We live in an age of shortages, be it electricity, gas and water, all three that sustain modern life. Before these three utilities were supplied to our houses on a predictable basis, life was considered simple …or was it. Last week following a tip from my dear friend Khalid Mahmood, a former Wapda audit officer, I went to see the very first power plant that was set up in Lahore. Located inside the government offices on the McLeod-Cooper Road crossing, where today stands a grid station, I managed to find the place. It was locked up at the end of a complex of buildings. I was informed that the machinery had been sold as junk, and this was, allegedly, a very recent happening. I have my doubts. You do not sell the very first power plant of Lahore, like the very first water pump, steam-powered at that, which supplied water to the ‘Paniwalla Talab’, from 1881 onwards, is very much there. But that is a subject I will dwell on later. My search was to find the man who brought electricity to Lahore.
Few men have contributed more, even by modern standards, to the industrial development of Lahore, and the Punjab, than Lala Harkishen Lal (1864-1937), whose grandson today lives in Gulberg in Lahore, for his father K.L. Gauba, converted to Islam in his father’s lifetime, much to his alarm. For me he is Lahore’s Mr. Electricity, the man who truly propelled Lahore into the industrial age. We have deliberately forgotten him, and let me be honest, because he was not a Muslim. He launched Lahore into modern banking, into power generation, into insurance, into modern newspaper production, into modern flour milling, and of all things, into organising political parties on sound modern lines. In every respect he was a genius, a man much before his time and the man who for the first time clashed with the authorities over the introduction of pro-feudal legislation, a clash that cost him immensely.
This piece is to introduce you to Lala Harkishen Lal, who was born to a Khatri family in Layyah, now in Sargodha district, in 1864. After doing well in his Matriculation examination, he set forth for Lahore, and because he was not well-off, he walked all the way to Lahore, a 200-mile trek that he remembered for the rest of his life. He joined Government College, Lahore, where he excelled, and on a scholarship set off to study in Cambridge University in England, where he managed a Tripos in Mathematics with distinction. On his return he joined Government College, Lahore, as a mathematics lecturer. In his room at GC, as in any room where he lived for the rest of his life, he hung pictures of beggars to remind him of his humble beginnings.
In those days Sardar Dyal Singh Majithia was doing well in his business enterprises, and Harkishen was on good terms with him. Dyal Singh advised him that a man can only do what he likes if he has the money, and for that getting involved in business is critical. Harkishen took this advice seriously and launched a career in business in 1895 by becoming the Honorary Secretary of the Punjab National Bank. A year later he launched the Bharat Insurance Company in Lahore. Given the success of his own company, Majathia made him one of three trustees while launching ‘The Tribune’ newspaper, as also a trustee when his college and library was launched on Nisbet Road. In 1910 he was instrumental in launching the Dyal Singh College, located just near his library.
By 1901 he was in a hurry to industrialise Lahore, and in the next five years set up Punjab Cotton Press Company, the People’s Bank of India, the Amritsar Bank, the Kanpur Flour Mills, as well as six other factories. By now he was known as the richest man in Lahore, and this led to him making enemies among the feudal who disliked him immensely. The reason being that as a banker he was beginning to buy up their lands after most of them defaulted on loans from his numerous banks. Sadly, this moving into the domain of landowners, thanks to land acquisition triggered by bank defaults, was beginning to hurt the British, who depended on the feudal to supply men for their wars all over the world.
The British faced a dilemma. On the one hand the landowners of Punjab were loyal to them, but on the other hand they needed industrialisation to better exploit the assets of Punjab. It was in this context that the Punjab governor approached Lala Harkishen Lal to set up the Lahore Electricity Supply Company, and in 1912 the very first electric supply plant was launched on McLeod Road. It must come as a surprise to many that the Mela Ram Textile Mills, then located just next to Data Darbar, started off after Harkishen was able to supply him with electricity, which was given on the understanding that the shrine would be provided with free supply. Both Mela Ram and Harkishen shared the cost.
His growing financial success saw him being opposed by not only feudal landlords - who owed him a lot of money - but by the lackeys of these feudals, namely religious forces like the Arya Samaj and the Muslim clergy, who all blamed their poverty on moneylenders. A run on his bank took place and a bankrupt Harkishen left for Dera Ghazi Khan to practice law.
His greatest ‘enemy’ was Michael O’Dwer, Punjab’s Lt. Governor, who accused him of fanning the anti-Rowlett Bill. Lala Harkishen Lal was sent to prison for life. He was released once the British made peace with Congress. In this period the British had introduced the Land Alienation Act of 1900, which made sure moneylenders were not able to acquire the land of the feudals in Punjab, even if they defaulted.
This was legislation that changed the very politics and economics of Punjab. Lala Harkishen responded by organising the Congress Party in Punjab. His much later opposition to the Non-Cooperation Movement led to the Congress being given a few ministries. From Punjab Harkishen and Mian Fazl-e-Hussain were made ministers. He was on the rise again.
In this time he was able to return all his debts and was in business again. He moved with speed and set up the New People’s Bank of North India, and soon he was establishing new factories. A time soon came when he was chairman of more companies than anyone else in the entire subcontinent.
As the clouds of a recession covered Europe, his industrial and financial empire began to slow down, and in a time of growing crisis he passed away on Feb 13, 1937. Ten years later his palatial house on Lahore’s Queen’s Road was converted into the Fatima Jinnah Medical College. Little that we may realise today, but his legacy lives on in different forms. Lahore owes him much for trying to propel it into the modern industrial and financial age. But then he paid a heavy price. Feudalism still reigns supreme.
Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2015