The British rebuilt Bombay after the Plague of 1896, Mumbai needs to be rebuilt now

Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, must be re-developed if a fresh lease of life is to be given to Mumbai. British India took advantage of the Plague then. COVID-19 provides another opportunity to the city

The British rebuilt Bombay after the Plague of 1896, Mumbai needs to be rebuilt now

Sujata Anandan

As the number of deaths due to Coronavirus in Maharashtra exceeds all other states in the country, and India overtakes China, it might be worthwhile to recall the similarities between this pandemic and the bubonic plague of 1896-97, more than 120 years ago.

That pandemic, as this one, too came to India and then spread to the rest of the world from China and, once again, because the then ruling Qing dynasty, as the Communist regime this century, failed to take proper measures to control it before it spread across the world.

But given the relatively primitive and poor transport and communication in the 19thcentury, it took some time to reach the Chinese shores and then to India and from Indian shores to elsewhere.

The British rebuilt Bombay after the Plague of 1896, Mumbai needs to be rebuilt now

The Qing dynasty took no steps to prevent the plague possibly because they would have had to quarantine the infected people and they did not want to separate them from their families.

But once the British realised the plague had come to India, they had no such qualms. They began to segregate, separate, raid and quarantine Indians quite ruthlessly. But they also saw it as an opportunity to remake the city of Bombay as the Urbs Prima, the first city in the world (Lutyen's Delhi came much later), recalls Alisha Sadikot founder-director of the Inheritage Project, who conducts heritage walks through Bombay to bring people up on its history.

They widened its streets, let in a lot of air and sunlight into the homes and sea water into the sewage systems to clean them and flush out the rats that were causing the plague.

Rats, however, continue to prevail. In the modern day, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, which got a fright during the Surat plague of 1996 a century later, tried their best to eliminate the rats but they continue to proliferate.

However, as in 1896-97, the Maharashtra government has the unique opportunity to remake the city in a more modern image as had the British. The plague had affected mostly Indians living cheek-by-jowl in the chawls of South Bombay, including those in textile mill compounds (Bombay then was mostly a textile city, the British had set up those mills to make up the shortfall of cotton from the United States following their civil war of 1863).

The British then started to develop the suburbs which then began from Dadar, regarded as the centre of Mumbai this century, and pushed residences further north to Mahim and Matunga. Today, as Dharavi in the region of those far-off suburbs has acquired the notoriety of being Asia's largest slum, it is posing the government and the municipal corporation its greatest challenge in fighting the disease.

The British colonial government could be arbitrary about raiding the chawls and other Indian homes during the plague to identify and isolate the infected but a democratically elected government cannot. However, it can take a leaf out of the British governor’s book and allow the vast migrant population of Mumbai to return to their home states, even as the British had done in 1897.

Then they left on trains and some on ships to far away shores, thus carrying the disease to other countries. Now the migrants are largely walking home, though after the third lockdown buses and trains have been made available to those who want to leave.

Traditionally, Bombay's settlers have been largely migrants from the hinterland whether in white collar or blue collar jobs. Dharavi has not only a north Indian population but also South Indians and those from states like Orissa, West Bengal and Himachal Pradesh, the only commonality between them is that they all work in the unorganised sector as plumbers, electricians, taxi drivers, domestic help et al.

I am taking an unpopular view here to suggest that everybody living in slums and chawls in Mumbai willing to return home should be allowed to go and others moved out of Dharavi into transit camps.

The government should take the opportunity to demolish these shanty towns and rebuild the area with one room studio apartments, with bathrooms inside each apartment - in the early 20th century that is exactly what the British had done to clean up the city and improve the hygiene of its choc-a-bloc tenements. It made a huge difference to both lifestyle and health of its citizens.

Strangely, then as now, the plague had been more devastating in Bombay and Pune and the British government had to fight hard, amid caste and religious reservations, to isolate and quarantine the people. They wanted to stay together, which is why Bombay has so many community settlements - Hindu Colony, Parsi Colony, Pathare Prabhu colony etc.

The British rebuilt Bombay after the Plague of 1896, Mumbai needs to be rebuilt now

They built two arterial roads (Sydenham Road, now known as Mohammad Ali Road after its ghettoisation by Muslims) which, along with Princess Street (mostly Christian and Parsi), were designed to let in sea water and light and air into the dark, dank quarters that existed along them at the time. Sadly, these streets have gone back to being dank, damp and densely populated.

Although Mohammad Ali Road is now being redeveloped by a trust set up under government sanction by the Syedna, the spiritual head of the Bohra community, according to Abuzar Zakir, an administrator at the Saifee Hospital, which was also beautifully rebuilt by the Sydena and today is an outstanding landmark in South Mumbai, it has not been easy as the residents seem to be resisting development and modernisation as fiercely as native residents of chawls and community settlements had done during the British era.

However, both the government and the trust are determined to give the area a complete makeover and it is with the same determination and spirit that the government must now descend on Dharavi, the remaining chawls on the textile mill lands and other slums of Mumbai to give the people a cleaner environment to live in.

How did the British finally combat the plague?

They were a determined people and sent for a Ukrainian Jewish doctor Waldemar Haffkine (after whom the landmark Haffkine institute is named) from Calcutta to research and find a vaccine. He had the vaccine within a year, first innoculated himself amid bitter opposition by native Indians to it. Then the Khoja community volunteered and when they were found to be immune to the plague, others followed.

But the British rulers were firm believers in science. I am appalled that the present Indian government could even ask the Indian Council of Medical Research to test the prophylactic powers of Gangajal in preventing Coronavirus. It’s a relief that the he ICMR turned down the suggestion.

The first vaccine for plague in the world came from India. With enough application of scientific temper as Dr Haffkine had done, and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had wanted in India, I am sure we can crack Coronavirus too. Provided, of course, that voodoo remedies like gomutra are not allowed to get in the way.

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