As Bengaluru finds itself in the throes of the second wave of the Covid19 pandemic, here’s a story of heartbreak and of hope. It’s a silver lining that lingers from an earlier pandemic. From the devastation of the bubonic plague of the late 19th century, the city reinvented itself, transforming from a medieval fort town into a modern city.
In 1809, the British established a cantonment in Bangalore, when the city was part of the princely state of Mysore. This attracted Europeans, Anglo-Indians and Parsis to settle in the city although most of the original residents lived in the ‘old city’, which consisted of localities known as ‘pethes’.
All was well till 1897, when deaths from the bubonic plague, which had broken out in Bombay city, were detected in parts of Bombay Province that are now parts of Northern Karnataka. The colonial government lost no time in preparing for a pandemic. Besides invoking the Epidemic Diseases Act II of 1897, it allotted the princely sum of Rs 2,45,970 to the Plague Fund and appointed the Inspector General of Police V P Madhav Rao as the Plague Commissioner.
But the pandemic swept into Bangalore anyway, striking both the city and cantonment areas. It seems the plague had ridden in on a train of the Southern Maratha Railways. The train had pulled into the Bangalore Cantonment Station from Bombay via Hubli on 11th August of 1898.
As a precaution, the railways had begun physically screening passengers, and a police constable would escort them to their destinations, to keep tabs on their health. These passengers had to report for health checks for 10 consecutive days.
Among the passengers who had alighted at the station was a railway loco superintendent and his butler, the latter showing symptoms of the epidemic in a few days. The butler died of the plague on 15th August 1898. It wasn’t long before the pandemic spread across the city.
Within nine days of the first plague death, several cases were reported from the Goods Shed areas. Twelve people died by 24th August. The next few days saw a surge in plague cases, and the number of deaths hit 2,665 by June 1899.
Government reports suggest that 3,393 plague deaths had been not been recorded in the records, which meant that the situation was even worse than suspected. The death toll was heavy in the cantonment areas also. Here, 3,321 people died of the plague between September 1898 and March 1899. There was panic all around. Hospital workers abandoned their duties and fled, and sweepers too went into hiding. An additional 348 plague deaths were reported from cantonment areas the following year.
The outbreak led to a mass exodus Bangalore city, as people took refuge in rural areas and small towns. The population of Bangalore almost halved, going from an estimated 90,000 in 1898 to 48,236 by December 1899.
Historian Suryanath Kamath writes that deserted streets and abandoned homes turned many parts of Bangalore into a ghost town.
For those who stayed behind, life was miserable. The prices of essential goods skyrocketed while people were penniless as there was no work. The emotional toll was equally unbearable, as families had left behind relatives infected with the plague as they themselves fled to safer places.
Disposal of bodies was a huge challenge and it was common to see bodies strewn all across deserted areas. Sometimes, they were dumped inside abandoned buildings, public toilets and even in garbage containers. Relief workers often removed bodies draped in mats or blankets from the gutters. The government had to take special measures to dispose of the bodies as the panic-stricken public was wary of offering last rites to the dead.
The pandemic caused not only a loss of life but it dealt the economy of this once busting centre of trade and commerce a body blow. Commercial activities came to a grinding halt, leaving a large chunk of the population unable to find jobs or afford food. A large number of families were penniless as their breadwinners had died.
Rebuilding the City
Despite the hardships that the pandemic had inflicted, there was a silver lining. The government realised that Bangalore’s infrastructure had to be modernized to avoid a health crisis in future.
A detailed city development plan was drawn up and implemented. Besides rebuilding old-town areas, new, well-planned layouts were developed and people were encouraged to move to these localities. Areas such as Basavanagudi, spread across 440 acres, and Malleshwaram, 291 acres, emerged as models for town planning. They were a novelty, with broad roads, a modern drainage network, green spaces, conservancy roads and other such amenities.
Every housing plot in these areas was designed for a house with sufficient open space, so that it could receive fresh air and sunshine along with pure drinking water.
These new localities almost doubled the size of the Bangalore, taking the total area in the city limits from 500 acres to 1,123 acres. Alongside these new layouts, the government initiated large-scale demolition, to free the city from congestion and haphazard constructions. Thus, 651 old, dilapidated and uninhabitable dwellings were razed besides an additional 707 structures that made way for road widening works. Thus, of the total 17,275 houses in the city, 1,356 houses were flattened.
The government spent Rs 1 lakh to modernize the city’s drainage system. Large-scale disinfection, covering 8,113 houses, was carried out. The Health Department inspected every house, identified buildings without proper ventilation and arranged for ventilation either by removing parts of the roofs or drilling large holes in them! Building regulatory norms were framed and made mandatory for all future constructions.
The state’s health care system too underwent a sea change. During the pandemic, the government had appointed well-known physician and London-trained bacteriologist Dr Padmanabhan Palpu as the first Chief Medical officer of Mysore State for the monthly salary of Rs 400. Impressed with his spectacular track record, the government placed him in charge of improving health care facilities and medical infrastructure. He was instrumental in upgrading the pandemic treatment centre into a full-fledged plague hospital. He also played a key role in setting up the state-of-the-art Victoria Memorial Hospital, which Lord Curzon inaugurated in 1900.
Bengaluru, as the city is now called, owes its telephone network to the bubonic plague, as it were. For the first time, an extended telephone network was commissioned in the city to streamline plague-control measures. Within a year, 50 government establishments were connected to the telephone network and the government report for 1889-1900 mentions an average of 122 calls per day for that year. Besides, modernisation of the city saw a surge in new entrepreneurial ventures like hotels, which opened in large numbers.
By 1906, electricity had arrived in Bangalore, and by the 1920s, a number of public buildings, parks and new layouts were built around the city. As a result, Bangalore became known as the ‘Garden City’ of India, a moniker it enjoyed till the 1990s.
Today, Bengaluru is known more as the country’s tech capital, one that heralded the digital revolution in India, rather than for its pleasant climate and the quality of life it had to offer. But as the city changes to meet new challenges, let us never forget how it rose from the ashes of the plague, and reflect on the lessons we can learn.
Dinesh Nayak is an independent journalist and author based in Hubballi, Karnataka.
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