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Rat trap

Ahead of a medical history conference, Rachel Lopez looks at how the Plague of 1896 changed Mumbai.
The next time you drive down Princess Street, Hughes Road or Mohammedali Road, remember the bubonic plague epidemic that struck Bombay between 1896 and 1914.  The streets were constructed – and several parts of central Mumbai reorganised – in an effort to ensure that the unsanitary conditions that nurtured the bacillus that left 183,984 people dead.
SM Edwardes wasn’t exaggerating when he said in his 1920 gazetteer that the plague “marked the zenith of Bombay’s misfortunes”. The fatal disease, with no known cure at the time, killed 1,900 people per week in its first year, prompted half the city’s 850,000 residents to flee. With the fear that trade would grind to a halt in such the lucrative port and the belief that the plague was caused by miasma or disease-carrying vapours that rise out of claustrophobic surroundings, the British reacted in the only way they knew how: they decided to break down the remaining boundaries of their walled city and shift its population to new neighbourhoods.
The Bombay City Improvement Trust was created in 1989 to create a healthy city by ventilating and decongesting its busiest parts of the city. Over the next few years, as Edwardes noted, the BIT doubled the number of roads, extended the city’s boundaries all the way to Sion and helped transform Mumbai from a trading port into a big city in the process.

In its 35-year term, before being absorbed into the municipal corporation, the BIT helped replace slums at Nagpada with planned low-cost housing for workers, build blocks of chawls in Agripada, near present-day Bombay Central, and razed Dongri Hill to create buildings and recreational areas for the cramped slums nearby. The 90,000 square yards of reclaimed land that now comprises Cuffe Parade, the Worli seafront and promenade and the planned residential areas that now comprise the Parsi, Hindu and other colonies in Dadar and Matunga are also BIT initiatives. While the BIT headquarters now houses the municipal ENT hospital near Bombay Gym, projects like Parel’s BIT chawls and the Veermata Jijabai Technical Institute (VJ formerly stood for Victoria Jubilee) still thrive.

In addition to making the authorities realise the need to protect the workforce, the plague also “gave the British the scare of their lives”, said medical historian Mridula Ramanna referring to the plague riots that rose out of insensitive government measures to cleanse the city. Such strategies as the forcible fumigation of houses, branding of infected homes marked UHH or Unfit for Human Habitation, public examinations, organising plague camps without gender or caste segregation and washing corpses in violation of religious taboos caused outrage. “That kind of intrusion went against the grain of caring,” said Ramanna.
Local acceptance of British measures came only after the support from Jamshetji Tata, who vaccinated himself and his family, and the Aga Khan who endorsed the vaccine for the Ismaili community. “The plague not only made the British realise that healthcare had to be a priority to keep a port like Bombay safe, they also understood that their procedures are pointless unless without local cooperation,” said Ramanna. Government focus changed from interventionist measures to preventive ones from then on, proof of their success being the successful containment of Mumbai’s next big disease, influenza in the 1920s. Infant vaccinations for infectious diseases like smallpox and polio continue across India to this day

British buildings and medical initiatives aren’t the only existing reminders of Mumbai’s dark years. Christian crosses, erected to ward off the disease or in gratitude for sparing a neighbourhood, still stand at Khotachiwadi, Parel Village and around Bandra. St Peter’s Seaside Cemetery in Bandra is still locally called the “plague cemetery” though as small business have been built over other plague graves at Jari Mari Road in the same neighbourhood. Bandra’s Ranwar village still invokes St Roque and St Sebastian to save them from “plague and pestilence” when they recite the community rosary.

The plague laboratory, which moved to Government House in Parel from its original location at JJ Hospital, is now the Haffkine Institute for vaccine research, named after the Russian bacteriologist and plague vaccine creator, Waldemar Haffkine. Dr Acacio Viegas, who first diagnosed the disease in 1896 is commemorated in a life sized statue outside Cawasjee Jehangir Hall near Metro Adlabs. He also lends his name to a busy street off Kalbadevi Road. Ironically, it’s full of rats.
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