1896. Soon after, several proposals were mooted for power projects elsewhere in India. But it was the ambitious Cauvery Falls Power Scheme that first crossed the border from plan to reality.
The idea of harnessing the power of the Cauvery Falls at Shivasamudram came from Major A.C.J. de Lotbiniere. When Messrs Taylor and Sons proposed this scheme to power their mining operations in Kolar Gold Fields, the then Dewan, Seshadri Iyer, recognised the scheme’s potential and approved it. With characteristic speed and efficiency, the power station, transformer and transmission houses, supply channels, and other infrastructure were soon built; staff quarters were readied; and key personnel identified and recruited.
On June 30, 1902, just three years after the Mysore government approved the scheme, KGF began receiving power from Shivasamudram. The Cauvery Falls Scheme became India’s second hydro-electric power station and Asia’s largest. The distance the power was transmitted — almost 150 km from Shivasamudram to KGF — made it the longest power transmission anywhere in the world at that time. Two years later, the Maharaja sanctioned a scheme to provide electricity to Bangalore. Once again, very quickly, transmission lines and other infrastructure required were in place and Bangaloreans began looking forward to the dawn of the electric age. But they had reckoned without the infamous British bureaucracy.
The original scheme for Bangalore’s electrification covered both the city, administered by the Maharaja’s government, and the Civil and Military Station, under the British government. One transformer house (or substation) was built in the city and two in the C and M Station. Each was to distribute power to six circuits.
But then came the glitches. Military authorities objected to the alignment of the transmission lines and to trees being lopped and cut for them. The Telegraph Department wondered whether transmission lines that were so close to their telephone lines wouldn’t interfere with their working. And — biggest hurdle of all — it transpired the C and M Station needed a special sanction under the Indian Electricity Act before it could get electricity!
All this necessitated a last-minute redrawing of plans so that at least the city could get electricity. Since the C and M Station’s substations were now unusable, thanks to diktat of the Electricity Act, the city substation was redesigned to take on an additional load so that it could service the nine circuits that were in the city. This done, the city was now ready to move from darkness to light.
The person chosen to do the honours was Sir John Hewett, member of the Viceroy’s Council. At the inauguration ceremony, which took place at 7 p.m. on that Thursday, 112 years ago, Hewett lauded the Maharaja’s government for its “far-seeing wisdom”. He praised Major Lotbiniere and Harry Parker Gibbs, chief electrical engineer of Mysore, who oversaw the installation and execution of the Cauvery Falls Scheme. He then said he knew very little about electricity and placed himself in the hands of experts to help him illuminate the city.
The British Resident, A. Williams, then escorted the chief guest to the substation nearby. While Harry Gibbs checked the settings and equipment, his assistant called up Shivasamudram with instructions and requirements. Then, when everything was finally in place, Hewett threw the switch.
Lo and behold, 104 lamps came on as if by magic, including one just outside the substation! The crowd outside clapped and cheered wildly. The applause grew even louder as additional circuits were switched on and in just a few minutes, 800 street lamps around the city blazed brightly.
Back at the tent, the Dewan thanked Hewett on behalf of the Maharaja’s government. The chief guest and the Resident then returned to the Residency. Of course, they returned to darkness. It wasn’t until 1908 that street lights in the C and M Station were finally lit with electricity.
Some of the buildings in this story still stand. The ‘B’ and ‘C’ stations on M.G. Road and near Cantonment Railway Station are Bangalore’s earliest substations. No trace now remains of the transformer house outside the Delhi Gate where Hewett memorably switched on the power. It was possibly located where the Karnataka Power Transmission Company’s transformers now stand, a few hundred metres from the old fort.
(Meera Iyer is a freelance writer, researcher, and co-convener of INTACH Bangalore Chapter)