India: Early hydroelectric power – a piece of history

I have mentioned my family link with Mohra and the first hydroelectric power station in Kashmir. I need to expand on that as it has set me on a path which I hope is of general interest. In 1899 my grandfather left the Potteries in England as an inventor/electrical engineer and joined Balmer Lawrie in Calcutta. They had just started an Electrical Division and secured contracts ‘up country’. Family records show that William Hodgkinson worked in Kashmir on a hydroelectric power station and his first son (my uncle) was born in Gulmarg in March 1909. This all fits but lacks detail and these notes aim to set the scene for India’s very early projects. I will post pictures of the Mohra project later and the Internet gives useful images of the first two. I have collected some technical details and readers are welcome to contact me to ask for or hopefully supply more information, suggest corrections etc. Use the ‘Get in touch’ link which is in effect a direct email. Your details are secure.
1) Around 1900 there were many minor hydroelectric power stations and their output was small. A significant factor is that they were for public use. One notable example is at Sidrapong which is about 12 kms from Darjeeling. Here the Maharajah remarkably made over the land to the municipality to ‘light up’ the town and the scheme funded by a State loan. The building was close to a tea plantation with difficult terrain and equipped with British machines. It was commissioned on 10 November 1897 with an output of a mere 2 x 65 kW. It ran at a loss to start with but as demand grew the station expanded, supplemented by a linked station at Singtam. Surprisingly it ran on into the 1990s. On the eve of its centenary in 1997 the Govt. of India declared Sidrapong to be a “Heritage Power Station”.
2) The first major power station was built down south and for a quite different purpose. The Gold Fields at Kolar in Karnataka go a long way back and connections have been established with artefacts found at Harappa, one of the five major cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Mining took a jump forward around 1864 under Michael Lavelle, an Irish ex-soldier, who a decade later secured exclusive rights from the Mysore Government to mine . A great deal of capital was needed and he sold on to a syndicate called the Kolar Concessionaries and by the 1890s large-scale mining was under the control of the British Company John Taylor & Co. This needed a massive increase in the infrastructure including a new railway line from Bangarapet in1896, a large electrical supply in place of old steam power followed by a sprawling ‘British’ township also known as ‘Little England’ as it had a colonial ambience comprising Britains, Europeans, and Anglo-Indians. The Diwan of Mysore, Sir K Seshadri Iyer initiated the Kaveri (Cauvery) scheme at Shivanasamudram where the river divides into a number of waterfalls. Major Alain de Lotbinière, a respected Canadian engineer, was commissioned to set up the design with General Electric of US for a 700kw hydroelectric power station which included an 80 mile power transmission line to the KGM. By 1902 it was operating and shortly after supplied Bangalore, the first city in India to have electricity. Thus Shivanasamudram without any contenders is the first major hydroelectric power station in India and some say Asia.
3) Mohra hydroelectric power station is the first in Kashmir and the second major station in India. The next post will give mainly illustrations of my visit so here follows some factual information. Mohra lies on the River Jhelum close to Rampore (Rampur) in Uri District which now abuts the LoC and about 46 miles west of Srinagar. Kashmir’s needs around 1900 were broadly similar in principle to those of the KGM which is to say to light the towns (2 or 3 bulbs per house was considered plenty), and power machinery for industrial operations in Srinagar, Rawalpindi, Murree, and Abbottabad. A major objective was to supply cheap power for dredgers to reclaim swamps near Baramulla and deal with flooding problems in Doabgah near Wular Lake; altogether about 60,000 acres were reclaimed. As if this was not enough any surplus would go to power machinery at a large silk factory for heating water basins in which cocoons were immersed prior to reeling. The Srinagar plant was then the largest silk factory in the world employing 3300 men and producing 100 tons a year. It was cost effective too as silk is high in value but low in bulk so easier to transport using the minimal infrastructure.
Around 1902/4 H. H. Pratap Singh, the Maharajah of Jammu & Kashmir initiated and financed the new hydroelectric power station and appointed Major Alain de Lotbinière as the designer and Electrical Chief Engineer. By this time de Lotbinière had proved his expertise with the Kolar Gold Mines, travelled on the Continent, and in Canada and America where he inspected many installations and acquired the latest intelligence of electrical science. He chose a spot about 6 ½ miles upstream of Rampur where the valley falls rapidly and water could be diverted from the River Jhelum into a new channel or flume travelling at a slight fall (1:1000) until it reached a brick forebay or reservoir prior to dropping 430 ft. into the Pelton Wheel Turbine and converted to 30 Kv for distribution.
The flume is remarkable. It cannot be allowed to change height so any obstacle has to be removed, bridged or tunnelled through. The main construction uses timber frames (8 ½ ft. by 8 ½ ft. internal) fixed to the rock face and lined with tongued and grooved deodar planking 2 ¾“ thick. Most of the flume is made this way but about one-third of it consists of six tunnels cut through the rock or built in masonry. Given that there was only horse drawn transport at the time and labour came Ladakh, Afghanistan, Baltistan with skilled workers from the Punjab this was a major undertaking not helped by intermittent cholera attacks. Timescale:
• It started generating electricity in 1905.
• The official inauguration took place in 1908.
• After Partition the new Government repaired the project in January 1948.
• A fierce flood sheared it longitudinally on 04 July 1959.
• It was repaired again and rather harshly the Hungarian Engineer Lojas Kapas died of an electric shock on 22 May 1961. The station was closed down that year until old parts were sold as junk in 1974.
• In 1966 a new station was built 400ft. upstream and the capacity increased.
• Another flood in September 1992 damaged part of the station since when it has remained defunct.
There has been talk of regeneration but it would be a high cost enterprise. The winters are not kind here, heavy snow, floods, rock falls, landslips and so on. The Power Development Corporation owns it and has done studies for revival but nothing has happened. After the huge floods of September 2014 any action is unlikely; there are more pressing needs. Even so Kashmir has a piece of industrial and engineering heritage of great value which deserves protection from further damage at the very least.

4 thoughts on “India: Early hydroelectric power – a piece of history

  1. David Stacey

    This is a very useful note for those looking into early hydro-power development in India. The schemes referred to appear to be run-of river schemes (without significant storage reservoirs upstream). In the USA the first scheme of this type appears to have been on the Fox river at Appleton, Wisconsin in 1882.

    Reply
    1. Mike Thomas

      You are right about the type of hydec schemes and the reservoirs are quite small. My guess is that de Lotbinière had learnt a lot from his studies of completed power stations in the USA and Canada and applied his knowledge successfully in these early hydroelectric power stations in India. What suprised me particularly was the ambitious and extensive range of distribution given the hostile terrain.

      Reply
    1. Michael Thomas Post author

      Thank you for your comment. Mohra is an amazing place and perhaps we met in November 2014.

      Reply

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