Existing as it does across from Lalbaug’s bustling Chiwda Galli, it is easy to overlook the far quieter Gas Company Lane. Compared to the chaos and colour of the Lalbaug market, this stretch has little to offer by way of distraction or entertainment. And yet, walk down to the end of the winding road, and you will come across a bit of the city’s history on a wall. Ravaged by the 100-odd years that it has stood there and trellised with Peepul roots, the stone wall still bears a single slab with the following words carved into it: ‘B.G. Co. Ltd. B. 1912’.
Watch What Else Is Making News
Aside from the name of the lane, this wall of black basalt is the last indication that an important milestone in the history of Mumbai’s civic infrastructure — the Bombay Gas Company Works — once stood here.
The Bombay Gas Company, which was formed in 1862, set up its gas works in Parel in 1866. This was in response to the growing demand for street lighting and other civic amenities, following the appointment in 1865 of Arthur Crawford as the city’s first municipal commissioner.
The demand for gas, both for domestic and industrial consumption had been growing, and, in fact, the city had seen the first instance of gas lights for domestic use back in 1833, when Ardaseer Cursetjee Wadia used coal gas to illuminate his house in Mazgaon. He had even installed a plant for the production of coal gas on the premises.
It is believed that the then governor of Bombay, John FitzGibbon, visited Wadia’s house and was impressed by the use of gas for illumination. In the same year, according to ‘The B.E.S.T Story’ by S N Pendsay, street-lighting for the city was first proposed, though it appeared only in 1843 in the form of kerosene lamps.
The more efficient gas lamps appeared in Mumbai only after Crawford’s appointment. As Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra note in their book Bombay: The Cities Within, he had his work cut out for him as he found that “civic problems had reached gargantuan proportions. The mortality rate was extremely high due to neglect of health services, drainage, sanitation and other civic amenities, such as the condition of streets and lighting”.
The first streets to be lit up with gas lights were Esplanade Road (now Mahatma Gandhi Road), Churchgate Street (now Veer Nariman Road) and Bhendi Bazaar. Pendsay writes, “It was quite an excitement for the Bombayites. Crowds of people would follow the lamp-lighter. They would watch him do it with almost a sense of wonder. The idea of gas-lighting caught on so well that several well-to-do citizens donated large ornamental gas-lamps for being put up at some important spots in the city.”
The joy of the people who lived in the vicinity of the gas plant in Parel, however, was not so unmixed. The fine black dust that wafted out from the works coated every surface, and the stench of the fumes was unbearable. It only added to the pollution already caused by the numerous mills operating in the area, a fact that is memorialised in Dilip Chitre’s poem, The View from Chinchpokli.
The poet says in the poem, “I breathe in the sulphur dioxide emitted by the Bombay Gas Company, blended with specks of cotton/And carbon particles discharged by the mills/That clothe millions of loins.”
Rajendra Sawant, a travel agent who was born in the nearby Peru chawl and still lives there, recalls how the walls of the houses in the area would be covered in a film of black grime almost all the time. “It was very difficult to get it off, you can still see traces of it on old buildings. If you dig into the ground, you’ll see the layer of black dust,” he says.
The plant was shut down when the Bombay Gas Company’s licence was cancelled by the BMC in 1981, as preference for the cleaner natural gas grew. Street and public lighting, of course, had transitioned to electricity much earlier, beginning with the electrification of Crawford Market in 1882. The 400-km pipeline network the Company had laid down to supply gas across the city lay unused until recently, when it was announced that these would now be used to lay fibre optic cables for the telecom sector. The plant has given way to residential structures.