A hundred years ago, Bengaluru beat the plague; here’s how

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A map of Bengaluru in the 1800s. Source: the British Library online catalogue. Colour overlay done by Meghana Kuppa.

As Karnataka continues its battle against the COVID-19 pandemic with a two week extension of the lockdown, its leaders would do well to draw lessons from what came to be called the Bangalore Plague in 1898, which killed 10 percent of Bengaluru’s population and 2.6 per cent in the rest of Mysore Kingdom.

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The then-colonial government had initially responded to the calamity with force, before realising its ineffectiveness and changing its response to successfully contain the outbreak. Today, it would be worth a look at how the then-Mysore state emerged victorious in its fight against the plague.

What changed?

  • In 1881, Mysore Kingdom had only 24 hospitals and dispensaries. By 1918 – before the Spanish flu outbreak, the number of medical institutions had increased to 178.
  • Victoria Hospital inaugurated in 1900 was set up to deal with the plague, and is now being used to treat COVID-19 patients.
  • During 1898-1903, the mortality rate from the plague was about 2.7%, declining to 1.17% by 1913-1918.
  •  In 1918, during the Spanish flu, better healthcare facilities in the state meant that the death rate was only 2.37% in Mysore state, while the central provinces saw a death rate of 5.7%, according to then Sanitary Commissioner of India F Norman White.

Awareness about the plague

During those times, people avoided visiting hospitals due to conservatism and caste prejudice. For instance, Brahmins didn’t want to be put next to lower-caste people. In Dharwar (now Dharwad), a Brahmin priest committed suicide in protest! When the government added chlorine to drinking water, the public thought they were being poisoned. In fact, people in Srirangapatanam (now Srirangapatna) had rioted, leading to the death of a few villagers.

When Sheshadri Iyer, then dewan of Mysore State, realised that the situation was not getting any better, he changed tack to win the people’s support by: 

  • Abolishing compulsory segregation, and not admitting patients to hospitals or camps against their will. 
  • Allowing people to stay at home, provided they allowed doctors and nurses to visit them regularly. 
  • Focusing on skits, jingles and pamphlets to spread awareness about the plague and precautions to take.

The International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications, titled ‘Plague Outbreak Eradication Campaign under Colonial Mysore’, mentions that “Rail passengers coming from infected areas to Bangalore were inspected at Yeshawanthpur, Bangalore cantonment and Kengeri station. Passengers found suffering or suspected were sent to Magadi Road health camp for treatment or observation. About 588 sheds were constructed at government expense”.

The situation THEN and NOW

Now: Union government budget deficit is Rs 7.66 lakh crore. Coronavirus package announced worth Rs 1.7 lakh crore is 22% of this deficit.

Then: Mysore government ran a deficit of Rs 20.43 lakh in fiscal 1899. Plague expenditure was Rs 7.39 lakh, 36% of the deficit.

Now: Major heads of expenditure are monetary assistance, food rations, insurance.

Then: Two major heads of expenditure were the erection of sheds for patients and health camps (20%) and  additional police (15%).

Preventing mass migration

Migrant labour in urban centres, then as witnessed now, tried to head back to their villages in large numbers. The government of the day then feared this would spread the plague to villages, but also realised that compulsory segregation, akin to the lockdown now, would be extremely unpopular and ineffective.

So, how did the state try and prevent migration back then?

  • By providing monetary support and free food
  • By advancing three month salaries to government servants 
  • By allowing people to leave their valuables in government treasuries
  • By providing free timber and bamboo for building sheds to those who wanted to live in isolation.

A carrot and stick approach

Today, with COVID-19, the authorities are confronted with the problem of people hiding their travel history and refusing to cooperate with authorities. To deal with such concealment during the 1898 plague, the authorities did the following: 

  • Promised monetary benefits such as 1 anna for every dead rat people brought to authorities (as rats spread the plague). Also 4 annas for adults and 2 annas for every child getting vaccinated.
  • Schools and workplaces were asked to deny admission to those not vaccinated

Development of Malleshwaram and Basavanagudi

Today, we talk of social distancing, but how is this possible with India’s large slums? Iyer also had the same dilemma back then as crowded slum areas in KR Market and Chickpet, was making containment of the plague difficult. So he ordered the demolition of houses that were unfit for habitation in Bengaluru and Mysore, and marked out two large extensions — Basavanagudi and Malleswaram.

While these two extensions already existed, the plague encouraged people to move to these open areas. The government paid an advance of a year’s salary to government servants who desired to build houses in any of these extensions.

The birth of Victoria Hospital

Victoria Hospital was inaugurated in 1900 to help patients during the plague. While the hospital began with about 100 beds, it is today one of the largest hospitals in southern India.

Fun fact: In 1908, about 92,25,116 rats were killed in the whole of Mysore state at the cost of Rs 5,457. The cost  per rat was 4 ½ paisa, as per Karnataka State Gazetteer Vol-II, P-722.

[Note: The authors would like to attribute source credits to ‘Southern India: Its history, people, commerce and industrial resources’ by Somerset Playne, and ‘Health and Medicine in the Princely States: 1850-1950’.]


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About Vaishnavi Bala 1 Article
Vaishnavi Bala is a part of Bygone Bangalore, an eponymous online platform -- which brings to its readers nuggets from the city's rich history, chronicling lesser-known stories from Bangalore’s past. You can follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

6 Comments

  1. Mysore wodeyars and administration was so effective that citizens were given utmost importance and care. Those days are gone. In democratic India SERVANTS are RULERS and KINGS ARE SLAVES

  2. Extremely well written and informative. Has definitive pointers on how to contain. I will forward as much as possible

  3. This article is very well written and throws light into lessons that could be learnt from the past and how the city was managed to contain the spread of the dreadful disease.. Bengaluru with its strong historical background can very well succeed in containing the current pandemic situation..Jai Hind

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