While Calcutta and Bombay got their drains by the late 1860s, there was no sign of them here

Unbelievable but true. The ‘lady with the lamp’, though she never came to India, was largely responsible for our city getting a proper drainage system. And the way she did it speaks volumes of her grit and determination.

In 1864, Miss Nightingale, with the help of some old India hands, put together the Indian Sanitary Report. Among its recommendations, was that the cities of India be equipped with drains. For some reason, Madras became her favourite city in this regard. She invited Robert Staunton Ellis, president of the Madras Sanitary Commission (and later chief secretary) to be her guest in London. He was made to visit barracks, hospitals and institutions to see how drains were laid.

In 1866, largely at her bidding, a Captain Tulloch was sent to Madras to put together a comprehensive scheme for laying drains. The Tulloch report, when ready, became Miss Nightingale’s favourite weapon in her battle to get Madras its sewage system.

By then Madras was very much the benighted province with funds being allocated to it only after Bengal and Bombay had been satisfied. Thus, while Calcutta and Bombay got their drains by the late 1860s, there was no sign of them here. Ellis’ death in 1877 robbed Miss Nightingale of her ally, but she did not give up. Governors of Madras, their wives, viceroys and vicerines, prime ministers of England and even the royal family were besieged with letters on the subject.

In Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, she had a doughty opponent. He asked her as to why Madras needed drains. Constantinople had none he said, and “managed perfectly well with dogs.” The Madras government, she was told by him, had funds “only for imperious necessities.” She was astounded that drains were not considered one such necessity.

Articles by her on the terrible plight of Madras in terms of its public health, sanitation and hygiene poured forth. The government responded that the matter was under consideration. “Had it not been so for twenty years?” she retorted and demanded immediate action. “The crime of past governments is to have dallied with these questions for so long and allowed the evils to continue unabated.”

By 1881, she was despondent as she had no faith in the then Governor ME Grant Duff. “God Bless poor Madras,” concludes a letter. But she had a friend in Viceroy Lord Ripon. That year, at his prodding, the government finally ordered work on drains to begin “at once.”

It commenced in George Town and continued at a snail’s pace for 25 years. “At once,” Miss Nightingale joked, “was clearly measured in periods of Indian cosmogony.” Her parting shot was a simple formula for keeping Madras hygienic — “cleanliness of houses, of compounds and cattle stalls, removal of cattle out of houses, cleanliness of streets, but above all — protecting water from pollution.” She also felt that it would never do to mix rain water with sewage.

If only we had listened.

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