MUMBAI: The social response to Covid-19 in India mirrors that of what the city of Mumbai (then Bombay) did with the Bubonic plague as authorities seem to be following the same pattern of dealing with the disease as they did 124 years ago, points out historian and author Prashant Kidambi in an interview to ET.
In Mumbai, which has now become the epicenter of the disease in India, the response of the BMC with its containment measures is not any different than what the colonial government did a century ago, exposing how little the city and its fundamental infrastructure has changed.
“Even though Covid is like influenza, the social response and the government response is similar to what they did during the Bubonic plague. There is radical uncertainty about the disease, it is contagious and there is person-toperson contact. When plague broke out in 1896 this was the similar situation, even though the plague bacillus was identified there was not much known how the disease spread,” Kidambi says. The plague in Bombay lasted for nine years, it was during this time the Kasturba Gandhi Hospital was set up as an isolation center for those who had contracted the disease, today it is one of the hospitals treating the Covid-19 patients.
Kidambi whose book The Making of an Indian Metropolis: Colonial Governance and Public Culture in Bombay, has chronicled the extremist measures that the colonial government adopted to keep the “disease” in check, says that there are several parallels to the current measures that aren’t based on any scientific founding. What we need is targetted testing, quarantining and isolation, the response needs to be scientific rather than panic driven, he says.
The plague had a special place in the colonial imagination, and government’s response to it was with the sense of panic, Kidambi says. And this led them to adopt intrusive measures like going into the homes of people, using soldiers to forcibly get people to hospitals, dousing the city with chemicals and disinfectants. “So defining measures of plague were that the policies were adopted that things work but nobody had any established scientific basis to this. So, the authorities were striking in dark, we see that even know, like the blunt authoritarian measures like lockdowns. We still lack precision on how this disease can be combatted,” he says.
One of the outcomes of the plague was the city got the Bombay Improvement Trust Act where the state took over private land to “re develop” the congested parts of the city. Kidambi points out that this was also done with the view that slums in the city were looked as the breeding ground of disease, the localist theory that held the view that the germs are not produced by random way but are a product of filth.
This was the Bombay Improvement Trust became the biggest civic reconstruction trust. The plague drove out migrants from the city which became extremely difficult for the textile owners to replace them. A repeat of which is happening now with migrants leaving the city in hoards. “People are always in shock when something drastic like this happens, forgetting that it has happened before,” Kidambi says.