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.
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’.]