Fear of the plague

NO HUSTLE OR BUSTLE Even the main market area of Tharagupet, which is always choc-a-bloc with people and traffic, was deserted during the plague PHOTO: T.A. HAFEEZ

NO HUSTLE OR BUSTLE Even the main market area of Tharagupet, which is always choc-a-bloc with people and traffic, was deserted during the plague PHOTO: T.A. HAFEEZ  

The hitech urban sprawl Bangalore is today was the very place crippled by plague over a century ago

The plague of 1898-99 may be counted as one of the most disastrous in the history of the city from the point of general prosperity and its municipal administration. It taxed the resources of the municipality to the utmost and left scars on the city that took years to efface.

In September 1898, following the death of a few scavengers due to plague, the entire staff of scavengers struck work and fled to avoid segregation and other plague regulations. Demoralised by the turn of events, seven out of eight manure contractors also struck work. A number of shanbhogs and other municipal employees fled the city and collection of octroi, house tax, and other municipal revenues came to a grinding halt. Tharagupet, the chief grain market in South India, was practically deserted. Trade came to a standstill and the poor were on the verge of starvation partly on account of loss of jobs and partly due to high prices of essential commodities. The government was the chief agency that offered work for the poor and saved them from starvation.

The locality which suffered most from plague was the old Tharagupet and the area in and around Mamulpet. To relieve congestion in old Tharagupet, the new Tharagupet was formed as a business extension and merchants were persuaded to shift their operations there. Incidentally, the influential sections of the society did not come forward to help the Government in its efforts, choosing instead to leave the city at the first instance.

The full horror of the plague is recorded for posterity. Dead bodies with faces so disfigured as to make identification impossible and bundled up in mats and rugs were dumped in gutters and drains. People incapacitated by the disease were shut up in rooms and abandoned by fleeing families. If a plague victim died, not even his nearest relative would touch him. The Government had to undertake the removal of almost every corpse — whether thrown out or not.

The wife of a plague patient was forced by her landlord to remove her husband and leave him besides a public drain at least two furlongs from the house so as to save the household from segregation and disinfection. There were rumours that the Government was determined to cart off people to camps established round Bangalore to be poisoned. Many anti-social elements took advantage of this panic and in one instance three persons posing as plague officers collected about Rs. 40 from some weavers in the city for exemption from inoculation.

Worse still, there was this conspiracy theory that there was no plague at all and that the cases were cooked up by authorities who could be pressured to abandon the anti-plague measures by show of opposition.

As several unsanitary homes in the city had to be demolished to prevent the spread of the disease and as it was difficult to procure labourers to carry out the work, the City Municipality requisitioned the help of convicts from the Central Jail. The Government also ordered that the services of inoculated convicts be utilised to clean and disinfect abandoned houses which were likely to be inhabited once the families came back. The convicts also were asked to dig graves to bury plague victims.

In March 1903, the Municipal Council passed a resolution to grant a bonus of one month's pay to the families of municipal staff drawing salaries of Rs. 10 or less who died of from plague in the execution of their duty.


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