Hormusji Nowroji
Hormusji Nowroji

And so, the Kilpauk Water Works completed a century earlier this week. In the spate of articles that appeared, there was much mention of JW Madeley, the Special Engineer of the Water and Drainage Works of the Corporation and deservedly so. But what was forgotten was that the water works would have never become a reality had it not been for the effort of another man, and an Indian to boot — Hormusji Nowroji. In fact, Nowroji’s work predates that of Madeley and it would be no exaggeration to refer to him as the ‘father of piped water supply’ in the city.

Piped water to Madras homes was given serious consideration from 1877 but the government gave its nod only in 1904. It then commissioned Nowroji to work out a plan for it. A Parsi, he was no stranger to Madras. Born in 1860, he had graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering Degree from the College of Engineering, now at Guindy. Having joined the Corporation, he became the Assistant Drainage Engineer in 1882 and by 1890 had risen to the post of Assistant Sanitary Engineer. In 1904, he became the first Indian to be promoted to the post of Engineer at the Corporation, also simultaneously being Sanitary Engineer to the Government of Madras.

Nowroji began planning and estimating the time and costs required for the Water Works project sometime in 1905. The task was tricky, given that the city is one with hardly any gradient anywhere, and so required careful thought when it came to calculating water heads and pressures. The committee that he reported to was nothing short of stellar. It comprised J. Pennycuick, the Chief Engineer who later won everlasting fame as the father of the Mullaiperiyar Dam, J.A. Jones, Sanitary Engineer, after whom the Jones Tower in the Red Hills Reservoir and Jones Road in Saidapet are named, and Col W.G. King, Sanitary Commissioner, in whose memory we have the King Institute of Preventive Medicine, Guindy. The Nowroji Report as it was called, was submitted to the Government in 1907 and duly accepted.

Of course, an Indian could not be expected to be in charge of the execution of such a prestigious project and J.W. Madeley was appointed Special Engineer heading a team comprising F.A. Adlard, J.E. Hensman, F.T. Newland, T.A. Pereira and Nowroji. Work, however, progressed entirely on the basis of Nowroji’s report, with him being virtually in charge till 1912, when having realised that the post of Special Engineer would never be his, he took premature retirement. His services were immediately snapped up by the Mysore Government, which appointed him Chief Engineer. He shifted to Bangalore where he died in the 1940s.

Nowroji had extensive property in the Kilpauk area, which is why a road there is named after him. More importantly, at least four Indian towns – Chennai, Kanchipuram, Thoothukudi and Bellary owe their water supply to him, for he designed all their water works. Such a man is worthy of better commemoration.

This article appeared in The Hindu, under the Hidden Histories column dated December 20, 2014