The first demonstration of electric light in Calcutta was conducted on 24 July, 1879 by P W Fleury & Co. This was followed by another demonstration by Dey Sil & Co. On 30 June, 1881, 36 electric lights lit up the Mackinnon & Mackenzie Company’s Garden Reach Cotton Mills.
1899 was a year to remember in many ways. Calcutta was still the capital of India, the second city of the British Empire. Lord Curzon held sway over a city that boasted of such luminaries as Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda. Then, in April of that year, the first thermal power plant of Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation Limited was commissioned.
The Government of Bengal passed the Calcutta Electric Lighting Act in 1895. The first license was given for a period of 21 years and covered an area of 5.64 square miles, which has now grown to 567 sq kms.
On 7 January, 1897 Kilburn & Co secured the Calcutta electric lighting license as agents of The Indian Electric Co Ltd., which was registered in London on 15 January, 1897 with a capital of 1000 pounds. A month later, the Company changed its name to The Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation Limited and enhanced its capital to 1,00,000 pounds. The issue was over-subscribed the very first day it was opened.
A newspaper reported on 6 December, 1898, that on a trial basis electricity was being supplied to the Bank of Bengal (now the State Bank of India), The Bengal Club on Chowringhee and several private residences. An advertisement released by F & C Osler & Co announced that the firm was ready to take on ‘the installing of electric light in Calcutta’ for houses and commercial establishments.
Newspapers also reported that the Electric Supply Corporation is “spending 100,000 pound sterling” for the electric lighting of the town. “Mains have been laid for the supply of 60,000 lamps, which can be increased to 200,000. The supply will be continuous throughout the twenty-four hours and each day, and is well-adapted for working punkahs.”
The plant at Emambaugh Lane “consists of three boilers of 500 horse-powers which can be extended to 800 horse-powers, if desired, with eight dynamos and a storage battery… The chimney will be the highest in Calcutta, being 40 ft. higher than the water works chimney which is close by.”
The first generating station was erected at Emambagh Lane, near Princep Street, which was commissioned on 17 April, 1899, heralding the beginning of thermal power generation in India. The electrification of Calcutta took place 17 years after New York, which boasted of electricity in 1882 and eleven years after London, which was electrified in 1888. In Calcutta, the initial rate per unit of power was Rupee 1, the price being the same as in London.
Bombay followed closely, inspired by the success of electricity in Calcutta. In November 1900, it was reported: “The Commissioners of the Corporation have recommended that a concession for 42 years be granted to Messrs. Killick Nixon and Company, as agents of Messrs. Kilburn and Company of Calcutta, to provide the required electric power for the city on terms laid down in the Calcutta Electric License Act of 1896.”
A month after the commissioning of the Emambagh Lane power house, a decision was taken on 19 May, 1899 to have electric connection at the Government House, with the stipulation that the job must be complete before the Viceroy Lord Curzon returns to Calcutta from his official tour of north India.
When power supply started, it was thought that electric energy might be used for ventilating, powering purposes and lighting. But no one imagined that the days of hand – pulled punkah were over. The popularity of the electric fan ensured immediate success for Calcutta Electric Supply and provided the ‘day load’, essential to the economic working of an electric supply station. Kilburn & Co., on behalf of The Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation, released an advertisement on 6 May, 1899 quoting Rs. 18 for hiring of one electric fan ‘used day and night’ and the supply of electricity.
The Calcutta High Court decided on 19 August, 1899 to opt for electric fans instead of punkahs with the hope that the job should be complete next year. The Government sanctioned Rs.15000 to replace punkahs at Fort William on 28 May, 1902. A month earlier, the Government owned Army Clothing Factory at Alipore decided to bring electricity at a cost of Rs.19000.
Calcutta Tramways switched to electricity from horse drawn carriages in 1902. A medical man went on record saying that ‘electric trams are of great benefit to the health of a great city … Electric trams cause ozone to be generated in small quantities from morning to night, so that the air is being purified all the time.’
Calcuttans started the use of 8 watt and later 25-watt electric bulbs. On the heels of ceiling fans, table fans arrived on the scene. F & C Osier was soon advertising electric irons at Rs 35 and Rs 40. Refrigerators arrived, with a Frigidaire cabinet advertised at Rs 750 and Frost Coils at Rs 520. People soon found it hard to imagine an existence without electricity.
Harrison Road (now Mahatma Gandhi Road) was the first street of Calcutta to be lit by electricity between 1889 and 1892. Kilburn and Company used dynamos set up at Halliday Street pumping station. The municipal consultant was none other than Dr. Jagadish Chandra Bose.
The 135MW Southern Generating Station brought an end to the horror of loadshedding which plagued the city of Calcutta since 1961. The first unit commenced supply in September, 1990, followed by the second unit in May, 1991.. Goodbye to loadshedding.
In 1997, The Sunday Times of India gave the highest rating to CESC’s Calcutta – 10 out of 10 on the power position, when compared to other metropolitan cities of India
CESC’s responsibility to consumers has grown over a hundred years. 6,000 consumers used 12 million units of power in 1912 and today the number of CESC consumers has already crossed 2.8 million. CESC and the city have grown together.