Electrifying the Calicut City

Posted by Maddy Labels: , ,

As some of you may know, my life is quite entwined with electricity and as an electrical engineer, I have been involved with power transmission, distribution and power system protection for so many decades thus far. Automating power plants, substations and so on provide the funds which run my life and so it was in the natural course of things that I ventured back in time to find out when electricity was heralded to that once bustling and glorious town of Calicut.

Until about 1927 or perhaps 1930’s, there were only lamp posts here and there with kerosene lamps, and an old timer Mr ARS Iyer explains succinctly in his autobiography – “In those days the lanes and bye lanes were not lit well after dark and we normally make it home before it gets too dark. The lanes which we normally take as short cuts to reach home were dotted with lamp posts with only kerosene lamps encased in a glass container as electric street lights were a rarity in those days. A municipal worker carrying a tin of kerosene, a few wicks and a cleaning cloth and a ladder on his shoulders would stop at each of these posts to fill in kerosene in the lamps, change the wick if necessary and wipe clean the glass case of the lamp. He would lit the lamp by sunset every evening, which would burn throughout the night giving light to people to walk safely. I have often watched these men at work fascinated by the clockwork regularity with which they provide the lights to the common man.”

Two decades back, the first hydro-electric power station (450KW) in the South had been constructed by the Government of Mysore on the Cauvery River at Sivasamudram in 1902 to power the Kolar gold fields. The British as you can imagine, had no interest in Malabar which was just a small part of Madras and the days when it prompted many a European nation including Britain to venture out to the East to establish trade with Calicut were forgotten. So the people of Calicut trundled on, though the spice and Calico trade was keeping people somewhat busy. Poverty had set in though and it was nothing more than a stopover on the way to somewhere, perhaps the Nilgiri hills or Cochin or Travancore. The kerosene lamps lit the streets in Palayam and near Mananchira and the lamp cleaners kept the crime rate low. The stories of those streets are so beautifully covered in SK Pottekat’s ‘Oru theruvinte katha’.

But finally one gentleman in Calicut decided to change things. He took surety from the Chalappuram bank to the tune of Rs 2 lakhs, purchased a diesel generator and set up a small distribution network for Calicut in 1927, after getting the required license from the ‘powers that were’, at Madras. His travails sound very much like the fascinating movie starring Mohanlal - who came back from the Gelf and purchased a bus (Varavelppu). For the sake of completeness, I will provide you a little bit of that account to complete the story. Regrettably all I know is that the person is named KC Menon. I do not know any more of his antecedents or ensuants and I will only take a wild guess that the C stood for Chandran or Chatu or Chandu. If somebody can provide more information, I’d be much obliged.

Well anyway the municipality of Calicut was responsible for providing street lighting and it was only by 1934 that electric street lighting was available in some parts while the rest still continued with kerosene lamp street lights. In general the power generated till the 1940’s was mainly to cater to the requirements of some upper class families of all religions, businessmen and only used to a very limited extent to meet the requirements of street lighting and industrial use. It cost the user a huge amount of some 8 annas per unit (double that of Madras city!) and so you can imagine that KC Menon was not very popular.
To get some perspective, the Kannan Devan estates in Munnar started a 200KW hydel power plant (Muthirapuzha river) within their estates in 1906 and it was some time thereafter, in 1929, that Travancore put up a small 5MW power plant in Trivandrum. The Pallivasal project was started in 1933. In the 30’s a number of diesel plants were put up in Kottayam, Kollam, Kalamassery, Aluva and Nagercoil. Cochin power and light came about in 1935-36. In Malabar, it was in Calicut that as we saw previously, efforts started in 1927 to power parts of the city.

The roads of Calicut sported horse carts (Jutkas) and hand pulled rickshaws, a few bicycles, an odd car now and then and of course some bullock carts. That was Calicut 7-8 decades ago. But let us get to Menon’s story and also meet a couple of other key persons who determined the future course of action.

In the early 30’s Menon’s outfit had started to be trouble prone with the generator failing often and as there were no engineers locally to look into it, they took a long time to repair. The users and of course some who did not get powered up of course used this situation to complain vehemently to the government and write they did with such eloquence that Madras finally took note. Menon in the meantime had no recourse but sell his plant to another interested party and some traders and businessmen who had their eyes on it and perhaps understood the power and profitability of electricity, raised a big hue and cry.

The entire affair came up for considerable debate in the Legislative council of the Governor of Madras on 21st March 1934. The two members who complained about KC Menon were KP Raman Menon (who hailed from Calicut, the famous tenancy agitation advocate) and mainly Pocker Sahib Bahadur (who hailed from Malabar but was resident in Madras – He was an advocate in Madras High Court, a big time Khilafat supporter and MES founder. Pocker Sahib was also the fifth University graduate and Second Advocate among Malabar Muslims). The member who argued (actually I must say – the one who laid down facts correctly) for KC Menon was Diwan Bahadur M Krishnan Nayar. The argument raised by Pocker was that KC Menon who had the license to supply power had not discharged his duties fully, had at times stopped supplying power to the dismay of the general public and after a period of grave financial distress (actually his bankers collapsed), had decided to sell his license to another private party named West Coast Electric Supply Co. Pocker’s question was why the municipality had not revoked Menon’s license and taken over the responsibility and how the government had permitted the transfer of a lease to CESC (part of WCESC) without giving the municipality a chance to take it over.
Krishnan Nair explains – Originally, license for generating and distributing electric current to the town of Calicut was granted to Mr. K. C. Menon. That was in 1927. One of the provisions in that license states "that –the municipality is at liberty to purchase the licensee's right after the expiry of fifty years after the grant of that license, that is, after the expiry 50 years from 1927. It may be noted that the municipality which knew about the grant of this license did not raise any protest against or objection to this period of 50 years which was fixed in the original license. Then, after this license was granted on the usual conditions that find a place in the electric licenses, Mr. K. C Menon borrowed two lakhs from a bank known as the Chalapuram Bank· The Government was therefore satisfied that he was in a position to carry on the work and as a matter of fact, within the stipulated time, he completed the compulsory works and before the expiry of time fixed for it, he began to distribute energy to the people of Calicut. Subsequently, complaints reached Government repeatedly. It was stated that he was not in a position to discharge his financial obligations and it was also stated that the supply of energy within the Calicut municipality was not efficient. When the Government received these complaints; Government naturally made enquiries. The Government were satisfied that everything was not in a satisfactory condition, and the Government sent repeated instructions and orders to the licensee, to the effect that, if he did not attend to these things, the license would be cancelled.  

He then went on to explain that revoking a license was not a simple thing and required many steps to be completed, and that there was no precedence to follow and no fall back supplier for power supply. Sankaran Nair then explained to the others in the chamber that the problem was the failure or collapse of the Chalappuram bank resulting in the loss of funds put in by many small investors and individuals. A show cause notice was sent to Menon in 1933. Menon replied jointly with the CESC (Calicut electric supply corporation) that they had reached an agreement whereby Menon would sell his license and assets to CESC who would then honorably discharge the original contract. Menon requested approval for the transfer of the license to CESC. In the meantime the collector of Malabar opined that the Municipality was not an alternative as they would mismanage the business if given to them. The government studied the proposal, decided that CESC were financially stable and technically competent, after which they accorded permission.
In the meantime one of the two engines ceased to work and town power supply was affected. The collector who lost power to his house also complained and then it came to light that the public offices in fact had no electricity and that plans to electrify them were only under consideration! The main power house was situated near Mankavu and this signifies that the Zamorin’s Kovilakom would have been the primary recipient of power in Calicut in those early days.

In any case, the arrangements with Menon was terminated, CESC were finally accorded permission and more money (to the tune of 5 lakhs or so) was pumped in. I wonder why they did not feel like supporting Menoin, perhaps it was because he was just an individual and not a Madras based compaby like West Coast Electric Supply Co, a company listed in the Madras stock exchange!  Anyway Calicut electric Supply Co became the power company vested with the responsibility of serving a 12 square mile (considering Kallayi railway station as the center) area. They continued to take care of Calicut (Interestingly they had their first strike in 1937 over low wages!) until the activity was taken over or acquired by the Government of Kerala on 1st August 1963.
Around 1945, the Pykara Hydroelectric scheme near Ooty was linked to Calicut over a 70 mile long 66KV link. Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer was responsible for mooting Pykara and many other Hydropower projects and HG Howard executed the Pykara project. The Southern grid in those days comprised of three hydro-electric power stations, those at Pykara, Mettur, Papanasam and a thermal station at Madurai, while serving 13 districts across Chittoor to Tinnevelly and Chingleput to Malabar.

The WCESC/CESC as you saw owned the diesel generating stations at Calicut, Tellichery and Cannanore. With the extension of Pykara Hydro-Electric Supply to West Coast these diesel generating stations were mothballed in 1946-47. The Units at Cannanore and Tellicherry were taken over by the Government in exercise of its power under the Madras Electricity Undertakings (Acquisition) Act, 1954, and these Units were transferred to the newly formed Kerala State Electricity Board with effect from April 1, 1957.
That was a long time ago. It was only in Jan 2014 that the southern grid was fully connected to the national grid totaling to some 232 GW of installed capacity and access to another 1500MW to the southern states. Out of the country’s total installed generation capacity of 232,164 MW, the Southern region accounts for 57,529 MW (as of November, 2013).

Just imagine! In 1934, Pykara generated just 6.65MW, now the demand in the South is 60,000 MW!! That was a steep climb but then I must admit that the delivery and stability of power supply in Kerala, so much dependent on hydel power plants is still patchy and power cuts still the norm in a country that is seen to be well behind the other stable/galloping economies. Such small facts literally put India into a poor light when seen through the eyes of a foreigner. I can only hope and believe that these things will improve soon…

Perhaps friends like Premnath Murkoth can add their views and perspectives on their experiences in the times when electricity was premium in Calicut..

Proceedings of the Madras legislative council 21-03-1934

Note: If you want to get a blurry view of how one of those kerosene lamps looked like, look to the left of the bullock cart in the foreground right side of this fascinating photo (courtesy BEM), Calicut in the first decade of the 20th century, a corner of Mananchira tank, I suppose.