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Gas, Electricity and Publicity in Colonial India

Gas, Electricity and Publicity in Colonial India

To reiterate, the promise of electricity as the ultimate solution for the abatement of industrial smoke had been intimated since the early years of the twentieth century. Similarly, given the many complaints against domestic smoke, about which the commissions were helpless in doing much, emphasis was laid on the use of gas and electricity within homes. Aiding the process was the attempts made by the gas company in Calcutta to open itself to public scrutiny of its heating and cooking appliances and to instruct them in the use of such appliances. As a result, 100 coal-fired furnaces were reported to have been replaced with gas heaters in 1909–10, while 50 gas cookers replaced the ordinary smoky domestic coal-fired cooking apparatus. In addition to this, some of the leading restaurants were also reported to have fitted gas cooking apparatus, replacing those that utilised coal. As yet, such substitutions in favour of electricity, oil and gas still seemed driven more by convenience, the commission noted, though the avoidance of smoke trouble had ‘also an influence in the matter’. The efforts of the gas company to reduce prices and enlarge their capacities were also seen as hopeful signs, especially in the extension of its use beyond cooking and heating to include lighting, thus doing away with the objectionable oil lamps. Prices were reduced in 1914–15, and the commission reported that a larger use of gas-worked appliances for water heating, cooking and lighting were installed even during the war years when there was a scarcity of materials. The post-war years saw even more advances being made in this direction, with the following gas appliances installed in Calcutta by the Oriental Gas Company (OGC) in 1919–20: private cooking ranges (262), small cooking stoves (8), large cooking ranges for hotels (2), hot closets for plates, etc., (2) and geysers for heating water (130). The next year, attention was again drawn to the installation of gas cookers in large numbers, and it was expected that when their advantages were more widely known, their adoption would be further accelerated. Gas: The Antidote to Smoke | The Statesman, 14 Jan. 1917. ‘With these wonderful stoves’, the advertisement reads, ‘cooking can be done in your own room, verandah, orwherever you wish, for there is neither smell, smoke, nor dick’

Gas: The Antidote to Smoke | The Statesman, 14 Jan. 1917. ‘With these wonderful stoves’, the advertisement reads, ‘cooking can be done in your own room, verandah, orwherever you wish, for there is neither smell, smoke, nor dick’ [sic.]

Much was still by way of experimentation, even regarding industrial furnaces, but there was little doubt that there was a wide field of enterprise emerging in the application of smokeless gas appliances with newer items finding a place within homes and commercial establishments — cookers for domestic use and for hotels, gas-heated circulating boilers for heating water, similar boilers for tea-making in hotels and restaurants, and hot cases and coffee boiling machines for restaurant use. And as raw coal steadily replaced coke in domestic fireplaces, the installation of gas appliances assumed even greater importance. Large residential buildings being built were seen as especially lucrative sites for the same, the OGC making special mention of two large buildings on Park Street in which 82 gas cooking ranges and 76 gas geysers were installed in 1922. Slightly over 1,000 gas appliances for domestic purposes were added the next year and an equal number the year after, with further efforts being made to promote the use of gas appliances in hotels, boarding houses, clubs and new pucca buildings. The scale of transformation was reportedly impressive — there had been no more than 100 gas appliances in use when the commission had started its work, but within a decade and a half, the number had reached nearly 10,000, preventing ‘the annual discharge of about 1,800 tons of soot and 700 tons of sulphuric gases into the air of Calcutta’. 

Further advances, however, would depend on pricing, fuel substitution within homes being as price-sensitive as in industry. Cheap gas was an absolute necessity for Calcutta, the commission wrote, and while 10,000 appliances was a good number, the need was for a quarter of a million. And for this, it was absolutely essential that the gas company reduce its price, something that was eminently possible if the municipal corporation could be persuaded to switch from lighting gas to heating gas. The corporation was not easily persuaded though, their contract with the OGC being for the supply of gas of illumination or candlepower standard. This, the commission believed, was hugely expensive, pointing out that with the introduction of glass mangles, towns across the world had begun to move towards the use of heating gas, which was both cheaper and more efficient. Gas engineers the world over were also increasingly collecting the gas from the making of coke in industrial gas ovens, sometimes from considerable distances, and mixing it with town gas to reduce the price, in a bid to extend use. Indeed, in India itself, Bombay had shifted to heating gas much earlier. The objection could not be to the gas in question either, for the new heating gas had been in use throughout Calcutta for two months in 1928 without anyone noticing the difference. And so, the commission opined, ‘the obsolete restrictions that the corporation compel the gas company to observe’ must go. A meeting was organised between members of the commission, the corporation and of the gas company where the gas company offered to reduce Calcutta’s annual gas bill by Rs 1,26,000—the corporation benefitting by Rs 28,000 and the public by Rs 98,000—with effect from 1 January 1928, provided the Calcutta corporation would agree to change over to the calorific standard. This was unanimously accepted. The case was then passed on to the Calcutta corporation for consideration where the matter seemingly rested for a couple of years. Eventually in December 1931, the corporation agreed to make the switch, but by then a loss of over Rs 5 lakh had been incurred. Others too chimed in, the director of public health writing that if public utility companies that produced gas and electricity could be induced to make these available to the public at a comparatively cheaper rate, then the extended use of these fuels would yield ‘a very valuable result in diminishing the volume of smoke’. This was not all. As we saw before, around the same time, experiments were being made to produce smokeless fuel such as gas and oil from raw coal through low-pressure carbonisation. The electric and gas corporations, being situated in proximate distance, were quite suited for this purpose. The electric supply corporation could process the raw coal, burn the semi-coke in the boilers, dispose of the oils and deliver cheap gas in bulk to the gas company, which could then distribute it to Calcutta, producing a win-win situation—large reduction in fuel charges, and consequently, cheaper electricity and gas for the city, greater incomes for electric and gas corporations, and perhaps most importantly, ensuring decline in mortality. The dreams of a smokeless city were much alive: ‘When a smokeless fuel is produced that can be thrown anyhow into a furnace without producing smoke, it will remove the “human element”, the last barrier to the realisation of the smokeless city.’ However, further consideration of this in Calcutta would have to remain suspended, pending a decision regarding the heating standard for gas that would be adopted in the city. Meanwhile, the company itself reduced the heating rate from 1.25 annas per unit to 1 anna per unit, leading the commission to hope that there was nothing to prevent a more extended use of gas and electrical energy for domestic purposes such as cooking, heating, refrigeration and all other activities incidental thereto. 

By the end of the 1920s, results on both these fronts seemed encouraging. The number of gas appliances, including geysers, cookers, etc., steadily increased by over 1,200–1,300 each year, and the commission was content to observe that compared with the cheapest liquid or solid fuels, its advantages from a health point of view alone made it preferable for cooking and heating. The efforts to popularise the use of electricity for cooking and other domestic purposes were also yielding results, the commission noted, especially in the use of hot plates, grilles and toasters. Indeed, the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation (CESC) was looking to develop this further, being convinced of the advantages of electrical cooking, obviating the dirt, smoke and fumes inevitably connected with any other form of heating. An interesting history of how the company had reached here was provided by the enquiry into electrical rates conducted by the government in 1936. The company, which began in 1897, saw an immediate run on electric fans, as well as a steady growth in the demand for house lighting. The demand for electric energy to be used for ventilating and power purposes, as well as for lighting, was, at one level, anticipated, but no one had quite imagined that the days of the hand-pulled punkah were numbered and that the electrically driven fan would soon take over. But such indeed had been the case and the popularity of the electric fan ensured the immediate prosperity of the company, providing, at least during a great part of the year, the ‘day load’ that was so essential to the economical working of an electricity supply station. Some apprehensions were expressed about whether the transfer of capital to Delhi would reduce demand, but if anything, the enquiry noted, there was a steady increase in demand for electricity for residential purposes, people even thinking it fit to light temples with it! Rates for domestic consumers had also tended to come down over the years, from 3.5 annas per unit in 1925 to 2.5 annas per unit in 1935. However, in view of the fact that the load for domestic consumers was the foundation on which the company’s prosperous undertaking had been built, the committee reported, it was only fair that they share in the prosperity of the company, suggesting therefore to lower the rates further to 2 annas per unit, which, they believed, would spur the demand even further. Some limits still remained though. There was little or no demand for general heating as water heating could be done at very low cost by coal, coke or other wood fuel and washing services could be obtained at a reasonably monthly cost with no initial capital expenditure. Refrigeration was also beyond the reach of the large majority of consumers. Similarly, not only was the initial cost of consumers’ heating and cooking appliances high but also a satis- factory cooking appliance suitable for Indian requirements that could be obtained at a cost within the purchasing power of the average consumer had not yet been placed on the market. But the enquiry remained optimistic. This too will soon happen, they wrote, while recommending that rates be brought down from 1 anna to 0.75 anna. The commission too shared in this optimism, as indeed it had from its very inception, writing yet again that once electricity was introduced in any setting, it could be used for light, heat and power in a diversity of ways that no other form of energy could equal. And once this were to come about, the general use of electricity would ‘go far to dispel those clouds of smoke that hang over Calcutta during the cold weather evenings’. Similarly regarding gas—‘compared with the cheapest liquid or solid fuels its advantages from a health point of view alone make it preferable and for cooking and heating its supremacy cannot be successfully challenged’. However, while it was one thing for the suppliers to be convinced, it would be another matter altogether to persuade consumers to invest in these gadgets. 

If price was important, so was publicity. The peculiarities of domestic smoke meant that a much closer relationship had to be forged between the commission and the public. As we saw earlier, one of the measures to achieve this was the reorganisation of the commission to enable members to travel to the localities in the company of the chief inspector and to interact with the public there. Beginning the mid-1920s thus, publicity became an important plank of the commission’s activities. A system of issuing bulletins on points of public interest was started in 1927, and the next year, the Bengal commission showcased practical exhibits, showing the effect of smoke nuisance and air pollution on mortality, plants and food supplies, buildings, distant localities and sunlight. It also began the practice of controlling a section in the Calcutta Health Welfare Week Exhibition to exhibit the same. Alongside, it also collaborated with the OGC, the latter showcasing smokeless gas appliances for cooking and other domestic purposes. Further measures were adopted in 1932, including printed copies of illustrated instructions being forwarded to the health officer of the municipal corporation for distribution among the public through ward health associations and arrangements being made with the cinema authorities to screen films on the evils of smoke and how to abate it. The results seem to have been a tad disappointing though, the commission observing in 1933 that despite their collaboration over three years with the Health Department and various ward health associations ‘to use persuasive and educational methods to minimize this source of evil’, little headway had been made. In this, they may not have been too off the mark, the municipal corporation’s own report on publicity being carried out by the newly created department for spreading knowledge about health and hygiene reporting on lectures and use of posters and handbills as regards small pox, cholera, tuberculosis, typhoid, malaria, general sanitation, personal hygiene, maternity, etc., but to the exclusion of smoke nuisance. In 1938, 39,356 lectures were delivered, 23 varieties of handbills and posters printed and circulated, health stalls organised by the ward health associations in different exhibitions and the American method of arranging stall adopted for the Annual Health Week Exhibition. Yet not one mention was made of any specific anti-smoke propaganda. Infectious diseases and personal hygiene, it would seem, continued to remain the focus as it had been from the very inception of the municipal health department. 

Notwithstanding, the commission continued to have faith, being convinced that the various health exhibitions held in the city was awakening at least some interest in the public in the issue of clean air. Evidence that property owners and occupiers were increasingly realising the benefits and advantages of the use of gas as a smoke-eliminating fuel could be had from the fact that despite the continued prevalence of depressed business conditions, nearly 600 new gas-using appliances had been added in 1933, comprising cookers, grilles, hot plates, ring burners, toasters and other domestic appliances, while appliances for industrial purposes using gas included steam-raising boilers, metal melting and hardening, furnaces, drying ovens, Tinman’s stoves and soldering machines. The next year too, the domestic demand for gas came in for special mention, with new residential buildings being fitted with complete installations for cooking and water-heating purposes, the demand for gas geysers for the latter function being especially marked. And to demonstrate that their endeavours were not addressed to the middle and upper segments alone, posters were distributed among ordinary persons at the Calcutta Health Week demonstrating ways of abating smoke with extra draught. The objective was clear—those who could afford should install electric or gas heating appliances and chimneys, and those who could not should adopt the simple method of fanning the fire strongly for three or four minutes when being lighted, thus eliminating smoke. Press and pamphlets were not alone either, with health and smoke abatement authorities reaching out through other media platforms such as the radio, with a broad-cast by the deputy mayor of Calcutta in 1941 on the persistence of domestic smoke in the wake of increasing population and increasing number of bustees. Once again, the appeal was to all public institutions interested in the health of the city to assist them in propaganda and demonstrations, and thereby help reduce the number of deaths from respiratory diseases, which were greater than the total from any other two single diseases during the cold season. 

The Health Week and commission-related publicity were not the only tasks undertaken by the gas and electricity companies. Looking to attract new consumers they put out advertisements of their own, with electric companies focusing on fans, lights, etc., while the gas companies targeted the space of the kitchen. Advertisements in the press, Sarkar writes, was complimented by way of handouts made of blotting paper, with messages inscribed on them, and door-to-door campaigning, such canvassing continuing well into the 1940s.The Statesman, 17 Mar. 1918; 24 Dec. 1929

| The Statesman, 17 Mar. 1918; 24 Dec. 1929

However, in this success would also lie some of the limits, the OGC reporting in 1944 that they could not connect any additional appliances to their mains during the year as the consumption of gas for industrial and domestic purposes had increased to such an extent that their manufacturing plant and distribution system was loaded to full capacity. As for the CESC, while the area served by them had close to 1.5 million people, merely 57,415 houses were connected with electrical wiring by 1940. 

In Bombay too there was an argument developing by 1915–16 that the health of the city had nearly reached ‘Western’ conditions, affording authorities the opportunity to turn their attention away from infectious disease such as plague, small pox, cholera, malaria, etc., towards dealing with diseases that, although not so infectious and fatal, were the cause of much sickness and suffering. Domestic smoke, however, failed to find much address in the activities of the commission as yet, which, as we saw earlier, concentrated its energy on the small industrial establishments. So even more than in Calcutta, the use of electricity and gas, and the publicity around it by private companies, would form the core of what was possible to do regarding domestic smoke. Things augured well in this regard, significant progress regarding the use of electricity for domestic purposes already being reported by the 1920s: As regards the general tendency of public electricity supply in this city [Bombay], it is interesting to record that the middle-class Indian has not been slow in taking advantage of the domestic amenities which electricity has to offer in the way of refrigerators, water heaters and electric cooking appliances, while the electric dhobi is rapidly gaining favour, and the charcoal sigri will shortly become a suffocating memory. The recent decision of the G.I.P. Railway to install electric cooking apparatus throughout the large restaurant in the new building at their Victoria Terminus constitutes a significant confirmation of the adaptability of this application of electricity to Indian conditions. 

By the 1930s, moreover, the Bombay commission too seems to have realised the value of such publicity, informing the public about the availability of electricity in the Town and Island of Bombay, encouraging its greater use, while electric companies advertised this being available at reduced rates. The Free Electricity Plan | The Times of India, 25 Feb. 1937

The Free Electricity Plan | The Times of India, 25 Feb. 1937

Hotels and restaurants were advised to make greater use of gas and electricity and thus avoid potential complaints from neigh- bours. The actual use of electricity and gas was also noted, the commission observing the marked improvement that these had made in residential areas. ‘It has been noticed’, they wrote in 1933–34, ‘that domestic cooking is now being done on an increasing scale by gas and if this method is adopted much of the domestic smoke will be done away with to the great improvement of the general health of the city.’ However, constraints remained. As in Calcutta, a propaganda officer had been appointed by the Bombay municipality too, to educate the public in matters of public health with the help of latest propaganda material such as slides, films, posters, lectures, etc., but even here, the public outreach did not include matters of smoke and health. The commission repeatedly urged the public to use coke or smokeless fuels such as gas and electricity but did not combine with either the municipality (as in the Calcutta Health Week) or with industry, leaving the latter to advertise their wares rather independently of the commission’s activities. The advertisements were varied and interesting too in the narrative they sought to build. Electric companies, not surprisingly, focused on the good that each particular item could provide, lights and fans continuing to be clear favourites. But they also went beyond this, drawing the consumers’ attention to an entire range of functions that could be delivered far better through the use of electricity. As one advertisement put it: ‘Are you using electricity? Or Only electric light?’ Often the emphasis would be on health and comfort, though occasionally the specific fact of enabling cooking without flame or smoke would also find mention. Electricity: Its Multiple Benefits | The Times of India, 20 Jan. 1937; The Bombay Chronicle, 7 Apr. 1934

Electricity: Its Multiple Benefits | The Times of India, 20 Jan. 1937; The Bombay Chronicle, 7 Apr. 1934

Advertisements for gas appliances were even more pedagogic, instructing the woman of the house on all the potential benefits, in terms of costs and comfort, indeed in terms of becoming properly urban herself! Occasionally, they would also speak to getting rid of smoke too. As the lady in the picture in the centre declares, she always prefers to cook with gas as ‘It is cheap . . . It is clean . . . no smoke, no soot . . . just a clear, bright flame’  The Bombay Chronicle, 25 and 27 Dec. 1930; The Times of India, 17 Sep.1934

| The Bombay Chronicle, 25 and 27 Dec. 1930; The Times of India, 17 Sep.1934

And as bottled gas became available, making possible its use both indoors and outdoors, the figure of the woman interestingly changed with a more Westernised woman and her family emerging as the proper subjects of the enjoyment of a picnic! Once again, among the many benefits would be ‘no smoke or dirt and nothing to go wrong’. Quite evidently, the question of just who and how many among the residents of the city could make such a transition went unasked. Any reduction in smoke, through the adoption of better fuels and new technologies, it would seem, was a task to be performed by only a miniscule minority of the middle class. Not surprisingly, the burden of smoke within households, painstakingly documented by labour activists and health officials from the first decades of the twentieth century, could find little meeting ground with domestic smoke as an urban nuisance, which had come to be a major preoccupation of commissions from around the same time. Picnic with the Comfort of Gas | The Times of India, 27 Jan. 1937; 4 Feb. 1937

Picnic with the Comfort of Gas | The Times of India, 27 Jan. 1937; 4 Feb. 1937

The question of domestic smoke, we have suggested in this chapter, was imbricated in two different concerns—on the one hand was the question of labour and the amenities offered to Indian workers, especially by way of sanitary housing. Numerous enquiries on this count suggested that the availability of good ventilation was near impossible, and domestic kitchens often produced smoke that had little to no outlet, with every available opening being shut off to ensure greater availability of space. Conditions in Calcutta were possibly better on this count than in Bombay, though even there to the extent that cooking was done in living spaces with wood and other biomass used as fuel, in addition to (inferior) coal, the likelihood of suffering on account of smoke would have been high. Indeed, as some reports suggest, given the design of the traditional Indian chula, even middle-class homes would have suffered on this count, though some alternative designs also emerged. And through all this, accounts vacillated between holding habits and cultural values of the working poor responsible for the harms that occurred on account of smoke and other nuisances, or attributing these to labour–capital relations that failed to provide for decent wages and hence also the failure to provide decent housing. 

On the other hand, there was a more generalised concern of the Smoke Nuisances Commissions that worried that domestic smoke, being emitted even closer to the ground in the absence of chimneys in Indian homes, was as much of an urban issue (affecting the city at large rather than individual homes alone) as industrial smoke. Indeed, by the middle of the 1920s, when industrial smoke seems to have been controlled somewhat, the commissions increasingly turned their attention to the health impacts of domestic smoke, viewing it as a bigger public health concern than industrial smoke. Calcutta, however, seems to have worried far more on this count than Bombay, offering detailed analysis of the manifold links between domestic smoke and the harms to health and property. Bombay, by contrast, seems to have worried far more about smoke from small-scale industrial establishments, which too, being often located in dense residential neighbourhoods, were a source of nuisance. However, neither in Calcutta nor in Bombay was the Act amended to include domestic smoke in its ambit, leaving the utilisation of gas and electrical appliances within homes and in commercial establishments as the only available remedy. Manufacturers were keen to market these for commercial reasons, while the commissions were keen to propagate them for their own ends. For the companies, absence of smoke would feature as one among the many advantages that they offered. For the commissions, it was only this dimension that was of essence, highlighting these in their many publicity initiatives. Ultimately, however, in both Calcutta and in Bombay, there was a clear recognition that the extent to which these could be promoted was highly differentiated, being possible only in larger middle-class homes and among the more recently constructed flats. Smoke would thus simultaneously be an urban issue and the burden of individual households, with effective responses to it configured in individual terms. Not quite ‘green consumerism’ but certainly indicative of the different scales on which the question of smoke was articulated in colonial India, to be effectively countered through the use of new energy sources.

Excerpted with permission from Dust and Smoke:: Air Pollution and Colonial Urbanism, India, c.1860-c.1940 by Awadhendra Sharan, Orient Blackswan. You can buy it here.

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