Updated: September 3, 2017 11:46:27 am
Back in the mid-19th century when Britain dominated over a large portion of the world, the port cities of the colonies were designed so as to allow them to exploit surrounding hinterlands most effectively. Bombay, in the British imperial arrangement in India, occupied a position of utmost economic importance. The geographical positioning of the city, being conducive to trading opportunities, had resulted in the emergence of Bombay as the centre of investment by both Indian and European. By 1850, the population of Bombay had reached half a million possessing a cosmopolitan character.
However, while the colonial greed of the British State led to the distinction of Bombay as a centre of trading glory, it did not lead to a refinement of the city’s urban environment. “Government and municipal expenditure was directed more readily towards the development of its commercial infrastructure than the improvement of its social conditions, towards roads, rather than houses or drains,” writes historian Rajnarayan Chandavarkar on the nature of industrialisation in Bombay.
By mid-19th century, however, the British government and the Indian elites realised that the uneven nature of Bombay’s growth was not sustainable as it would eventually lead to diseases and epidemics, which would turn out to be all the more detrimental to European interests. The initiative to reform the urban landscape resulted in the effort to reorder Bombay’s economic and spatial landscape. The establishment of the Vihar Water Works, comprehensive drainage schemes and land reclamation projects were all attempts at building a more sustainable Bombay during the period from 1849 to 73.
Rooted in the overall nature of the British colonial enterprise, the reform in Bombay was deeply influenced by the environmental movement in Victorian Britain and in many ways once again promoted British interests. Unsurprisingly, the uneven nature of reform was met with strong resistance from the Indian inhabitants of Bombay. The conflicts that emerged between native and imperial interests resulted in a chaotic nature of urban development, leading to one of the worst epidemic outbursts in Bombay’s history that occurred in the late nineteenth century.
On Tuesday, Bombay yet again experienced the wrath of its inefficient infrastructure as the city fought against one of the worst floods in its history. From people getting stranded for hours on a stretch to roadways and railways grinding to a halt, the city yet again experienced the product of uneven urban planning. As we try to decipher the loopholes in the infrastructure planning of India’s financial capital that led to the deluge it recently saw, here is a reflection upon the drainage problems that had led to the bubonic plague of the 1890s and the attempts at further urban development which were thwarted by the conflicting business interests of the colonisers and the locals.
The bubonic plague and what it revealed about Bombay’s uneven development
In 1892, the health officer of Bombay had remarked upon the inadequacy of the drainage system and predicted that “there will surely come a time when the population of each district will not be able to live in health.” Four years down the line, the outbreak of bubonic plague in the city was the realisation of the worst fears of Bombay’s officials. The first case of bubonic plague occurred on September 23, 1896 in Mandvi, a congested locality near the docks. From here it soon spread to every other part of the city. Reportedly, the plague led to a death toll of 1900 people per week through the first year of its outbreak.
Initially, the municipal officials were hoping the problem would die away soon. However, the number of cases reported on death by plague kept rising and the officials soon had to set up two plague committees. In October 1897, the municipal commissioner PCH Snow submitted a report on the cause of the outbreak. While the cause remained ambiguous, the report detailed out that the spread of the plague was definitely poorly constructed and overflowing drains, damp homes, flooded localities and rotting grains in godowns. “It is therefore, highly probable that, although the sanitary condition of the city has improved in all outward appearances, the general conditions of health have deteriorated,” wrote Snow in his report.
The initial response to the plague outbreak was segregation and hospitalisation. In October 6, 1896 a government order asked all persons suspected of having plague to be removed to hospitals and separated from the rest of the population. Later, fairs and pilgrimages were stopped and road and rail travellers interrupted for inspection. By late 1897 the segregation drive by the government led to an acute shortage in the population of cooks, tailors, barbers people involved in everyday economic activities.
While the city somehow survived the first two years of the plague, the authorities came to the realisation of the long term civic improvement which was necessary for the health of the city. Accordingly, the Bombay City Improvement Trust (BCIT) was set up in 1898. As documented by historian Mariam Dossal, “the specific tasks assigned to the BCIT were to remove insanitary housing, develop the northern part of the island to reduce overcrowding and undertake a large number of new housing projects.”
Under the BCIT, improvement projects like roads being widened, unhygienic buildings being pulled down and low-lying lands being drained were carried out. Between 1899 and 1900 the Trust completed the Dadar, Matunga, Wadala and Sion schemes to provide additional space for expansion to the north of the city.
When the achievements of the Trust was reviewed ten years later, it was realised that an acute shortage of housing existed for the poor, which was seen as the most urgent need for the city. Responding to the matter, former municipal commissioner, Arthur Crawford published a pamphlet in 1908 in which he detailed out the opposition that urban development programs face from landlords and industrialists. He laid out that Bombay’s housing needs had to be addressed in agreement with civic requirements, foremost being the water, drainage and waste management systems. However, any attempt to develop the city on these lines, he said was always thwarted by the city’s rich landlords.
Despite Crawford’s comprehensive review of what had led to the city’s disorganised development, the city never came up with an overarching plan for urban development. Over hundred years after the city emerged out of the disastrous plague, the haphazard nature of Bombay’s development can hardly be ignored. Housing the richest inhabitants of the country on one hand the shabbiest slums on the other, the visibly chaotic urban planning of Bombay continues to threaten the existence of Mumbai. The recent flood just underlined the same, again.
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