Writing to the Government in September 1814, John Eliot, Magistrate of the Suburbs of Calcutta, who had just been relieved ‘from the zillah duty’, underscored the sea change brought about in the drainage situation of the town area falling under his jurisdiction.

The rains that year had been the ‘most incessant and heavy ever known’ and yet the impact of the downpour was said to have had been minimal in some of the areas under his charge. Eliot wrote that

...nothing can be more beautiful than the present state of the Esplanade [maidan] and Course where not a drop of water now lies, though before these improvements were commenced it was a perfect marsh and a serious nuisance to all Chowringhee and, in particular, around the Supreme Court Jail [then located where the Victoria Memorial Hall now stands].

He said that all the tanks had been filled with water ‘which scarce occurred in any former season, to the universal benefit of the inhabitants of Chowringhee, Bhowannypore, the suburbs and in particular to the unfortunate people confined in the Supreme Court Jail, as also the sick in the hospitals, general and insane’.

In any other year the streets would have been flooded by ‘some feet of water’, but in 1814 they were free of water ‘entirely’. The magistrate further wrote that ‘the complete state of the draining system is shewn by the roads undergoing less destruction than ever, being freed from that lodgement of water so very injurious to that substance of which the roads in this country are formed’.

The Maratha Ditch too was ‘drier than it ever was known in seasons of the greatest drought’. Perhaps John Eliot was blowing his own trumpet louder than what was warranted by the state of the existing drainage facilities, perhaps not. The fact of the matter, however, is that he did have a lot of experience in handling the drainage issues related to the city.

In fact, it was he who had mooted one of the early, and major, drainage projects undertaken by the Lottery Committee – the ‘great Simleah drain’ running west to east from Chitpur Road to Circular Road – giving it practical shape at the initial stage.

On 11 December 1817 Eliot wrote in a minute that the sketch of the drain submitted to the Lottery Committee (not to be found in the records) – which the magistrate said was ‘executed by a native’ – described certain spots as ‘water’ which, however, was ‘the very reverse of that element and most desirable to be removed’.

He wrote that he had employed the most expeditious method of getting rid of ‘all this filth in the very centre of the native part of the town’, which led him to do the job ‘without submitting a full statement of the expense to be incurred’. Clearly, this was a transgression of official procedure (but was it, in the early days?) which, perhaps, only Eliot could get away with.

The justification which Eliot cited for the ‘impropriety’ was that he wanted to accomplish the work as quickly as possible, ‘whatever the charge may be’, in the interests of ‘not only promoting cleanliness in the town but...ultimately (completing) a system of draining where it is most required’.

Eliot’s minute was the result of ‘enquiries’ he had made on his own regarding ‘some old water courses that originally were in a direct line east and west of the town from the Chitpore Road to the Circular Road’, channels which in some places had been ‘usurped’ by individuals and in others ‘stopped or changed as suited each person’s convenience in arrangement of their buildings or other purposes.’

In Eliot’s view, this had a serious impact on the ‘cleanliness and healthiness of the town’ and he took it on himself to ‘restore’ the water courses and also remove ‘all useless trees from the borders of the several water courses of the town and suburbs and (also) all such trees as generally existed in the town’.

The inference here is that, in the second decade of the 19th century when the town was in the middle of a consistent growth surge, traces of the earlier, primeval, verdant cover of the region still remained, spread across the town to such an extent that a concerted effort had to be made to cut it down to make way for a new Calcutta.

Eliot took the help of natives to accomplish his task. He called a meeting of ‘all the leading natives of Calcutta at my residence in Clive Street to endeavour to prevail on them to aid and promote so very desirable an object’. The result was helpful. As he wrote, he was ‘promised their cordial cooperation to aid my endeavours in this essential of effectually draining some of the worst and most shocking places of the whole town’.

A week after Eliot submitted his minute to the Lottery Committee, the committee wrote to the Government (18 December) that its president had ‘discovered an old water course extending from the Chitpore Road through Simleea Bazar to the Circular Road, the route of which has in some places been changed and in others entirely stopped’.

Since ‘systematic measures’ had to be adopted to drain the town effectively and since a proper plan to implement the project would take some time, it suggested that ‘the opening of the water course pointed out by Mr Eliot, and which has been carefully inspected by other members of the committee’, would be ‘of the utmost consequence’. This apart, the reopening of the old watercourse would be ‘the means of draining one of the most filthy and unhealthy parts of the city’ at a ‘comparatively trifling expense’.

Echoing Eliot, the committee wrote that the natives had generally shown ‘every disposition to give up such ground as may be required for the undertaking’. However, since those proprietors who would have to give up their property would have to be paid an ‘equitable compensation’, the committee felt that Eliot be given ‘a discretionary authority to disburse such sums as may be necessary for that purpose, not exceeding in the aggregate Sicca Rs 5,000 chargeable on the lottery funds’. The Government sanctioned the project in the first week of the new year.

Eliot began work on the drain for which he says he found a lot of support among the ‘lower orders’ of the natives. The reference here to the ‘lower order’ of the natives is of interest because the proceedings carry a number of complaints from natives better placed in life who felt they had been given a rough deal by the magistrate in the course of the project’s implementation.

Eliot now approached the Lottery Committee for funds which were required for compensating those affected by the project. He wrote: ‘It is of material consequence to the effectual attainment of this measure that I should be authorised to settle with the several occupants for straw and tiled houses to be removed, and some kutcha walls with a few mortar-brick buildings.’

He added that, given the length of time these huts and other constructions had been in existence, ‘it is but just to render the owners some indemnification for removing their residences as they agree and can be settled with to prevent any loss of time’. The compensation exercise would be an ongoing process which would ‘not admit of the least delay without being attended ultimately with much inconvenience from the intrigues of designing and interested natives’. At some places, where ‘more considerable (sums)’ would be required ‘than I should consider myself authorised to pay’, the magistrate wrote that he would take members of the committee to such spots to ascertain for themselves the scale of the funds needed.

The Lottery Committee president then raised the question of whether the funds so taken would be charged to the lottery funds or to the Assessment Department, a point that was to crop up in the years ahead with respect to projects big and small.

Eliot’s view stands out because of its lack of clarity. He said that the project was essentially ‘a new undertaking from the length of time that the several occupants have been in undisturbed possession of the land’, which would mean that the Lottery Committee would be within its rights (under its charter of functions) to foot the bill.

But he also added that ‘the sums now required are merely for the removal of the numerous buildings, as the land is readily relinquished,’ which would imply that the project was not a new one and paying for it would, properly, be the responsibility of the Assessment/Conservancy Department and not that of the committee.

Eliot went out of his way to bring to the notice of the committee the munificence of a native, Kosaul (Kushal) Dutt, who had given up as much as a bigha of land for the opening of the Simleah ‘water course’ or drain ‘of the width of ten feet’, asking in return for the earth excavated from the drain to be used to fill up ‘a filthy tank he wishes to be filled’.

The magistrate portrayed the exchange as having, on the one hand, resulted in ‘a large saving in (the) purchase of the land’, to the tune of Rs 8,000 (Rs 400 a katha), and, on the other, securing ‘the removal of a nuisance’. All members of the committee except for Henry Wood extended support to the magistrate’s scheme. Wood wrote that:

If the cost of the project exceeded Rs 5,000 he would consider it more sensible to have...the work...done well at once, and instead of opening an old drain I would recommend the construction of a new puckah drain to run down the middle of any of the adjoining streets, with openings into it, so as to admit the water from any low places to the north and south of it.

Gordon gave qualified support when he wrote that there was little doubt that the principal benefit flowing from Eliot’s project when completed would be the removal of ‘unhealthiness in the quarter of the town where it is to be executed’.

However, if ever there was a need for the committee to spend its resources ‘limited as they are...to remove a similar but more extensive nuisance in any other quarter, the future security in point of healthiness that will be afforded by (the) draining effected on Mr Eliot’s plan must give that a decided preference’. Colvin, Bayley and Trower supported Eliot’s plan, the first two taking the trouble of paying a visit to the site of the proposed drain.

Bayley, who was about to be made Acting Chief Secretary to the Government, was most persuasive when he wrote that he had

...inspected the whole course of the proposed drain [and had found that the] existence of an old drain of considerable dimensions is traceable at intervals throughout the whole line, but it has in many places been stopped up and encroached upon. That the reopening and enlarging this drain would be of the greatest public benefit must be obvious to anyone who will examine that part of the town. The nearest drain of any real use is in Monicktola Street. [The] part of the town through which the drain is proposed to be carried is...the most filthy in Calcutta, and from the number of dirty tanks, public privies and various receptacles of filth and putrid matter with which it abounds the atmosphere must be...most unwholesome at all times of the year, and the improvement which would result from opening a wide drain proportionately great.

Bayley said that the drain ‘would run nearly in a straight line from the Chitpore Road through the Simleea bazaar to the Circular Road; and I do not know that a more solid or real improvement could be effected than that which would result from Mr Eliot’s plan being fully executed’.

As regards the cost, he said that compensation for those affected would add up to quite a pile but ‘certainly much less than would be incurred if an old drain had not formerly existed’.

Excerpted with permission from The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817–1830, Ranabir Ray Choudhury, Niyogi Books.