We are so busy debating who did or did not electrify Uttar Pradesh’s Nagla Fatela village that we forget to ask the only meaningful question:
Why is India’s heartland, Uttar Pradesh, not fully electrified 70 years after Independence? Why are housing societies in Noida, Ghaziabad and elsewhere running on diesel generators when Prime Minister Modi’s India is “power-surplus”?
Electricity reached Hathras district, where Nagla Fatela lies, 86 years ago under the British. Our own slothful and corrupt governments have failed to complete the job they started.
The Upper Ganga Canal was already very old when the British started work on the now-forgotten Ganges Hydroelectric Scheme, in 1928. The canal was very profitable too, bringing in Rs 6.2 million (£26.6 million or Rs 2.3 billion today) in water revenue every year. It irrigated 4.5 million acres of fertile land through 6,400km of distribution channels. The annual value of the crops it supported was more than its construction cost.
Tinkering with this cash-cow canal to generate electricity was a business risk nobody was willing to take until the irrigation department of United Provinces (as UP was then called) made up its mind to do it.
In 1928, British engineers started building three powerhouses to make use of the dozen-odd falls on the canal. One was built at Bhola near Meerut, another at Palra near Khurja — it was just outside my mother’s village and I saw it working in the late 1980s — and the biggest one at Bahadrabad, 10-odd km downstream from the canal headworks in Haridwar.
The powerhouses and a vast distribution network were completed within two years. Hundreds of supervisors, technicians, linemen and electricians were trained and distribution companies licensed. What have our own governments in UP achieved in two or even five years?
Through the summer of 1929, which was a drought year, work on bridges and transmission lines had to be done without stopping the flow of water as irrigation was the canal’s primary purpose. The engineers and labourers risked their lives to complete it.
The plan was to build at least 10 powerhouses by 1941, as demand increased, but even in 1931 the first three were beginning to impact town and village life in western UP.
By today’s standards, the power generated was minuscule, as the plants made use of very small drops in the canal level. At Palra, the fall was just 8 feet. Yet, the 13,000 horsepower they generated (besides 2,000hp of oil engine backup) coursed through seven districts, including Haridwar, Meerut, Hapur, and Aligarh.
The scheme was unique because it was implemented for a purely agricultural region. The British genuinely wanted Indians to use electricity. “Private lighting usually develops rapidly after public street lighting is introduced,” they note in a paper on the scheme.
They were not after profit: electricity for agricultural use cost 1 anna per unit, 1.5 annas for industrial use, and 5.5 annas “for lights and fans”. The tariffs were squarely aimed at development. “These retail rates are low for Indian towns of any size, and are believed to be without precedent in rural tracts.”
So, why did the “exploitative” British implement this scheme?
- To provide cheap power for pumping water. They brought another 80,000 acres under canal irrigation by electrically pumping water from Ramganga and Kali Nadi rivers.
- To electrify 66 towns with a population of 5,000 or more within UP’s seven western districts. The higher urban tariff “for lights and fans” subsidised village and industrial power.
- To provide power for the development of rural industry.
Their engineers realised that oil engines were more expensive to run and maintain than electric pumps. They knew that operating Persian wheels with starving cattle in drought years hurt tilling and rural transport. In that sense those “beef-eaters” were more humane than many cow worshippers.
They saw that electrical pumps brought down the cost of irrigating a sugarcane field from Rs 25–30 per acre to Rs 20; they even knew that in villages, electric motors reduced the cost of milling flour from 6 annas per maund to 4 annas — a saving of 33%. (A rupee had 16 annas)
Those British engineers had their ears to the ground. They didn’t siphon off money sitting in plush bungalows in Noida and Lucknow.