India’s First Bio-Gas Plant

This is an expanded version of my lead feature published in Sunday Mid-Day on 2 December 2018 as “The Lights Go Off in Matunga” (PDF). Thanks to Dr Shubhada Pandya and Dr Pratibha Kathe of the Acworth Municipal Leprosy Hospital and Museum.

A pioneering innovation in the quest for renewable energy will soon lose a landmark first made in Mumbai. The site of one of the world’s first succesful bio-gas plants – built in 1901 by British civil engineer Charles Carkeet James (1863-1942) – will be cleared in coming weeks for a new medical students’ hostel to be developed at the historic Acworth Municipal Hospital for Leprosy in Matunga.

Charles Carkeet James, M. Inst. C.E. (1863-1942), sanitary and water engineer to the Bombay Municipal Corporation, author of “Oriental Drainage” (1902) and “Drainage Problems of the East” (1906) (Photo circa 1902 from irishwaterwayshistory.com)

C.C. James was a sanitary and drainage expert from Cornwall, England fascinated by problems of waste disposal in tropical conditions, where organic matter decomposed rapidly. His techniques for extracting combustible gas from sewage using air-less or “anaeorobic” composting are used in cities across the world today.

After coming to Bombay to design the Tansa Dam Water Works to increase piped water supply to the Island City in 1889, James was deputed by the new Municipal Commissioner Harry Arbuthnot Acworth (1849-1933) to work on the drainage of what was then known as the “Homeless Leper Asylum”. Established in 1890 in response to public panic of contagion from destitute lepers begging in the streets of Bombay, seven wards for 300 inmates were built on the site of an old rifle range in Matunga, through a campaign for public subscriptions led by industrialist Sir Dinshaw Petit.

Situated on a sloping ridge near the villages of Gowari, Khara and Wadala, and with no existing drainage network, the colony’s sludge soon overflowed the sinks and cess-pits James first built on the ridge. Already fearful of the lepers in their midst, the villagers threatened to file suit against the Commissioner for pollution in 1893.

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