In an interview with Pandemic Discourses Co-Editor and India China Institute Co-director Mark W Frazier, Associate Professor in Colonial Urban History at the University of Leicester, Prashant Kidambi, discusses the continuities and disjunctions between the 1896 bubonic plague and Covid-19 in Mumbai.

Your history of colonial Bombay in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries (The Making of An Indian Metropolis) contains a fascinating chapter on the bubonic plague of 1896. The plague claimed 8 million victims in the Indian subcontinent between 1896 and 1914, including nearly 184,000 in Bombay. You describe how Bombay colonial authorities held a highly “localist” view of the plague, which attributed the disease to “unsanitary,” poorly ventilated urban spaces as the vectors of disease rather than a contagionist etiology that viewed human bodies as the carriers. This led to massive interventions to “disinfect” the city’s crowded neighbourhoods and “slums.” Is it fair to say that the Indian government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly in Mumbai, has in its own way followed this outdated localist framework?
There are certainly very striking parallels between the two contexts. Even though Covid-19 is a contagious virus that can infect anyone irrespective of their location, official authorities in Mumbai and many other cities have tended to view the “slums” as particularly susceptible to the disease.

The conditions of intense overcrowding and poor sanitation in these sites buttressed this perception of the “dangerous slum.” Indeed, in the early months, there were many who also thought that a city like Mumbai – with its vast slum-dwelling population – would be overrun by the pandemic.

As a result, particular attention was paid to areas like Dharavi. This bears an uncanny resemblance to the historical context of the plague epidemic in Bombay in the late 1890s. Then, too, official fears were focused on the poorer neighbourhoods of the city.

An influential strand of medical opinion in colonial Bombay – based on “localist” theories that attributed the prevalence of disease to miasmas and local conditions of poverty and filth – had come to associate the city’s predominantly working-class areas with disease and high death rates. And the absence of a plausible account, in the early years, of the spread of the plague strengthened the view that it was a disease of the poor. In other words, there was an explicitly class-specific understanding of the plague pandemic.

Significantly, the plague epidemic became the occasion for an unprecedented degree of state intervention in the lives of the city’s Indian residents. In February 1897, the colonial government introduced the Epidemic Diseases Act to combat the plague pandemic.

This law gave the state a range of intrusive powers that allowed it to control both the dwellings and bodies of urban residents. These powers were used disproportionately against the poorer residents of the city. As it happens, it was this very act that was invoked by the current government when Covid-19 came to be designated a pandemic.

At the same time, we must also acknowledge the differences between the two contexts. In contemporary Mumbai, officials operate in a political system in which there is a degree of democratic accountability (although it is debatable how substantive this is in practice). The state government and the Bombay Municipal Corporation (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) have had to work closely with local communities in dealing with Covid-19.

The evidence also suggests that local officials and medical authorities in the city did succeed to an extent in eliciting the trust and voluntary cooperation of the city’s poorer residents. That was far from the case in colonial Bombay in the 1890s.

Then, the massive and unprecedented state intervention by official agencies in the everyday lives of the city’s Indian residents occurred in a context of deep mutual suspicion and hostility. There were tumultuous scenes on the streets of the city, as ordinary Indians resisted being taken to hospital and having their homes torn down.

Prashant Kidambi is an associate professor in Colonial Urban History at the University of Leicester. Photo credit: Author provided

You also note in The Making of An Indian Metropolis how one of the most significant legacies of the plague was its impact on the discourse and practice of urban planning in the decades that followed. In what ways might the Covid-19 pandemic similarly shape urban planning in Mumbai (and urban India more generally) in the coming decades?
The plague was the single most influential factor in the urban redevelopment of Bombay that occurred in the early 20th century.

This was principally carried out by the Bombay Improvement Trust, which was established in 1898 to undertake an ambitious program of sanitary reconstruction. At the heart of this colonial mission of urban “improvement,” as it was initially conceived, was that the plague had occurred because of defects in the urban built environment. It is another matter, of course, that once the panic induced by the pandemic subsided by the mid-1900s, the Trust increasingly backpedalled on its ambitious goals of rehousing the working classes and remaking Bombay as a “sanitary city”.

With Covid-19, we have once again heard calls for tackling the “problem” of the “slums”. But given that it has become increasingly clear that this is a contagious disease that does not respect spatial boundaries, it has been harder to sustain such calls for urban regeneration and redevelopment.

I doubt that the current pandemic will result in any large-scale initiatives to transform the urban built environment, nor is it likely that such moves would successfully combat Covid-19.

On the other hand, the real impact on Indian cities of Covid-19 is likely to be in the domain of everyday urban practices. Social distancing, mask-wearing, regulations pertaining to hygiene in public places: all these are likely to be the lasting consequences of this disease.

Far more than Covid-19, climate change is likely to prove a consequential factor in spurring new initiatives in urban planning in South Asia, for it is the rapidly mounting environmental crises besetting Indian cities that are the long-term challenge confronting urban planners and official agencies in this century.

In another remarkable parallel to the present moment, you describe a large-scale riot that broke out in 1898 when authorities attempted to remove a young plague victim from her home in a largely Muslim neighbourhood. Did the bubonic plague generate a public debate in the city over social inequalities, that one might connect with the subsequent wave of social activism in the early decades of the twentieth century?
Yes, the bubonic plague in fin-de-siecle Bombay made visible the urban poor and their abysmal conditions of life in the city. It was not only the colonial government but also Indian social reformers and intellectuals who now began to take an interest in what one might loosely call the “labour question”.

Until then, public debate about this subject had largely dwelt on conditions within factories. Now, the focus shifted to their living conditions. Alongside the Bombay Improvement Trust, and running in parallel to its activities, we see the formation of voluntary civic associations devoted to “social service”.

A noteworthy feature of the initiatives undertaken by these associations, which I discuss in my book, was the emphasis on disciplining and reforming the bodily conduct and hygiene of the working classes. These social reformers were drawn, for the most part, from the Hindu upper castes. So, there is certainly a direct link between the plague pandemic and the social activism of sections of the educated Indian middle class in early twentieth-century Bombay.

But the debates that arose in the context of this social activism seldom engaged directly with the underlying causes of urban poverty and the structural conditions that were responsible for the horrendous living conditions of the poor in the city.

Interestingly, the current pandemic has also revived the question of how the urban poor work and live in contemporary India. The impact of the lockdown on migrants fleeing cities was a prominent theme in public debate during the early months of the pandemic.

However, as that crisis diminished in significance, the public interest in it also waned. So the visibility of the “labour question” appears to have been a temporary phenomenon, the issue receded from public consciousness as swiftly as it arose.

Interior of a temporary hospital for plague victims. Bombay plague epidemic, 1896-1897. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 4.0

How is the 1896 plague remembered, or commemorated if at all, in contemporary Mumbai? Does it retain any place in public memory, and is anyone (artists, intellectuals, others) making connections between 1896 and 2020?
A curious feature of the major pandemics that have afflicted Mumbai in the past is how little trace they have left in the public consciousness.

Although both the bubonic plague (1896-1914) and influenza (1918-19) were significant events in the city’s history, they scarcely figure in popular histories. The impact of the plague on Mumbai is to be discerned more firmly in its built environment than in the realm of public memory. However, there are signs that things may be changing. In 2018, the Mumbai-based artist Ranjit Kandalgaonkar put together a fascinating visual representation of the bubonic plague using archival materials from the Wellcome Collection in London. And the current pandemic appears to have stimulated public interest in the history of previous pandemics in the city.

I have a colleague who’s writing a single-volume history of the United States at the moment, and he has told me how difficult it is to avoid delving into the numerous epidemics and public health crises as he writes American history from the perspective of 2020. How do you think the Covid-19 pandemic might change the kinds of questions and themes that are addressed by historians of colonial and post-colonial South Asia?
I think the answer to this question depends on how severe and consequential the impact of Covid-19 proves to be in the long run. Like other crises that have befallen Indian cities in the past, this pandemic has already exposed the structural fault lines within society. It has revealed the glaring inadequacies of the Indian state and the country’s ramshackle and underfunded public health infrastructure.

It has brutally highlighted the precarity of migrant lives in Indian cities and the callousness with which urban elites deal with the labouring classes on whose services they depend. Equally, it has shown how crucially social networks – in particular, village, caste and kinship ties – mediate the relationship between city and countryside.

All of these features have longer histories that need to be recovered and told. The intellectual bifurcation between studies of colonial and postcolonial India needs to yield to more longue duree studies of migration, labour, governance, public health, and associational culture in the urban context that transcend the temporal break of 1947.

This article first appeared on the India China Institute’s website.