SS Jala Usha, a made-in-Visakhapatnam steamship and the first of its kind to be built within the Indian subcontinent after WW-II, completes its Diamond Jubilee today, 14 March 2023. What started as the vision of two young patriotic businessmen has today metamorphosed into a multifaceted shipbuilding yard, Hindustan Shipyard Limited. Vijjeswarapu Edward Paul, a Vizag heritage enthusiast and aficionado, shares the story behind the birth of the SS Jala Usha ship and the origins of shipbuilding in the port city of Visakhapatnam.
On the occasion of SS Jala Usha completing 75 years, here is an anecdote of the first-ever Visakhapatnam-made ship.
India is known for its maritime trade and its shipbuilding capabilities for many centuries. History records testify that Visakhapatnam was also a port with maritime trade and shipbuilding. But during British rule, Indian shipping was stifled by imposing restrictions on trade routes and freight rate wars with Indian shipping operators to make running their ships uneconomical. They deliberately curtailed the construction of ships in India to safeguard their own shipbuilders back home. This was more evident after the industrial boom and the introduction of steamships.
Inspired by the swadeshi movement, which was started by Gandhi, two patriotic businessmen from Bombay, Walchand Hirachand and Narottam Morarjee, wanted to enter the challenging business of shipping by establishing a company. They purchased an old steamship named SS Loyalty which was on sale. With that purchase, they registered a company with the name Scindia Steam Navigation Company on 27 March 1919 in Bombay with a capital investment of Rs. 4.5 crores. After necessary repairs and modifications to the ship, SS Loyalty sailed from Bombay to London on 5 April 1919 with an Indian flag for the first time, making it a historic day for Indian shipping
Both the founders sailed on the same ship on its first voyage to London in 1919. Fully realising the fact that Indian shipping would not have a future without a shipbuilding yard in India, they started discussions in that direction with a British expert, Knudsen, on shipbuilding. He was brought to India to select a site and prepare plans. He selected a site in Calcutta. But while preliminary arrangements were being made, he, unfortunately, passed away. Subsequently, the founder Chairman of Scindia Steam Navigation Company Ltd. also passed away on 5 November 1929. The plans for constructing a shipbuilding yard were held up for some time. The project was again revived in 1933 by Walchand Hirachand.
Scindia held discussions with Calcutta port authorities but found it difficult to get a suitable site there. Then in 1937, their technical experts held discussions with Bombay port authorities. But that also could not be finalised. Ultimately, their choice fell in Visakhapatnam. In the newly constructed inner harbour at Visakhapatnam, the authorities did not provide any concessions or privileges in providing the site to Scindias. In 1940, the company appointed Messers Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners, London, as consultants. A representative of the consulting engineers came to India in September 1940 to inspect the site and draw the plans. He had drawn plans for two ships to begin with, providing a provision to construct four ships of 8,000 to 10,000 DWT capacity in a year. This site lies at the end of the entrance channel to the then newly built Visakhapatnam inner harbour. Incidentally, this site appears to be very close to the site where wooden sailships used to be built at Visakhapatnam much before the British arrived there.
The company has acquired 55 acres of land for shipbuilding and made negotiations to acquire another 300 acres for building townships for the staff. The shipyard site, along with the township, was named Gandhigram in keeping with the founder’s patriotic fervour. With the same spirit, the President of the Indian National Congress, Dr Babu Rajendra Prasad, was invited to lay the foundation stone for the Scindia Shipbuilding Yard in Visakhapatnam. The foundation stone was laid on 21 June 1941.
The project materialisation was doubtful as that was wartime. On the other hand, the government pursuing a scorched earth policy – a military policy involving deliberate and usually widespread destruction of property and resources (such as housing and factories) so that an invading enemy cannot use them – asked Scindia to be ready to destroy the yard in Visakhapatnam if an emergency arose. Unfortunately, that situation arose with the Japanese bombing of Visakhapatnam on 6 April 1942. Fortunately, the shipyard was not destroyed. This posed a new threat. The Scindia had decided to transfer all the machinery and stores to Bombay in consultation with the government. After two years, the government permitted them to restart the work on a small scale as the port was serving as a wartime base for the Royal Navy in the Bay of Bengal.
Ship construction was started in 1946 by laying keels for two steamships. The first keel for the first ship was laid on 22 June 1946. The keel for the second was laid on 22 August 1946. Both were of 8000 DWT capacity and were designed in the United Kingdom. The first vessel was launched by the first Prime Minister of India Sri Jawaharlal Nehru on 14 March 1948. This ship was earlier named by Nehru as SS Jala Usha.
This day, 14 March 2023, completes 75 years of the launching of the first steamship to be built in India, SS Jala Usha. The event that took place 75 years ago was a historic day for India and a proud moment for Visakhapatnam.
After Independence, the government of India was planning to have a shipbuilding yard in the public sector. In 1948, the board of directors of Scindia sent a proposal to the government stating that they are prepared to hand over the undertaking, if they so desired, at the actual cost incurred by the company up to date. After nearly three years of negotiations, a final decision was taken. After another year, the government of India finally took over the Scindia Shipbuilding Yard in Visakhapatnam in 1952 and renamed it Hindustan Shipyard Limited.
For many years, the shipbuilding yard and the adjoining housing colony were known as Scindia. A statue of Walchand Hirachand was erected at Scindia junction commemorating his services to Visakhapatnam.
The residents of Visakhapatnam are very familiar with the name Scindia always connecting it to the shipyard. The name Scindia attached to it had an inexplicable story. The Scindia Steam Navigation Company Ltd were the owner of the Shipbuilding Yard in Visakhapatnam. So it was known as Scindia Shipbuilding Yard. Scindia is the house name of the rulers of the princely state of Gwalior
The Maharajah of Gwalior purchased a ship by the name Empress of India in 1914. He renamed it Loyalty and converted it into a Hospital ship for Indian troops during the First World War. After the war, it was put on sale by the Maharajah.
The founders of the company purchased their first ship SS “Loyalty” from Maharaja of Gwalior in 1919. Maharajah had not retained any financial or any other interest in the company after its sale. But this name somehow remained permanently attached to the company. Why the company retained that name had never been made clear. It was just a curious association.
Compiled by Vijjeswarapu Edward Paul
Mobile: +91 94401 73695
Email: [email protected]
Stay tuned to Yo! Vizag website and Instagram for more heritage stories.
Discussion about this post