When, in 1888, Seth Harchandrai was elected to the Karachi Municipality, he was just 26 years old. In 1911, he was elected president and during his presidency, he transformed Karachi from a village to a modern city through selfless hard work. In many ways, he can be referred to as the father of modern Karachi.
Harchandrai served selflessly in those days when most people’s interests were solely self-interested and to keep the colonialists happy.
When some Sindhis returned to Karachi after completing their education in Bombay around 1880, they set out to improve the socio-economic situation of the city and its inhabitants. They were impressed by the Parsi and Maratha communities’ socioeconomic efforts there. As a result, these young people who returned from Bombay dreamed of a better Karachi, laying the groundwork for Sindh’s and Karachi’s social transformation.
Diwan Dayaram Jethmal, Diwan Dayaram Gidumal, Prof. Barjauji Padshah, Sadho Noolrai Sadho Hiranand, Korumal Chandanmal Khalnani Nagendranath Gupta, Dr. Mirza, Jafar Fadu, Yusuf Ali Alvi, Diwan Tahilram Khemchand, and Seth Harchandrai Vishandas formed a social welfare association.
They also formed a party, led by Diwan Tahilram Khemchand, to run in the 1887 municipal elections. The driving spirits behind this party were Seth Tahilram, Seth Harchandrai, and Nagendranath Gupta, who were always eager to work for the betterment of the people.
Take a look at the state of the money. When he took over, the municipality had a cash balance of Rs. 2,219,159 and a debt of Rs. 1,098,000. The municipality had Rs. 3,413,589 when he relinquished the charge, debts had only risen by Rs. 120,000, and he had formed a Rs 300,000 reserve fund. While a village was transformed into a modern city, the municipality’s net worth only grew. He did so by overhauling the tax code. He repealed the octroi tax, imposed a new terminal tax, and eliminated refunds for exports to the United Kingdom. All of this change in Karachi happened at a time when the world was at war, and the municipality’s costs were rising, so workers were given pay raises too to compensate for the rising commodity prices.
Seth Harchandrai traveled to Europe, Bombay, and Calcutta to research city laws and how cities are planned and developed. He took that expertise and applied it to Karachi, transforming it into one of the cleanest cities in the world. The city’s streets, which had previously been nothing more than dirt tracks, were transformed into beautiful roads. Along major thoroughfares such as Bunder Road, McLeod Road, and others, footpaths were installed. Elphinstone Street, later regarded as the best in the city, lacked sidewalks and had uneven verges. The street was remodeled during Harchandrai’s presidency. Clifton Road, Lawrence Road, and several other roads were also widened. A new thoroughfare, the Manghopir Road was constructed. All this added to the beauty of the city.
During Harchandrai’s presidency, work on the new municipality building on Bunder Road began. However, due to World War I, work was stopped. The building was finally inaugurated on January 7, 1932, by Jamshed Nausserwanji, the civic body’s president at the time. Speaking at the event, he said that the idea for a new municipality came from Seth Harchandrai, a brilliant man who was deeply patriotic. Engineers from all over the world were consulted. Harchandrai selected the best plan out of several that were submitted.
In 1913, Karachi became the first city of Sindh to have electricity.
Harchandrai was elected to the Indian Legislative Council in 1921 on a non-Muslim Sindh seat. As a result, he was forced to stay in Delhi for extended periods. Therefore, he voluntarily resigned as president of the municipality. The Karachi Daily Gazette, which was published at the time, paid Harchandrai high praise for his contributions to the city. It read:
“We regret that Seth Harchandrai has resigned the most responsible and hard-working president of the Karachi municipality at a time when his services were needed most. The number of councilors has been increased this year and several new people have come in who have no experience of municipal work. A.guide is direly needed under these conditions. “Experience has shown that Seth Harchandrai has been an able and efficient president. He gave so much time to the municipality during the last ten years that his law practice suffered but he did not care in the least. He performed his municipal duties truthfully and honesty and set a glorious example.”
“He conducted the municipality’s meetings with great aplomb and impartiality and gave the right lead to the councilors. There have been times when differences of opinion have arisen among councilors belonging to diverse parties. Instead of misusing his authority, Seth Harchandrai, through his mild-mannered and persuasive tactics, has often been able to resolve factional differences. “The municipality will be lucky indeed it if gets a president who has Seth Harchandrai’s qualities of head and heart.”
He was instrumental in making primary education compulsory for all Karachi children, as well as promoting libraries and reading rooms. He was a life member of the Khaliqdino library and several other reading rooms. In short, Harchandrai was everywhere and at all times to promote education because he truly felt that literacy was the key to national progress.
When a plague epidemic struck Karachi in 1897, Seth Vishandas established a hospital to combat the disease. Seth Keshdas (Seth Vishandas’ nephew) and Seth Harchandrai were in charge of the hospital. Everyone feared approaching a plague-stricken patient, but Seth Harchandrai was unafraid to help the sick. He had nothing but compassion for the unfortunate.
During World War I, Karachi was hit by a wave of influenza, a pandemic similar to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Harchandrai was the chief of the Karachi municipality at the time. Several measures were taken to combat the disease. Mobile dispensaries facilities provided by the municipality under Harchandrai, allowed patients to receive medical care in the privacy of their own homes.
He regularly assisted the maternity home of the Khoja Ismaili Council, Lady Dufferin Hospital, and the Louis Lawrence Institute, as well as obtained financial assistance from the municipality for Gurodas Eye Hospital.
He was a founding member of the Karachi Club, which became extremely popular among educated and wealthy families. He was also a founding member of the Karachi Sindhi Gymkhana and served as its president for a time. He was also involved in the founding of the Hindu Gymkhana, which he helped out with from time to time.
Aside from that, his contribution to social welfare is a highlight of his illustrious career.
These are just a few examples of his municipal work and contributions to the capital of Sindh, Karachi. His work on the legislative front in Dehli, as well as service for rural Sindh, is outstanding too. On 16 February 1928, this great Sindhi son breathed his last.
Some years later, a statue of him was unveiled in front of the Karachi Municipal Building. But sadly, it was removed after India’s partition. The beheaded statue is now kept at Karachi’s Mohatta Palace. Probably he doesn’t need it in his afterlife. He must be very happy and content with what he did in his life, but the younger generations need to learn from him and his selfless service. When we pay tribute to him, we learn something. If people like Harchandrai become role models for us, we can transform the entire Sindh as he did Karachi in just ten years!
Research and compilation credits: Khadim Hussain Soomro Edited by Mir Atta M. Talpur March 24, 2020.