Plague lessons — and warnings

Pasts without Prejudice
Last Updated 05 April 2020, 05:50 IST

From disaster springs opportunity” -- so we would like to imagine. Are we, in this unprecedented crisis, at a unique moment that will allow us to reset social relations, rather than reassert old hierarchies? Our history – particularly the history of the devastating plague of 1898 in Bengaluru/Mysuru and its afterlife – offers far more proof of the latter, of a missed opportunity for rethinking ideas of the public good.

Historians have shown that it was not just the illness and deaths that assumed significance between 1896 (when the plague first hit Bombay Presidency) and the early 20th century. As JM Stephens, Municipal Engineer to the Bangalore Municipality 1898-1912, (the period of the plague in Bangalore) admitted “Plague regulations…added greatly to the miseries of the poor and afflicted people…the people dreaded the plague regulations more than the disease itself.” There was flight from the city, by those who feared isolation, physical examination with no concern for privacy, caste taboos or gosha, inoculation, and generally by those who feared an administration that investigated illness as if it were a crime. But there was also open revolt, as among municipal workers who struck work. Scavengers left town ‘without permission’ at a time when there was no water-borne conservancy and night soil was removed by hand, leading to a massive urban crisis of its own. Other weapons wielded by the weak included throwing bodies into European compounds, or propping them up against European doors.

Revolutionary ideas of public health followed the efforts of Edwin Chadwick during the time of cholera in 1842 England. The late 19th century plague was India’s Chadwickian moment which foregrounded the possible virtues of town planning: Bombay was the first to get a City Improvement Trust (1898). This was followed by the unusual choice of Mysore city (1903). Mysore already had a Building Committee in place since 1881 to clear the ‘insanitary’ Fort complex, the abode of the princely Wodeyar family. But clearly, Mysore was no match to the industrial squalor of Bombay.

What the records of the Mysore City Improvement Trust Board reveal is the extraordinary anxiety of upper caste bureaucrats to preserve the caste order in the extensions that were built to rehouse those displaced from within the Fort. To begin with, sites chosen for the extensions had to be cleared of the holageris and holeyas and others pushed out to sites from where they posed no pollution threat. But more important, new plans were made ‘castewar’ (the word that was used in official files) not only to assure large plots to a predominantly brahmin bureaucracy, but also to ensure that there would be no sale or rental transaction that would upset the carefully recreated social hierarchy.

The new extensions in Bangalore were similarly apportioned, so it was not the dishoused poor who relocated in Basavanagudi and Malleswaram. “Hardly any really poor have gone to live in the extensions,” said Resident Lt Col Robertson in 1906, since they could not afford the new extensions.

In other words, town planning, which elsewhere held out the promise of a general public good, in ensuring an answer to the intractable problems of the industrial city, and minimum amenities to the city’s population as a whole, was at its foundational moment in India enmeshed in the hierarchies of caste. That Mysore got its broad avenues, its parks and other public spaces resulted from another logic, a new aesthetic associated with making Mysore the royal capital.

A much more humane approach was followed in rehousing the poor of Blackpally (below Miller’s tank) and Knoxpet (below Ulsoor tank) in ‘plague proof’ Fraser Town. It successfully involved local cantonment elites in provisioning for the poor. Stephens wrote: “It meant laying aside the official conventionality and joining the stricken people in a fellowship of sorrow…for the good of poor.”

Fraser Town, with its small cottages surrounded by open spaces, stone foundations and floors and ‘Mangalore tile’ roofs fulfilled a different vision. It staved off infection, no doubt, but it also kindled the small hope of a virtuous city, as many took advantage of rent-free accommodation for six months, or low prices to lay claim to their right to the city.

(Published 04 April 2020, 19:19 IST)

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