Horse-carts drove the American turbines as the Afghan, Balti, and Punjabi labour force working under British engineers fought intermittent cholera attacks to create India’s second powerhouse in 1908. Policymakers are desperate to see the heritage project revived, Sameer Yasir finds out in Boniyar.
September 6, 1992, was the last time Boniyar resident Sardar Ali Khan saw the Mohra powerhouse working. The only source of hydropower to pre-partition Kashmir located on strategic Jhelum Valley Road connecting Srinagar with Muzaffarabad, Mohra’s remnants include a wooden flume and a huge pale yellow building.
Time, however, has not devoured the majesty of the project. Its splendid wooden flume clinging to the mountain crags for around 10.36 km continues to be the main attraction and an indicator of its heritage worthiness. The channel that might have been a challenge at the time of its construction was bringing in water from Rampur to Mohra where it would run the turbines.
One-third of the 6.5 miles length of the artificial channel was built of masonry and the rest of the 8.5 feet x 8.5 feet channel was built with timber. This channel was disrupted by the tribals who raided Kashmir in 1947. It was later in the afternoon of October 24, 1947, when the lights in Maharaja Hari Singh’s Srinagar Palace went off indicating the raiders were approaching Baramulla. Abdul Aziz Khan who has been working in the powerhouse for 30 years said the beauty of the flume might have attracted the raiders.
The project, historians suggest, was the second powerhouse in the Indian subcontinent. When the Maharaja of Mysore set up the Kaveri Power scheme in 1902 at Shivasamudram to electrify Kolar Gold Fields and later Mysore and Bangalore, the Kashmir monarch Ranbir Singh hired the same legendry engineer Major Dlain de Latbiniere to set up this project in Uri. Pre-feasibility work started in 1902 itself. The actual work commenced in September 1904.
Then, the major crisis for the monarchy was managing floods. Durbar had already hired a foreign engineer, Mr Fields, to oversee dredging in Doabgah (Sopore). The main objective of the power project was to get cheap power for helping the dredging process.
Setting up a powerhouse when Kashmir was accessible by horse carts was not an easy job. The Labour force came from Ladakh, Baltistan and Afghanistan; and the skilled ones from Punjab. Managing the huge labour force amid intermittent cholera attacks was a heady, capital-intensive task. Within a few years of work, it was an engineering feat, considering the level of technical know-how of those days. The wooden flume successfully got 200 cusecs of water that would drive the turbines.
The powerhouse had the capacity of 200 HP but given the low demand and requirement, only one generator of 5000 HP, 25 Hz, 3 phases was installed. The generator was supplied by General Electric Company of New York and the prime mover for the generator water wheel was supplied by Abner Doble of San Francisco. The project started generation in 1905 but was formally inaugurated in 1908 only. Initially, the plant had turbines with 25 cycles against the standard frequency of 50 cycles with the result that the power was supplied at a voltage of 400 volts. This, historians have recorded; required users and industry to install specially designed meters which were obtained at high costs. After some years, conversion from 25 to 50 cycles machinery costing about two crore rupees was set up to add 600 kilowatts to the existing capacity.
After making drudgers run to their full capacity – which reclaimed 60,000 acres of cultivable land, the surplus power was diverted to Srinagar Silk Factory for heating the water basins in which cocoons are immersed for reeling. Then, Srinagar had the largest Silk Factory in World employing more than 3300 men and producing around 100 tons of silk a year. The electric current improved various cottage industries and lit vast belts including Maharaja’s Srinagar palaces. However, the power of 3.75 MW generated then at Mohra was far too surplus for the valley. Surrounded by the lush green mountains, the project bestowed Boniyar the status of a power hub, a title it retained with the Uri and not-so-far-away Lower Jhelum projects which were commissioned later.
The first disruption to the project coincided with the partition that eventually led to the division of the state. The new government that took over in Srinagar repaired the project on January 30, 1948. But it did not change the fate of the heritage powerhouse.
A fierce flood literally bisected it on July 4, 1959. It was repaired again and while overseeing its resumption, Hungarian engineer Lojas Kapas died of an electric shock on May 22, 1961. In September 1961, it stopped and remained unused till parts of its rusted equipment were sold away as junk in 1974. Post-flood, the station was replaced in 1966. Two generator sets of 4500 KWs having 50 cycles frequency per second replaced four smaller ones with 25 cycles frequency and the station was housed at a new spot, around 400 ft upstream of the old one. Its installed capacity improved. Another flood in September 1992 damaged a portion of the project, and since then it is defunct.
Till the 1980s, it was the main source of power to Uri where a single 2 MVA transformer would manage the requirements of the town and the villages around. Efforts to revive the plant failed consistently. Initial estimates suggested an investment of Rs 4.30 crore for its renovation. Later, the Swedish company ABB built NHPC’s Uri-1 and wanted to restore it, but the government was not interested. It was identified for the private sector but was never actually given. In 2006, the Power Development Corporation (PDC) which owns the project wanted to revive it at a cost of Rs 68 crore. Another option was to give it to an independent power producer and the option was even notified.
Three IPPs were interested in taking it over and reviving it. But nothing happened. Now the government is re-examining its revival. The number of employees working on the project stand reduced from around 300 to 40 now. They take care of the damaged machinery, stores and the dilapidated building. The only use of this heritage power plant is that it connects the Lower Jhelum supply line with the Uri distribution set-up. “I want it (revival) happen,” septuagenarian Sardar said. “This is our identity”. Khan would be surprised to find Kashmir and the government on the same page.
The DPR on PDC table is to reclaim the project and up-rate it to 9-MW. “We intend not to create a tunnel,” a senior functionary said. “Instead, we will use the wooden flume and make it waterproof by using sheets and we have already identified the technology.”
Canal Power House
After living in a well-lit palace in Srinagar, the Maharajas felt the need of having electricity in Jammu as well. For feeding the turbine, the water would come from Akhnoor through a canal. Work on the project started in 1908 and the 1000-KW project was operational by 1910. Initially, it was a 5 KVA plant which was later upgraded. The plant functioned well until 1954 when it started exhibiting problems. In 1957 it was re-started and continued operations amid intermittent problems. It became inoperative in 1994. After the government opened the sector for private players, it was transferred to a private player for rebuilding and operation on January 29, 2002. As the group revived the project, it landed in a prolonged controversy. After the case was debated in different courts at Jammu and Delhi, it was eventually restored to the private player in late 2006. It is immediately not known if the station is in operation or not.
Haveli Power House
The only person that knows the exact address of the powerhouse in Poonch is the postman because he delivers letters to the residents in the ‘Mohalla Power House’. For locals, the erstwhile power station was an indicator of Poonch’s progress and the glory when it was an autonomous principality. “Our Raja was a relative of the Dogra Maharajas’ but they never kept a good relation,” said lawyer Imtiaz Banday. “When Partap Singh commissioned the Mohra powerhouse, he had invited our Raja to Srinagar and that infuriated our ruler who commissioned the same company to install this power station.”
Not much of the record is available right now. Very senior engineers said it was commissioned well before Hari Singh succeeded his uncle. Its installed capacity was around 98 KW and worked on Turgo impulse turbine with primitive technologies. Its water conductor running parallel to the Uri-Poonch road was getting water from Haji Pir mountain range apparently from the roaring Betar nalla (stream).
Post partition in 1970’s the supplies dried up and two engineers followed the conductor and actually landed up on the other side of the LoC. It was after negotiations between the two sides that they were permitted to return. One of the engineers has expired. The project went into disuse and very recently was sold in scrap, according to Banday. Now the tank, overlooking the town that fed the erstwhile turbine has been converted into an artificial seasonal pond for kids to play with small boats. “It is our heritage and it is lost,” regretted Banday. Local power department officials operate from the erstwhile powerhouse building.
Restoring Haveli station might be a far-fetched dream but the Power Development Corporation is reviving the Kheora station in neighbouring Rajouri.
Set up in 1964, the station would get 25 cusecs of discharge from Darhali nalla through a 6.2-km channel to run two units of 300-KW Kaplan-type turbine. Even when one of its units is not functional, the other operational unit feeds the essential hospital service line and earns Rs 35 lakh a year. The new DPR suggests it would require only Rs 1.67 crore for repairs and the process could be over within 13 months and the water availability can go up to 45 cusecs which might increase the generation.