Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Power House that Ganga Ram built

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At Gangapur we had been told that Sir Ganga Ram did not only have the ingenious horse-drawn train to his credit but that he had built a power station not very far south of Lahore. This power house, they had said, was to lift a canal three levels in order to irrigate a block of land higher than the canal. This was too good to be passed and so the next Friday we were on our way south to Renala Khurd famous for Mitchell’s Fruit Farms. The man at the octroi post seemed a little bemused when I asked how we could get to Ganga Ram’s power station.
‘Its built on a canal,’ I tried to simplify things.
‘Oh, that one! You should go through the bazaar and keep going until you hit the Lower Bari Doab Canal. Turn right along the canal and you cannot miss the power station,’ he said cheerfully. He was right. The neat looking brick building sat squarely across the silty waters of the LBDC. On the front the lettering said, ‘Ganga Power Station’ and below it was the year of construction: 1925. The chowkidar said we were free to look around but were not allowed to photograph. I threw in the name of my brother in law who is a Chief Engineer in WAPDA, but that didn’t help.

Thinking it was always good to speak to the engineer in-charge in such cases, I asked if I could telephone the man. I was led to the antiquated phone box and the man spun the crank. But before putting me on he told his sahib that I was ‘a chief engineer from Multan who wants to photograph the power station.’ I had never said a word about Multan. It nonetheless brought Sher Mulk, the engineer, out in a trice. But that did not change policy: we were still not allowed to take photographs. It would have been pointless to return without a photo showing the exterior and I was quite disappointed. Outside the power house was a pile of scrap metal; half a dozen old gearboxes (Vickers-Armstrong of Barrow-in-Furness) from the generators, and several rusty turbines. I asked if I could photograph this junk. The man said he could see no reason why I couldn’t. And so while Geoff and Shabnam engaged him in conversation I surreptitiously photographed the front of the power station through the junk.

Inside were five generators manufactured by English Electric Company coupled with David Brown gearboxes each capable of producing 220 KV. These were the first replacements having been fitted, according to Sher Mulk, some twenty-five years ago. Four of them were humming reassuringly while the fifth was disassembled for repairs. The needles of the tachometers (manufactured by Harding) shuddered around 100 RPM for the turbines while the generators’ flywheels spun at six times more after the gearboxes multiplied the motion. Next to the tachometer was the Wicket Gate Regulating Shaft with the lettering ‘Turbines Manufactured by Vickers Ltd. Barrow-in-Furness, England.’ This shaft in turn was connected to its own gearing to control the flow of water over the turbines. All the gauges looked smart and neat and, foolishly, I asked once again if I could at least photograph some of the Siemens & Halski ones which surely were the original fittings and still working after more than half a century. But this time there was no junk to use as a decoy.

The power station was not just a functional building; much could also be said for its aesthetics. The brickwork was superb with impressive square columns at the corners. The shallow arches over the windows were complete with concrete keystones and above them was a simple parapet. Its power, now connected to a WAPDA grid, was at one time used only to light up the residence of the sub-engineer at Renala and to run the three irrigation lift pumps that are the brain child of Sir Ganga Ram.

But where was Zaheeruddin Babur Power Station that the sign near the bridge announced? That sign, said Sher Mulk, had been put up by a mob come to tear down this building after the destruction of Babri Mosque in Ayodhia. Why, for God’s sake, should someone want to destroy a power house in lieu of a mosque pulled down by a bunch of loony bigots? It seemed that the only fault of this building was the ‘heathen’ name of Ganga Ram on its front. That, we knew, had nothing to do with religiosity; that was madness at its worst. Sher Mulk did not know what kept them from razing the power station but he did know that the mob obliterated Ganga Ram’s name from the building. It has since been redone and although a few misguided zealots would like to remember it after Babur, the power station thankfully remains Ganga Ram’s.

In the country to the south and east of Okara lay a vast area of uncultivated land on account of its highly brackish ground water. And when the LBDC was completed in 1919 there was still little hope for this area because it lay some ten metres higher than the level of the canal. That was when the brilliance of Ganga Ram first came into notice.

A civil engineer by profession, he came up with the astute idea of lifting the canal to the thousands of acres of barren country. And so it was that the canal today known as the Dhuniwala Feeder was dug in order to irrigate the land east of Okara. The first lift pump is installed west of the village of Wan Radha Ram in an area designated as F Plot by Ganga Ram. The second is in H Plot to the east of Renala Khurd while a third and smaller pumping station, known as the Deo Sial Lift, lies some six kilometres downstream from the H Plot installation. All three were commissioned in March 1925, the same year as the commissioning of the power station.

While the first two lift the canal by just over three metres each the last gives it a final boost of another two metres. Designed to irrigate 59,400 acres Ganga Ram’s lift irrigation system today slakes some 64,000 acres. Not only that, the Dhuniwala Feeder has sufficiently sweetened sub-soil water to allow several land owners to operate their own tube wells. And so within eighty years of its digging this canal has brought untold prosperity to the area.

Unlike the engineer at the power station, Iqbal who looked after the H Plot pumping station was friendly. He did not only show us how his station worked but also did not mind our photographing his machinery and building. Then the man told us how to get to the F Plot pump and soon we were racing towards Wan Radha Ram.

The attendants were getting friendlier and friendlier as we went; and Hameed with his ready grin at F Plot was an inveterate joker. Outside the building was an old vice. I asked where it came from. ‘This surely is from Ganga Ram’s time,’ he said gravely and then burst out laughing. But was there an older retired man who knew this pumping station from the earlier days? Someone shouted for Sadiq who came with his bright eyes and toothless elfin face.

He had retired in 1994 after serving the Irrigation Department for thirty-two long years. In 1960, two years before he joined the department, his father had retired from the service which he had taken up when Ganga Ram was building his pumping station in 1924. Now Sadiq’s son is working at the Renala Power Station that he joined in 1991.

‘Oh yes, Ganga Ram was a fine gentleman. Very kind-hearted and a real angel,’ he said. But that was all for Sadiq had never seen the man, all his stories, barely remembered now, were second-hand stuff from his father who knew the man well.

However, he did remember that his father had said the pumps were coal-fired initially. He showed us the spot between the pump room and his quarters where the boiler room once stood. He remembered the building well and the machinery that lay rusting for many years until it was finally auctioned around the time of Partition. Nearby was a slightly raised plot of ground where, he said, they dumped the ash. The coal-fired pumps being too expensive to run, Ganga Ram built his power station at Renala, he told us. This did not seem correct. The whole system, power station and three pump houses, was built in tandem and the three pumping sets must always have been powered by electricity. Consequently, the story of coal-fired steam engines seemed a bit far-fetched. Tea was ordered and Sadiq quizzed me about Geoff. I told him he was from Australia.

‘Tell him to take me back with him. You know, I’m retired; nothing to do. Might as well have some fun.’ I translated.

‘There are many wicked women in Australia and you might not want to be there,’ Geoff offered and Sadiq’s eyes lit up.

‘Then its even better.’ he said with a mischievous toothless grin. Geoff said I should ask him how he has seen things change for the department in his thirty-two years.

‘I don’t know about the changes,’ said Sadiq insouciantly. ‘I was only bothered about my salary.’ At least here was a man who knew his priorities and unlike some of us was no drawing room saint with haranguing lectures about the way things were going bad.

Back in Lahore I learnt that the water rate (abiana) in Punjab for lift irrigation systems is two times and a half above normal rates. But when Ganga Ram handed over his system to the Irrigation Department it was on the pre-condition that they charge normal rates only. To this day Ganga Ram’s lift irrigation system is the only one in Punjab that charges normal water rate.

More than anything else this gives away the great man’s benevolence and love for his fellow humans: a love that transcends beyond creed and caste. This was the mark of a truly great man and it would have been unfair to leave that unsaid. And so I was in Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Lahore hoping to dig out some details about this great philanthropist. What awaited me was beyond my wildest dreams. But that is another story.

Note: Stay tuned for Sir Ganga Ram Hospital story

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 16 May 2013 at 09:37, Anonymous Rabia said...

Wish we had more Ganga Rams. If nothing else, there would have been no load shedding in out land. Why cant they build such smaller unites and put an end to energy crises I wonder. I wish someone could.

At 16 May 2013 at 14:16, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Rabia, we suffer for our sins - which are many. Chief among them being what we are.

At 16 May 2013 at 21:21, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Thanks for adding more to Gangapur article.

At 1 July 2013 at 17:08, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In New Delhi there is a Sir Ganga Ram Hospital too, were both hospital named after same person?

At 14 July 2013 at 08:01, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anonymous, Yes, Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi is indeed named after this great visionary engineer and great soul. I have had the pleasure of visiting that hospital not for treatment but just to see it.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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