Nawab Khwaja Ahsanullah illuminates Dhaka with electric light

July 14, 2010

Edited by Anas Khwaja

The citizens of Dhaka waited long three hundred years for electric light since Dhaka was first claimed capital of Bengal. The electrification of Dhaka took place 19 years after New York, which boasted of electricity in 1882 and thirteen years after London, which was electrified in 1888. This was made possible by none other than Nawab Khwaja Ahsanullah. Let us flashback and revisit some important historical dates from this era in Dhaka’s history.

1608: Dhaka is proclaimed capital of Bengal by Mughal Subedar Islam Khan.

1869: Dhaka civil surgeon Dr Henry Charles Cutcliffe prepares a report on sanitary improvement and modernization. This report is prepared at the request of Dhaka municipal chairman and magistrate George Graham. In his report Dr Cutcliffe prefer kerosene oil lamps over gaslights to illuminate Dhaka streets. The street light project is based on Kanpur model (1).“if implemented properly it will bring drastic changes to Dhaka. The city will turn into desirable habitat and hell will become heaven” comments Khwaja Abdul Ghani on Dr Cutclihh’shis overall report (2) But on the financial aspect of the planning his reaction is “In the light of the proposed plan, it is not possible to collect fund from citizens of Dhaka to solve the sanitary problem. The citizens of Dhaka are very poor and unable to invest huge sum for heath improvement” (3).

1870: Khwaja Abdul Ghani establises a gas light factory (4).

1871: Khwaja Abdul Ghani honored with Companion of Star of India (CSI).

1877: To observe Queen Victoria’s proclamation as Empress of India a citizens committee is formed in Dhaka. The celebration included among others, a program for permanent improvement of Dhaka City. With this aim the committee donates 6,500 rupee for installing 100 lamp posts. Starting from Municipal office in Wiseghat through Chowkbazaar 60 kerosine lampposts are installed in 1878 (5).

Queen Victoria is proclaimed first Empress of India at the Delh Darbar in1877 Lord Lytton.

1879: On the other hand in the western hemisphere Thomas Alva Edison makea the first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb, in Menlo Park. It is during this time that he said: “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles”.

1886: When Nawab Khwaja Abdul Ghani was about to be knighted, his son Nawab Khwaja Ahsanullah promises a reward to every person who would illuminate his residence in honor of that event. If you maintain my fathers “Izzat”, he promises “I will make you “khooshie (6)”.

1886: Khwaja Abdul Ghani is rewarded with Knight Commander of Star of India (KCSI).

1886: “The enthusiasm displayed by our fellow townsmen on the occasion of my father’s investiture with the insignia of a Knight Commander of the Star of India, has so touched and gratified me that as a token of appreciation of the good feeling shown today by both Mohammedans and Hindus of Dhaka, I propose to light such main roads and streets of the city as are now lighted with oil lamps, with gas, entirely at my own costs, on the condition that the Municipality will, on their part, undertake to expand on improved sanitation and the purchase and maintenance of fire engines, the sum that now expend on lighting the town.” Nawab Ahsanullah declares in an interview with Kolkata newpaper Englishman.

1888: Three reasons are speculated for Lord Dufferin‘s (Governor General and Viceroy of India 1884-1888) Dhaka visit. One of them is to lay foundation of Dhaka gas light which was earlier promised by the Nawab Bahadoor (7).

1891: Nawab Ahsanullah’s legal secretary G.L.Garth writes a memo to Dhaka Municipality notifying nawab’s interest to replace existing street kerosene lamps with gas lights. The municipality commissioners accepted nawabs proposal with gladness, enthusiasm & gratitude. They agreed to spend the saving in this sector for betterment of the civic health as per the condition set forth by the Nawab (8).

1897:Nawab Khwaja Yusuf Jan,(1897-1901) brother in law of Nawab Khwaja Ahsanullah is elected Chairman of Dhaka Municipality.

1898: Dhaka Prokash, the leading Bengali newspaper reports “Twelve years ago Nawab Khwaja Ahsanullah promised to light Dhaka with gas light. Probably he did not fulfill his promise due to suspicion towards muninicipality. With the election of his brother in law Nawab Khwaja Yusuf Jan at the helm of municipality that suspicion ebbed. Hopefully the promise will be fulfilled now” (9).

1901: To relieve the sufferings of Dhaka, magnify its beauty and modernize it Nawab Ahsanullah arranges for electric lights in 1901 (10). He donates 450,000.00 rupee for Dhaka Electric light fund (11). The money is to cover both construction and maintenance expenses.

1901 5 July: The Dhaka Electric Light Trust is formed under the auspices of Dhaka municipality. The following notice is published in the newspaper by the trust.

The Dhaka Electric Light trustees do hereby give notice under section 3 clauses iii of act 1895 that they are applying to government for a license under the said act to supply electricity in and near the following streets and places:

Rahmatgonj Road (upto the water works), Chowk circular Road, Mogultully Road, Nulgolla Road, Babu Bazar Road, Committeegonj Road, Armenia Street (upto Ray Bahadoor’s street), Islampur Road, Ahsun Manzil Road, Patuatuly Road, Wiseghat Road, Patuatuly lower Road, Patuatuly Ghat Road, Bangla Bazar Road, Dal Bazar Road, Farashganj, Road to Iron suspension bridge, Dig Bazar Road, Victoria Park, Lakhshmi Bazar Road (as far s R.C.Chapel), Sadarghat Road, Shakhari Bazar Road (west of the Bank Dhaka college), Johnson Road, Nawabpur Road, Railway staff quarters road (upto the Ramna teaching ground road), Jamdani Nagore Road and Raja’s Dewry Lane together with the lanes connecting them upto say Shahibi’s Bazar.”

James Thomas Rankin
On Behalf of trustees
JT Rankin was the collector of Dhaka and, between 1905 and 1911, and secretary to the Board of Revenue of the Government of Eastern Bengal and Assam.

Dhaka 5th July 1901

1901 7 December: Finally the big day is here. Lt Governor of Bengal Sir John Woodburn was invited to inaugurate electric installation in Dhaka city. As he fell sick, honorable Mr. C.W. Bolton at the capacity of officiating Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal came from Kolkata for the great occasion (12).

A gala ceremony was held at 5pm at the invitation of the Nawab Khwaja Ahsanullah. The meeting took place on the porch of Ahsan Manzil. Respected civilians, government officials and family members were present. On the podium Mr. Bolton sat in the center, flanked by Nawab Bahadoor on his right and the commissioner on his left.

Commissioner of Dhaka read a report on the electric light. Mr Bolton on his speech thanked the Nawab for his generosity. He also added “from today the municipality inherits a crucial responsibility. The lights will suit better only if narrow streets are widened and better water sanitation system is implemented. We hope municipality will consider this.” (13)

Imaginary portrait of opening ceremony of Dhaka Electricity 1901

Charles Walter Bolton I.C.S., C.S.I. (1897); son of Dr. J. Bolton; Born 1S.50; Educ. University College School, the Royal College, Mauritius, and King’s College, London; went out to Lower Bengal, 1872: Under Secretary to the Bengal Government 1879 : Magistrate and Collector, 1885 ; Secretary to the Board of Revenue, 1891 ; Chief Secretary to the Bengal Government, 1896 ; Member of the Board, of Revenue. Bengal, 1900; Additional Member. Supreme Legislative Council, 1900-1902; C. S.I., 1897; Officiated as Chief Commissioner of Assam, 1903,

It is to be noted that Dhaka Nawab Estate also contributed rupees 5,000.00 towards lighting the town of Comilla (15).

Zamindars in Dhaka had chandeliers in their mansions while the slums along with the streets were poorly lit with oil lamps. These weak lamps were vulnerable to howling wind and usually threw the city into darkness. Prometheus brought fire to mortals but the credit to light Dhaka city with electric goes to Nawab Khwaja Ahsanullah. He was the visionary architect of modern Dhaka city. With electrification he brought Dhaka a step closer to a mega metropolitan city from a gloomy mofussil town.

Extra Notes:

1908: The two main streets are now lighted by incandescent lamps, and electric light is supplied to several shops and private houses, which are also provided with electric fans (16).
1911: Octavius Steel and Co with home at 14 Old Court House Street, Calcutta, is to be the managing agent and investment firm of the Dacca electric supply scheme (17).
1914 Electric light plant in Dhaka is owned by Dhaka Electric Light Trust. The specs of the plant is as following- Continuous, 3-wire; station voltage 500; consumers’ voltage 250 and 500; Total capacity plant 600 k. w; Three Marshall boilers. Generating sets—four Parker-Belhss sets of 600 k. w. aggregate (18).
1933: Another private company DEVCO set up a power station at Paribagh and started generation and distribution of electricity on commercial basis for the common people.
1943: Dhaka Electric Supply Co., Ltd. has replaced its old diesel oil set by a steam generating plant (19).
1957: Dhaka Electric supply co was a public limited company until May 31 1957 when govt took it over. Later on it raised capital in the open market.

1) Dhaka Itihas o Nogor Jeebon 1840-1921by Shorifuddin Ahmed 2006 page 213
2) Dhaka Itihas o Nogor Jeebon 1840-1921by Shorifuddin Ahmed 2006 page 214
3) Dhaka Itihas o Nogor Jeebon 1840-1921by Shorifuddin Ahmed 2006 page 215
4) Dhaka Prokash Dec 18 1870
5) Dhaka Itihas o Nogor Jeebon 1840-1921by Shorifuddin Ahmed 2006 page 234 235; Nana Ronger Dhaka by Kajol Ghosh page 241
6) Bengal Times
7) Dhaka Prokash November 18 1888
8) Dhaka Prokash March 15 1891
9) Dhaka Prokash July 24 1898
10) Ahsan Manzil Museum and the Nawabs of Dhaka by Dr Md Alamgir page 13; The Bengal Times 11 Dec 1901; Dhaka Prokash 8 Dec 1901; Ahsan Manzil o Dhaka’r Nawab by Dr Md Alamgir page 36
11) Songbad Samoyik potre Dhaka’r Nawab Poribar by Muntasir Mamun page 280
12) Glimpses of Bengal by A Claude Campbell Chapter 8, page 198
13) Dhaka Somogro 2 Muntasir Mamun 2004 page 71- 72
14) Dhaka Itihas o Nogor Jeebon 1840-1921by Shorifuddin Ahmed 2006 page 247
15) Nawab Salimullah: Jeebon o Kormo by Dr Muhammed Abdullah 1996, page 400
16) Imperial gazetteer of India 1908 By Sir William Wilson Hunter, Great Britain. India Office page 118
17) The Commercial motor, Volume 13 Temple Press Ltd., 1911 Page 482
18) British India with notes on Ceylon, Afghanistan, and Tibet (1915) By United States. Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, Henry D. Baker, page 97
19) Geographical review of India , Volume 5, Issues 1-4 1943 page 12

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