Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Sir Ganga Ram: Engineer, Angel and Visionary

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It all started on an idle February Friday when we took off to ride Ganga Ram’s horse pulled ‘train’ that connects the village of Buchiana and Gangapur in the heart of Punjab. The train was temporarily out of service but one thing leads to another and the following Friday we motored south of Lahore to Renala Khurd to see the lift irrigation system designed by Sir Ganga Ram.

The building of this system was to irrigate tens of thousands of acres of land that lay some ten metres higher than the newly dug Lower Bari Doab Canal (LBDC). Having established the irrigation system, Ganga Ram was to receive a vast tract of infertile land on a ninety year lease. Over the years this was transformed into some of the most productive farmlands of Punjab, bringing its owner great prosperity. In deference to the request of the builder this continues to be the only lift irrigation scheme in Punjab that charges at normal rates – similar systems elsewhere cost two times and a half as much.

This was enough to set me on the trail of Sir Ganga Ram, the founder of the hospital named after him in Lahore. Until then, incidentally, I like most others believed this to be his only achievement. But the plaques did not give the dates of birth and death of this great philanthropist, only the opening of the hospital on the 13th of April 1943 by Sir Bertrand Clancey, the Punjab governor. Inside the foyer the niche where his bust once stood has been duly ‘cleansed’ of the image, but there was a plaque listing the names of some one dozen good men, all Hindus, who had contributed to the hospital.

The office of the Medical Superintendent (MS) was hardly any help. Only there was a photo of the man: dressed in a suit and tie he was seated, walking stick in hand, staring sternly out of the picture frame. An extravagant set of moustaches added to the sternness of the fleshy face. There was a neat double chin and a solid paunch, the trappings of prosperity. But nobody could tell me where or when Ganga Ram was born and where he died and there were no documents either. It seemed I had reached a dead end. Then one man spoke up as if on an afterthought.

Safdar Chaudhri was the man who knew everything about Sir Ganga Ram, said the dark-faced gentleman seated in the corner. As the Estates Officer of the hospital he was called upon to compile a history of the institution when Sir Ganga Ram’s granddaughter visited from England in 1993. Now he was working at the Lahore General Hospital on the other side of the city. He was there all right, a most forthcoming man with a story that was almost unbelievable.

He did meet with Sir Ganga’s granddaughter (whose name, sadly, nobody recalls) but the history was compiled in 1988. As the Statistical Officer, he was asked take stock of the hospital’s electro-medical equipment and other properties. On his transfer in 1990 he had left all these papers in the office of the Ganga Ram Hospital; but if I returned after two days he would have recovered some of those documents. Two days later all he could come up with was a photocopy of a paper by someone called Shri Dharma Vira from somewhere in India giving out a few details about Sir Ganga Ram – but no dates whatsoever.

Born near Amritsar to a father who was a police sub-inspector, Ganga Ram had exhibited a deeply religious personality from his childhood. After a ‘brilliant early education’ at some unspecified place, he graduated from Thompson College of Civil Engineers, Roorkee (India) and joined the Punjab Irrigation Department. From this department he retired as a Superintending Engineer.

The only clue to the year of birth comes from the statement that Ganga Ram established his lift irrigation system ‘at the late age of about 60 years when most people in those times felt themselves unfit to do anything.’ The irrigation system was commissioned in 1925, therefore the man would have been born sometime in the 1860s. The paper goes on to say that ‘agriculture became the basis of his riches.’ This presumably refers to the large lease of agricultural land he received around the town of Renala Khurd and his holdings in the village of Gangapur.

The paper also quoted the epithet that we had seen on the pedestal where Ganga Ram’s bust had once stood inside Ganga Power Station: ‘He earned like a lion and gave away like a saint.’ And for the first time I learnt that the man was not simply the founder of the Ganga Ram Trust and Hospital but had to his credit a number of widow homes, orphanages, hospitals, schools and colleges. It is one thing to build hospitals on donations collected through emotional blackmail, but entirely another to give away one’s own hard earned fortune for the service of one’s fellows. This was the mark of a truly great humanitarian.

‘He couldn’t have been a god. Since he was much more than human he must surely have been an angel,’ Safdar Chaudhri said. He is convinced that Ganga Ram was the only Indian who won a knighthood not for apple polishing but in recognition of his services. There is, Shri Vira’s paper tells us, a Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi as well. This was established immediately after Partition with equipment, cash and securities brought away ‘with great difficulty’ by the trustees of the Ganga Ram Trust from Lahore. And so the name lives on in India as well.

But back to Safdar Chaudhri and his search for Ganga Ram, the philanthropist, and his progeny that gave away immense portions of their wealth for the service of their fellow humans. Ganga Ram Hospital was established in the old Lahore locality of Shah Alami in 1941 and two years later was shifted to the impressive building on Queens Road in what was then called ‘the civil area of Lahore.’ It was funded at that time by rents from the Ganga Ram Trust Building on the Mall (Lahore) and from 11,550 acres of farmland at village Gangapur. Subsequently these became evacuee properties and were allocated to Muslim refugees from India. As if that was not enough, a martial law regulation abolished the Trust and handed over the hospital to the Punjab government on the first day of July 1980.

Methodical as Chaudhri was in his sifting through the Dyal Singh Library and every bit of hospital archives he failed to turn up any more information. In June 1988, four months after he had initiated his research, a functionary of the Governor’s House gave him a small pamphlet (since misplaced) about Balak Ram Medical College. It was a pre-partition publication in Hindi; but photos have no language and it showed a lovely Victorian bungalow set amid rambling lawns. This building opposite the Ganga Ram Hospital was eventually replaced by what we today know as Fatima Jinnah Medical College.

The property was purchased in 1929 for the colossal sum (in those days) of half a million rupees by Balak Ram, one of the three sons of Ganga Ram. Balak Ram died young and in the tradition of his illustrious forebear his widow bequeathed the property for a medical college that continued to be known after him until 1958. That year Miss Fatima Jinnah addressed a convocation at this institution and the name was duly changed. Fortunately it was to remain attached, as before, to Ganga Ram Hospital.

Later in 1988 (the year Chaudhri began his research) an Excise and Taxation inspector approached Chaudhri for the recovery of Rs 86,000 as tax against rents received by the hospital. These rents were supposedly being obtained from properties in the famous Hira Mundi of Lahore. Though he was the Estates Officer, Chaudhri had no knowledge of any property in the old city; neither were there any documents nor a record of receipt of rents.

Inquiry revealed that two sisters, both courtesans, Eiden Bibi (died 1985) and Barkat Bibi (died 1986) had willed all they ever owned to the Ganga Ram Trust. Every attempt to obtain duplicate copies of the courtesans’ wills was thwarted for the year they were made was not known. And so Chaudhri spent the rest of 1988 and part of the following year trying to locate these crucial documents but turning up one blank after another. Then one day, by the strangest twist of fate, the original will was discovered in a pile of discarded papers on their way to a factory to be pulped and turned into cardboard!

In 1958 Eiden and Barkat had willed to the Trust four properties situated in the old city. The purpose was to support as many deserving students as possible, but there being no record it could not be known how long, if at all they did, the properties served this purpose. Before anything else could be done the property had to be taken in possession and so for the next year Safdar Chaudhri went back and forth from one official to the other in the Revenue Department. Eventually in June 1990 the hospital took over the properties whose estimated value then was 4.5 million rupees. The total rents, never having been revised, are a paltry six thousand rupees per month, just enough to assist three deserving medical students.

However, the worst was that there was no record of receipts of rents. As he dug deeper into the morass Chaudhri discovered several ‘pious’ names involved in misappropriating the rents and machinating to take over prime real estate that rightfully belonged to Sir Ganga Ram Hospital and Fatima Jinnah (or Balak Ram) Medical College. Secure in the invulnerability their relationship with a retired Chief of Army Staff afforded them, the owners of neighbouring Mumtaz Plaza took over more than a kanal of the hospital’s land. An adjacent block of flats was similarly in the possession of tenants that paid no rent and refused to vacate. Lengthy litigation won over both these properties for the hospital and today the institution owns 299 kanals of the choicest real estate in the heart of Lahore.

There are other equally sordid stories of the greed of apparently good men of the medical profession, God fearing and upright in public life but heartless sharks in reality. In 1990 Safdar Chaudhri was treading on forbidden ground and before he could do more damage, or worse, irreversible damage to the mafia of doctors and administrators salivating over the property bequeathed to mankind by Sir Ganga Ram, he was transferred out.

It is the strangest of comparisons: we have Sir Ganga Ram, larger than life, whose piety prompted him to hand over his ingenious lift irrigation system to the government on the condition that it should serve farmers at normal water rates, and who reserved great portions of his personal assets for the service of mankind. And we have the courtesans Barkat and Eiden who willed away everything they ever owned to a humanitarian cause. On the other hand we have men who do not tire of public proclamation of their godliness, make every effort for its exhibition and are quick to point out that among others consigned to hell will be godless non Muslims and courtesans. Yet these religious exhibitionists are the very people who would much sooner see Sir Ganga Ram’s legacy in their own pockets than in the service of their fellow man. Who then will inherit God’s Paradise?


Related: A Journey without Maps, The Power House that Ganga Ram built

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:30,


At 18 October 2013 at 19:52, Blogger gudy said...

Is the property in Taxali with the name of the ganga ram trust the one given by Barkat and Eiden Bibi

At 18 October 2013 at 19:53, Blogger gudy said...

Salman is the trust property of Ganga Ram in Taxali the one Eiden and Barkat Bibi had bequeathed.

At 19 October 2013 at 12:39, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anonymous, You'll have to ask my friend who makes this blog go. I am as clueless as you.

At 19 October 2013 at 12:39, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Gudy, This piece was written in March 1994. I will have to do a lot of digging back to answer your question. Don't think I can do it right now.

At 19 October 2013 at 12:44, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Gudy, This piece was written in March 1994. I will have to do a lot of digging back to answer your question. Don't think I can do it right now.

At 5 November 2013 at 07:10, Blogger Unknown said...

I salute salman rashid for his dedication and research.
Ashok from USA

At 5 November 2013 at 08:53, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Ashok. We, the people of Lahore, have not repaid Sir Ganga Ram as he deserved. And the loss is ours, not his.

At 6 July 2015 at 23:54, Blogger Unknown said...

Yes we are preparing ourselves to give due honour to Sir Ganga Ram..

At 6 September 2015 at 22:58, Anonymous Manish Delhi said...

Thank you salman for this wonderful information on Sir Ganga Ram.

At 7 September 2015 at 10:53, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Manish, Sir Ganga Ram was a most remarkable human being. May his tribe increase.


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