ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Environmental Thoughts and Malaria in Colonial Bengal: A Study in Social Response

This study re-examines the notions in colonial India about the causes of malaria, specifically discussing the environmental reasons pointed to at the time. It shows how and to what extent some of the widely held ideas of the colonial era on environmental causation contributed to and, at the same time, shaped a kind of environmental awareness, which became a part of medico-social thinking in India. It also adds a new dimension to the thinking on malaria in colonial India by situating the environmental paradigm within a social and economic context. This links it to other issues of social significance, deepening our understanding of the response to the disease.

EPIDEMICS IN SOUTH ASIAN HISTORYmarch 22, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly54Environmental Thoughts and Malaria in Colonial Bengal: A Study in Social ResponseSujata MukherjeeThis study re-examines the notions in colonial India about the causes of malaria, specifically discussing the environmental reasons pointed to at the time. It shows how and to what extent some of the widely held ideas of the colonial era on environmental causation contributed to and, at the same time, shaped a kind of environmental awareness, which became a part of medico-social thinking in India. It also adds a new dimension to the thinking on malaria in colonial India by situating the environmental paradigm within a social and economic context. This links it to other issues of social significance, deepening our understanding of the response to the disease. Research on the subject of malaria in colonial Bengal has so far focused on the causes of the disease and its impact on society, the economy and administrative policies. Malaria prevention and control efforts by non-government organisations (NGOs) and individuals have also received attention.1This study primarily aims to re-examine the notions there were about the causes for malaria, specifically focusing on and analysing the environmental reasons pointed to at the time. The objective is to show how and to what extent some of the repre-sentative thoughts of the colonial era on environmental causa-tion contributed to and, at the same time, shaped a kind of environmental awareness. This became a part of medico-social thinking in India and, to some extent, was linked to worldwide views on the environment. This study hopes to add a new dimen-sion to the conceptualisation and contextualisation of malaria in colonial India by situating the environmental paradigm within a social and economic context. This widens the frame-work of analysis and links it to other issues of social signifi-cance,contributing to deepening our understanding of the response to the disease.At the outset I would like to state that awareness about the relationship between diseases and the environment or ecosystem has been a part of the social and medical understanding of diseases for more than 2,000 years. In the west, it goes as far back as Hippocrates in the Sixth century BC. In India, the idea that the physical environment exercises a potent influence on human health can be found in the theories and practice of Ayurveda.2 In 18th andearly 19th century Europe, the Hippocratic nosography of fevers (description according to how long they lasted) as well as the idea that health was closely tied to geograph-ical, climatic and environmental factors informed epidemiology to a large extent and provided important tools for medical and sanitary investigations by European physicians in different parts of the world. Medico-geographical investigations and topographical surveys carried out by western colonial powers in Asia by and large followed the lines broadly defined by Europe. But, at the same time, many of them expressed an understanding of the local causes of diseases, which included the climate, vegetation and other physical features of a particular region. A result of this was that a negative and alarming picture of tropical climate emerged in the west. According to Walter Raleigh, who published hisHistory of the World inthe early 17th century, “the Tropicks” held “the fearful and dangerous thunders and lightnings, the horrible and frequent earthquakes, the dangerous diseases, the multitude of venimous beasts and wormes”.3 Sujata Mukherjee ( is with the Centre for Gandhian Studies at the Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.
EPIDEMICS IN SOUTH ASIAN HISTORYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 22, 200855 Exotic representations of the tropical regions became a common feature of medical literature on Africa and the West Indies. The tropical climate was deplored as the main cause of white men falling ill in the tropics. The rapid fluctuations in temperature, heat and humidity, which were characteristic of a tropical climate, were considered to have a harmful effect on European constitutions. Diseases of hot countries or warm climates (“a term that occasionally included the Mediterranean but usually signified a broad belt of the globe from the West Indies and the shores of West Africa through India to island (south-east Asia and the China Seas”)4 were also distinguished from those of the temperate regions. In European encounters with the West Indies and West Africa, the English as well as the Dutch stressed the inhospitable nature of the tropical climate and related it to ill-health.5 John Huxham, in the second edition of hisAn Essay on Fevers (1750), explained that the most frequent cause of widespread fevers in the British West Indies was “a moist, foggy, atmosphere exhaling from a swampy, morass soil”.6 The revival of environmentalist ideas in 18th century Europe, inspired by the publication of Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois in 1748, the accounts of western encounters with the climates and diseases of West Africa and the West Indies, the ideas of an exotic orient in which climate and disease figured prominently and their first-hand experiences influenced the opinions of the English East India Company’s surgeons. Naval medicine men like Charles Curtis, John Clark and others, who had initial contacts with Madras and Bengal, found the climate, vegetation and topography of these regions far removed from that of Europe. According to Clark,7 Bengal had an unhealthy climate which had adverse effects on the European body not used to it. Malignant fevers, liver complaints, dysentery and diarrhoea were common. Since it was the lethal combination of heat and humidity and the hot, moist air’s capacity to hold poisonous, disease – generating ‘miasma’ in suspension that appeared to make tropical regions so deadly, Bengal’s jungles, creeks, and marshes, its hot and humid climate, and the great variations in temperature between and within seasons seemed to provide an almost archetypal example of the savage effects a hostile environment could have on human constitution.8 Influential TextA highly influential text which shaped and strengthened the European view of the viciousness of the tropical climate and the adverse effects it had on the European constitution was James Johnson’s The Influence of Tropical Climates, More Especially the Climate of India, on European Constitutions, first published in 1813 but revised as late as 1856. The writings of Johnson, James Annesley (Sketches of the Most Prevalent Diseases of India, 1825) and William Twining (Clinical illustrations of the More important Diseases of Bengal, 1832) upheld the view that diseases of the hot countries, affected as they were by the local climate, assumed forms and characteristics different from those prevailing in cold regions. Johnson related fevers to “vegeto-animall miasma or marsh exhaletion”. He wrote: These miasmas arise from the wide extended bosom of the earth, wherever animal and vegetable substances are lying in a state of decomposition; but in a tropical climate, where heat and moisture give, not only activity to the agent, but a predisposition for its recep-tion to thesubject, their united efforts are tremendous!9 Annesley put forward the argument that though the diseases of warm climates were essentially no different from the summer diseases of temperate countries, they became more virulent and intense because of the extreme heat and humidity of the tropics. Twining held that the cause of intermittent fevers was the climate rather than any intervening miasma. He wrote: Malaria has been generally acknowledged the efficient cause of inter-mittent fevers; but it is abundantly evident to every medical man in Bengal, the very first year that he witnesses the results of the change of season and the temperature between the October 20 and December 1, that intermittents are intimately connected with the diurnal chang-es of temperature, which take place at the commencement of the cold season…The state of human constitution induced in Bengal by the pre-vious hot weather and rains, doubtless paves the way for the influence of the commencement of the cold weather, in the production ofmany diseases which then prevail. To these causes, and to disorders ofinternal organs, and principally to a disordered condition of the abdominal viscera, I ascribe the intermittent fevers, which occur more frequently in November and December than in all the rest of the year.10 According to Annesley, putting medicine on a “rational footing” in India required taking into account the climate, seasons and geographical distribution of diseases. His topographical and statistical reports have been described as a “preliminary attempt to put this idea into practice”.11 It should be mentioned in this connection that the first decade of the 19th century had seen surgeon Francis Buchanan being directed by the Court of Directors of the East India Company to conduct a survey of Bengal and Bihar. He was to look into the topography of the region; religions and customs of the people; systems of land tenure; the nature of animals, vegetables and minerals; agriculture, trade and manufacture; and the physi-cal condition of the inhabitants, their diseases, diets and methods of treatment. TheTransactionsof the Calcutta Medical andPhysicalSociety since the 1820s and later those of the Bombay and Madras Presidencies contain a large number of reports and articles on medical topography, mostly compiled by officials during tours. This trend of conducting medico-topographical surveys was further developed in the next decade by James Ronald Martin whose Notes on the Medical Topography of Calcutta, published in 1837, received great acclaim from Willams Farr, a famous medical statistician and nosologist in London. Subsequent works of same genre were John M’Cosh’sTopography of Assam (1837) and Robert Rankine’sNotes on the Medical Topography of the District of Sarun (1839). In the second half of the 19th century, imperial and district gazetteers more comprehensively studied several subjects, includ-ing geography, climate, vegetation, diet, diseases and cures.These medical investigations of climate and topography contributed towards fashioning the idea of a pathogenic Bengal. Uncongenial environments like that of Bengal seemed to many to encourage diseases like malaria. In the 1830s, F P Strong, a Calcutta surgeon, wrote about malaria that “there can be no doubt that it is produced most abundantly in all those parts of Bengal which are not cleared of jangal, drained and kept clean”. It seemed that around Calcutta there were all the “essentials
EPIDEMICS IN SOUTH ASIAN HISTORYmarch 22, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly56necessary for the formation of malaria – jangals, lakes, marshes, gardens crowded with trees, and woods of every description, and weeds, stagnant water, filthy pools, and low grass jangals of every kind.” In these existed “ample means for a constant supply of the poison, assisted…by the natural heat and moistureoftheclimate”. If “unnatural or meteoric changes of climate” or “unnatural inundations of seas, or river water” were added to these then “disease and death scourage(d) the land”.In his topographical survey of Dacca in 1840, surgeon James Taylor referred to identical environmental factors infesting the countryside with malaria and producing a state of perpetual fever in its inhabitants. The malaria season started in late September when the annual river floods began to subside and continued until late November, when “the elements of decomposition or the proportions of water and dead vegetable matter, and a certain degree of temperature appear to be in the most favourable adaptation for the production of this agent”. The miasma produced by the stinking vegetable matter carried by the rivers combined with the heat and “a state of atmospheric quiescence” to produce malignant fevers.12 Official reports of late 18th and early 19th centuries observe that many districts of Bengal were infested with malaria. As early as 1770, the Marquis of Wellesley referred to the unhealthy climate of Murshidabad. W W Hunter recorded in the late 19th century that the Kasimbazar area of Murshidabad was depopu-lated by a malarious fever in 1814.13 Here, “the old stagnant channel of the Bhagirathi still attests the cause of the pestilence which overthrew this once flourishing city”.14 Hunter also reported that “epidemic malarious fever” broke out with disastrous effects in Muhammadpur in Jessore in 1836, followed by another epidemic in October 1846. According to the civil surgeon’s report, “the amount of sickness was perfectly appall-ing. In the town of Jessore, which was then estimated to contain six thousand inhabitants, about ten deaths occurred daily.” Here “the outbreak was ascribed to the state of the river Bhairab, which, owing to the lateness of the rains, continued to fill its bed till the beginning of November, when the waters subsided rapidly,leaving an enormous quantity of decayed vegetation to generate malaria.”15 From Jessore, the fever spread westwards and northwards through the 24 Parganas and Nadia districts. In 1861, it crossed the Hugli river to reach Hugli district. Two years later, it made its appearance in the Kalna subdivision of Burdwan district and within a few years, engulfed a major part of the district. Dr French, the civil surgeon of the district, in his “Report on the Burdwan Fever for 1872” wrote: The Burdwan fever, or, as it may be now more properly called, the Bengal endemic fever, is said by Dr Elliot, who had great experience of it, to be an exaggerated and congestive form of malarious fever, most frequently of the intermittent type, generally assuming the most in-tense and asthenic character in localities where the recognised predis-posing causes of the disease preponderate most.The fever spread from Burdwan to Birbhum, Bankura and Midnapur. According to Dr French, its causes were overpopulation, overcrowding, a diminished food supply, defective sanitary arrangements and the silting up of rivers and water courses.A committee of inquiry was set up by the government in 1863 to ascertain the causes of this extraordinary outbreak of virulent fever (called ‘natun jwar’ in Bengali). Raja Digamber Mitra, its Indian member, emphasised the link between the transmission of malaria and the expansion of the railways and the road network. He deemed it significant that the construction of railway embankments along the eastern border had coincided with the outbreak of a “severe type of fever” in a “continuous line of villages from Ichapur to Chakdaha”.16 Obstruction of DrainsThe Eastern Bengal Railway was constructed in the 1850s. Between 1872 and 1881, 525 miles (845 km) of track was laid in Bengal and Bihar and between 1881 and 1891, 1,051 miles (1,691 km) were added. In the first decade of the 20th century, this went up by 1,647 miles (2,650 km). In the late 1860s, the commission-ers of the presidency and Burdwan divisions – where the epidemic had taken a severe form – were asked to collect the opinions of local civil and medical officers on whether the obstruction of drainage by roads or railways had adversely affected the people’s health in certain districts. The commissioner of the presidency division replied that the Eastern Bengal Railway did in no way interfere with drainage.17 His view was shared by most of the local officers except the magistrate of 24 parganas. He pointed out that the railways and roads might have contributed to the intensity of epidemic fever in Haleeshuhar and Barasat by obstructing drainage in those places. The commissioner of the Burdwan division was influenced by the opinion of a majority of local officers who maintained that the railways and roads did not in any way affect the health of the people. He, however, forwarded a report by R V Cockerell, the magistrate of Hugli, who pointed out that there was some truth in the view that drainage in hugli district had suffered with the opening of the railways. The sanitary report of 1884 referred to the outbreak of a malarial epidemic during railway construction between Dacca and Mymensingh.In the first decade of the 20th century, malaria was well- entrenched in western Bengal. Of the 2,000-odd fever deaths reported in Jessore, Nadia, Murshidabad and a few other districts in 1904 and 1907, two out of five had been caused by malaria. In 1907, the sanitary report said that there had been nodirectconnection between the construction of the Murshida-bad branch of the Eastern Bengal railway and the outbreak of fever in Murshidabad.18 The Drainage Committee Report (1907), however, pointed to a host of factors which could have had a direct bearing on the situation. Silted up rivers, channels and ‘khals’, the high subsoil water level and the humid conditions in the villages pushed up the incidence of malaria in many parts of central and western Bengal. Blocked water courses surrounded by marshes and stagnant pools choked with weeds provided optimum conditions for the breeding and multiplication of anopheles mosquitoes. Proportionof Malaria Cases to Total Cases TreatedWestern Bengal 40.9Central Bengal 32.3Northern Bengal 23.7Eastern Bengal 7.5
EPIDEMICS IN SOUTH ASIAN HISTORYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 22, 200857C A Bentley, who served as sanitary commissioner and director of public health in Bengal, wrote several monographs and pamphlets on malaria between 1907 and 1925.19According to him, “malaria fever is at least three times more prevalent in Western Bengal than Eastern Bengal”. He also presented the chart, repro-duced on p 56, of the fever indices in four regions.He believed that the problem of malaria was linked to the problems of agricultural and environmental decline. “The whole question of rural malaria in India, whether occurring as a mere infection or a disease manifestation is bound up with the problem of agriculture.” According to him, the increase of malaria in Bengal was definitely connected to a deterioration in agriculture, a result of poor or no natural irrigation and impoverished soil. The decline of river systems had been accelerated by human interference in the form of constructing embankments. He even suggested a temporary prohibition of embankments, which dislo-cated the system of natural silt irrigation and drainage. He began investigating the causes of malaria in Bengal from the following basic premise:The phenomenon of epidemic disease is always the result of a change in environment. Investigation of diseases and epidemics, whether of malaria, plague, cholera, and other infective disease becomes essen-tially a study of man’s relationship to his environment of which para-sites form only a part...It follows that the investigation of the causes of malaria disease among a population, necessitates a consideration not only of the parasites of malaria and anopheline carriers which may represent only one factor in the condition, but an inquiry into every detail of human environment...The whole question of rural malaria in India is bound up with the problem of agriculture...The attempt to re-duce malaria by such measures as drainage or the clearing of jungle unless accompanied by an extension and improvement in cultivation is foredoomed to failure.Bentley suggested the adoption of ‘bonification’ in Bengal to check malaria. Primarily an Italian measure, ‘bonificizione’ meant combining measures for the improvement of both agricul-ture and public health in a single scheme. It consisted of, first, the regulation of all surface waters, second, the improvement of the fertility of the soil, third, the cultivation of those classes of crops best suited to local conditions and finally, the increase of prosper-ity among the agricultural population. “Any measure, whatever its character, provided it will simulate agriculture and encourage cultivation making the soil field the highest possible return to local agricultural population and thus promoting their health and prosperity is ‘bonification’ in the truest sense.”Influence of EnvironmentAs has been pointed out by scholars, the environment remained a powerful influence in explaining the etiology and incidence of malaria20 not only in the early part of the 19th century but also after the growth of a new paradigm21– that of the germ theory of disease which developed during the last decades of the 19th century. They have suggested that many middle class Bengalis of the time were influenced by an environmental determinism which had been promoted by the miasmatic theories and the medico-topographical surveys of the Europeans. It seemed that after the publication of the census reports of 1891 and 1901, the view became popular among middle class Bengali Hindus that theirs was a “dying race” decimated by malaria. “In 1876 a Bengali doctor, Gopaul Chunder Roy, published his own mournful account of ‘Burdwan fever’, and his funeral images were repeated again and again in Bengali writing over the next 50 years.”22In the 20th century, we notice that a section of nationalist Bengali intellectuals advocated, and also came forward to adopt, a programme of rural reconstruction based on ‘atmasakti’ or ‘strength of the self’.23 Village reorganisation meant, among other things, the improvement of the rural environment and the health and hygiene of the villagers, the promotion of measures to raise agricultural productivity, the spread of education and so on.24 Here, we have to discusssome of theviews and activities of one of India’s greatest renaissance men, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), and the well known Bengali intellectual, geographer and sociologist, Radhakamal Mukherjee (1889-1966). The environmental dimension of their thinking is linked to the issue of malaria and “green” concerns worldwide. Both of them were acquainted with the Scottish environmentalist Patrick Geddes, who lived in India between 1915 and 1922, and broadly contri-buted to the environmental paradigm in his own way. Sociology with Ecological OrientationMukherjee outlined the theoretical possibilities of a sociology with an ecological orientation.25 Or, in other words, he made “ecological processes a fundamental part of his explanatory framework”.26He wrote: Professor Patrick Geddes and his school, working both in Great Britain and recently in France, are not only using the regional survey method as a comprehensive tool of social study in definite regions and cities, but also have evolved a single, mathematical schema for presentation and co-ordination of their data. In America, Huntington has studied particularly the effects of the climatic factors on the distribution of human energy and the opportunities and limitations of civilisation in different environments...The conception that man and the region are not separate but mutually inter-dependent entities, plastic, fluent, growing has been emphasised in myRegional Sociology. It outlines a programme in which the region and the web of life within it are made the subject of a new division of Sociology. Man’s mastery of his region consists not in a one-sided exploitation but in a mutual give and take, which alone can keep alive the never-ending cycle of the region’s life processes...There is a balance between the natural and the vegetable and the animal environment, including the human, in which nature delights...Such balance assumes great significance in old countries like India and China. Here we can discern, especially in the mature densely-peopled plains, every stage of the process by which the re-gional balance is kept stable and how it is upset both by natural fluc-tuations such as are caused by cycles of rainfall or changes of land-scape and river, or by long continued human actions such as the de-struction of forests, non-conservative agriculture, and artificial inter-ference with natural drainage, ...27 Mukherjee was an outstanding disciple of Geddes and fell under his spell when he was in India. Geddes has been called a biological ecologist and a social ecologist who sought to under-stand the dynamic interrelationships between human societies and their natural environments. He was one of the first to criticise the parasitism of the modern city and highlight the exploitation of the rural hinterland by it for energy and materials. He called for a healthy village life where contact with nature would blend harmoniously with the advantages urban life offered. His ideas
EPIDEMICS IN SOUTH ASIAN HISTORYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 22, 200859Bengal his headquarters and undertook tours to different parts of his estates by houseboat on the river Padma. He thus gained an understanding of the varied landscape of rural India and knowl-edge about the struggles of the peasants and ordinary villagers. Also, as has been noted by his biographer, Krishna Kripalani, the two aspects of nature Tagore loved best, space and motion, the sky and the river, he had to his heart’s content.31His fundamen-tally creative genius also compelled him to make plans to reorganise the life of the villagers in a novel and unprecedented way and help them build their own schools, hospitals, roads and water tanks, set up cooperative enterprises and banks and a system of self-government.In 1901, he founded a school in Santiniketan in Birbhum district which was different from all other schools in various ways.32 His aim was to combine the spirit of ancient Indian ‘tapovana’, or forest hermitages, with modern knowledge to replace the mechanical system of education introduced by the British. He sent his eldest son, Rathindranath Tagore and Santosh Majumdar in 1906 (and later his son-in-law Nagen Ganguli) to the United States to study scientific agriculture. They later actively participated in developmental works in the villages. Rathindranath wrote: “Problems of the village did not attract any notice until Mahatma Gandhi came on the national platform. Very few people today realise that father was the pioneer in gram seva or community development work, besides his achievements in literature and the fine arts.”33The village improvement programme implemented by Tagore in Kaligram Pargana of Rajshahi district even earned the praise of the British administration. SantiniketanThe experience of rural development work gained in Kaligram later helped Tagore take up similar projects in Surul village near Santiniketan, which he bought from the zamindar of Raipur in 1912. The idea of setting up a world university in Santiniketan gradually unfolded in Tagore’s mind. Visva Bharati, a meeting place of the East and the West, was formally inaugurated in Santiniketan in December 1921. In February 1922, the university’s Institute of Rural Reconstruction was established in Surul, which was renamed Sriniketan (the abode of plenty) the following year. Probably in the same year, Geddes, whom Tagore had met during a 1921 visit to France, travelled around Santiniketan, Sriniketan and the surrounding villages. He also prepared a detailed scheme for village improvement. Tagore, who was very impressed with Geddes’ character, wrote: “What so strikingly attracted me in Patrick Geddes when I came to know him in India was, not his scientific achievements, but, on the contrary, the rare fact of the fullness of his personality rising far above his science. Whatever subjects he has studied and mastered have become vitally one with his humanity…”34 The ideal which Tagore wanted to put into practice in Sriniketan was, in his own words, “…to bring back life in its completeness into the villages, making the rural folk self-reliant and self-respectful, acquainted with the cultural traditions of their country and competent to make an efficient use of modern resources for the improvement of their physical, intellectual and economic condition.” Apart from agricultural improvement, health improvement formed an important aspect of the village reconstruction work in Sriniketan. It was reported: “…when in 1922 Visva Bharati workers started welfare work in some of the villages around Sriniketan, they soon discovered that no improve-ment in the condition of the villagers could be so vital as that of improving the health of the people. Since then they have been carefully studying the problem trying out different methods of placing the benefits of medical science within reach of the poverty stricken masses. It did not take long to realise that any scheme involving charity will defeat its own object. The problem was to devise a scheme of health work which could be maintained by the people themselves.” One of Tagore’s chief associates in implementing the programme of rural reconstruction at Sriniketan was a young English idealist named Leonard K Elmhirst. C F Andrews and W W Pearson were among the others who helped in various ways. Surul was a decaying village infested with malaria, monkeys and mutual mistrust, or the four Ms, as Elmhirst called them. Elmhirst worked on rural reconstruction while training a group of students and teachers who had been picked by Tagore. Improvement of village health received priority. A cooperative malaria society was formed by him, Kalimohan Ghosh and Gopal Chattopadhyay in Sriniketan during 1922-23. In 1923, the Sriniketan dispensary, which was principally devoted to the work of malaria prevention, began functioning. This health centre continued to expand over the years. The popularity of the dispensary grew so rapidly that it became very difficult to meet the demands of a growing number of people from the surrounding areas. During 1929-30, 8,328 patients from nearly 150 villages were treated in the dispensary and 3,000 of them were suffering from malaria.Apart from Andrews, Pearson and Elmhirst (and his wife, Dorothy) from England, another great friend of Tagore and Visva Bharati was Harry Timbers, a doctor from America. The health programme in Sriniketan got a big boost when he arrived with his wife, Rebecca, in 1931.35 In July 1931, a dispensary was opened in Binuria village, a few kilometres away from Sriniketan, where the Timbers worked hard to get the villagers to form a health cooperative. In 1932, Timbers joined the Ross Field Experimental Station in Karnal and secured a certificate from the Malaria Survey of India after completing a six-week course. On his return, he openeda Malaria Research and Control Laboratory in Sriniketan. In May 1932, a pamphlet entitled ‘A Village Health Programme’ was published by the Institute of Rural Reconstruction, Sriniketan, which described the health problems faced by villagers as well as their possible remedies. It also spoke of the objectives, methods and progress made by the Institute.36 While outlining the Institute’s future plans, it described its home district in the following words:The district around Sriniketan is typical of the greater part of Western Bengal. Its economy is mainly dependant upon one crop, – rice. This crop is harvested once a year. Rainfall and a few small rivers, all of which are in the so-called “dying” state, i e, are silting up, are the sources of water. The district is highly malarious, and is subject at in-tervals of every four or five years to famine and epidemics of cholera. The population is almost static.
EPIDEMICS IN SOUTH ASIAN HISTORYmarch 22, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly60This document also presented an account of the work done in the district, including the preparation of maps of each village which would be used “in making graphic medical records, in locating the foci of endemic diseases, all of which informa-tion will be of value in developing preventive measures.” It further said:…we are making a Malaria Survey of our district. This is a study aimed at investigating all phases of malaria in the region, viz, the species of anopheline mosquitoes responsible for transmitting the disease; their breeding places and seasonal variations; the kinds of malaria para-sites and their seasonal variations: the topographical, meteorological, economic, social and other conditions relating to the disease; and ex-perimentation with methods of control and prevention as nearly with-in the economic reach of the village as possible.The village health programme was marked by remarkable sincerity and its achievements attracted the attention of different institutions, including the School of Tropical Medicine, Central Malaria Bureau (Kasauli) and the League of Nations.37 It was reported inVisva Bharati News in 1932: Dr D N Roy, Research Entomologist, School of Tropical Medicine, Calcutta, visited Sriniketan and made valuable suggestions regard-ing the malaria survey. Sjs S M Banerjee and P Dasgupta have joined the medical staff here. They were specially trained as mosquito dis-sectors by R C trickland, School of Tropical Medicine, Calcutta, and will work in this capacity under Dr Timbers…It is hoped that at least 20,000 mosquitoes will be dissected and examined before the end of this year.In Tagore we see a social and environmental activist with global connections engaged in village reconstruction by implementing, among other things, health and environmental uplift programmes. He was well aware that malaria originated in Bengal as a consequence of British colonial policy. Like many contemporaries, he believed that railway embankments had obstructed drainage and contributed to the spread of malaria. In his presidential address at the annual meeting of the Bengal Central Co-operative Anti-Malaria Society in February 1924, Tagore pointed out: “It is true, very much true, that malaria had come to stay in our country where there used to be no malaria. One reason is that there was no railway then in our country. There was no obstruction to the normal outlet of water”.38Public health workers in Britain, engineers in the US and agricultural entomologists gradually became aware of the adverse impact the expansion of the transport network had onthe health of the Indian people. They did not hesitate to describe the disease as ‘man-made malaria’. In other south Asian colonies such as Malaysia and Indonesia, the work of malario-logists had not only led to a detailed understanding of the role environmental factors played in malaria transmission, but also to effective control by managing the environment in a variety of habitats.39 In contrast, apart from small-scale efforts at controlling malaria initiated by voluntary, non-official organisations, the control of the disease through adopting environmental sanitation at an official level was largely absent
EPIDEMICS IN SOUTH ASIAN HISTORYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 22, 200861in India. According to some scholars, this was due to the failure of an experiment conducted in Mian Mir where attempts were made during 1901-03 to eradicate mosquitoes through sanitary measuresbut ended in disaster.40 Ronald Ross’ advocacy of sanitation was discredited and some advocated using quinine as a preventive. The upshot of all this at the government level wasthatIndiadidnot resort to sanitation on a significant scale to curb mosquitoes. Despite this, the views of those who stressed that environmental degradation was a major factor in the Notes 1 See Arabinda Samanta,Malarial Fever in Colonial Bengal 1820–1939 Social History of An Epidemic, Firma KLM Private Limited, Kolkata, 2002, David Arnold,Colonising the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth Century India, OUP, Delhi, 1993; idem, The New Cambridge History of India 111·5, Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India, Cambridge University Press, Cam-bridge, 2000; Kabita Ray,History of Public Health: Colonial Bengal 1921-1947, K P Bagchi & Company, Calcutta, 1998; Mark Harrison, Public Health in British India: Anglo-Indian Preventive Medicine 1859-1914, Cambridge University Press, Cam-bridge, 1994; Ihtesham Kazi, ‘Environmental Fac-tors Contributing to Malaria in Colonial Bengal’ in Deepak Kumar (ed), Disease and Medicine in India: A Historical Overview,Tulika, New Delhi, 2001; Ira Klein, ‘Malaria and Mortality in Bengal, 1840-1921’,The Indian Economic and Social Histo-ry Review, Vol IX, No 2, June 1972. 2 Francis Zimmerman,The Jungle and the Aroma of Meats: An Ecological Theme in Hindu Medicine, Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi, 1999. 3 Quoted in J Prest,The Garden of Eden: The Botani-cal Garden and the Re-Creation of Paradise, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1981, p 34. 4 D Arnold, Colonising…, p 25. 5 W Bosman, A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea, Knapton and Midwinter, London, 1705; J Hunter, Observations on the Disease of the Army in Jamaica,Nicol, London, 1788; B Moseley, A Treatise on Tropical Diseases, on Military Opera-tions, and on climate of the West Indies, 2nd edn, Cadell, London, 1789; Quoted in D Arnold (ed), Warm Climates and Western Medicine: The Emer-gence of Tropical Medicine, 1500-1900, Amsterdam: Warm Climates(Editions Rodopi B V, Amsterdam-Atlanta ,GA 1996, pp 1-19. 6 Quoted in Kenneth F Kiple and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, ‘Race, War and Tropical Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Caribbean’ in D Arnold (ed), Warm Climates …, pp 65-79. 7 John Clark, Observations on the Diseases in Long Voyages to Hot Countries and Particularly on Those Which Prevail in the East Indies,Wilson and Nicol, London, 1773. 8 D Arnold, Colonising … p 33. 9 James Johnson,The Influence of Tropical Climates, More Especially the Climate of India, on European Constitutions,London, 1813, p 59.10 Quoted in D Arnold, Colonising …, p 35. 11 D Arnold, Science, Technology …, p 77. 12 James Taylor, A Sketch of the Topography and Statistics of Dacca, Calcutta, 1840, pp 322, 329-330, quoted in D Arnold, Colonising…,p 34. 13 W W Hunter, A Statistical Account of Bengal, VolIX, Pabna, Trubner & Co, London, 1876, p 241. 14 Ibid. 15 Hunter,ibid, Vol II, Districts of Nadia and Jessore, p 335. 16 Digamber Mitter, The Epidemic Fever in Bengal, Calcutta, 1876.17 Note by Col Nicolls, Chief Engineer, Bengal, on the effect of roads and railways on the general drainage of Lower Bengal, Calcutta, 1882.Tagore, a fervently religions person and respected leader of the socio-religious reform movement, the Brahmo Samaj. He was born in 1861 in the ancestral house of the Tagores in Jorasanko in the growing metropolis of Calcutta and was brought up in a cultural atmosphere which represented the creativity of the 19th century renaissance in Bengal. 31 Krishna Kripalani, Tagore, A Life, National Book Trust, New Delhi, 1971, p 75.32See Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity, Penguin Books, London, 2005, p 115; Krishna Kripalani,Tagore,op cit.33 Rathindranath Tagore, ‘Father as I Knew Him’ in A Centenary Volume, Rabindranath Tagore: 1861-1961,Sahitya Akademi,New Delhi, 1961.34 Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay,Rabindrajibani, Vol 3, Visva Bharati, Calcutta, 1935, p 53.35 Dr Harry Timbers took part in relief work organised by The American Friends Service Committee, an organisation of the American Quakers, in war devastated East Europe after the first world war. In Warsaw, Poland, the Quakers ran a relief work centre, which he was sent to. He dedicated him-self to helping refugees, especially children. Here he met Rebecca, who became his wife in 1922. They were sent to Moscow which also had a relief centre and participated mainly in distributing food in drought-stricken Russia. Rebecca also served as a nurse and both of them started to learn the Russian language. On re-turning to the US, Timbers studied medicine for two years in Chicago’s Rush Medical College. He also earned an MD from John Hopkins University in 1928 and the Diploma of the National Board of Medical Examiners, USA, in 1929. They met C F Andrews, a missionary and a friend and associate of Rabindranath Tagore, who explained the ideal of Visva Bharati and requested them to join the health division of Sriniketan. They went to Santiniketanin1929, visited Sriniketan and surroundingareasandsent a report to the American Friends Service Com-mittee. They returned two years later. Timbers accompanied the poet to Russia in 1930.I In 1931, hevisited Yugoslavia to gain experience in health cooperative planning, an idea he later tried to implement in Sriniketan.36 Nepal Majumdar, Rabindranath O Harry Timbers (in Bengali), Dey’s Publishing, Calcutta, 1990, pp 143-59, Appendix 3. 37 Nepal Majumdar, ibid, pp 62-67.38 Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Malaria’,Rabindra Rachana-bali, Vol 14, Visva Bharati, Calcutta, 1938, p 390.39 D I Bradley, ‘Watson, Swellengrebel and Species Sanitation: Environmental and Ecological Aspects’ in Parasitologia, 36 Nos 1-2, 1994; Malaria and Ecosystems: Historical Aspects: Proceedings of a Rockefeller Foundation Conference,Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio, Como, Italy, October 18-22, 1993, W F Bynum and B Fantini (eds), pp 137-47. 40 W F Bynum, ‘An Experiment that Failed: Malaria Control at Mian Mir’, ibid, pp 107-20.41 I A Najera, ‘The Control of Tropical Diseases and Socio-economic Development’, ibid, pp 17-33.outbreak of diseases like malaria, are worth studying not only because they are a part of the history of the social response to the problem but also because they have a present-day relevance. It may be mentioned in this connection that the global malaria control strategy adopted at a World Health Organisation confer-ence held in Amsterdam in October 199241 recommended the repeal of environmentally perverse initiatives (for example, deforestation) which seem to worsenpollutionandacceleratepest and disease vector resistance. 18 C A Bentley, Malaria and Agriculture in Bengal, Calcutta, 1925, p 35. 19 For a discussion of his works see Sujata Mukherjee, ‘Malaria and Morbidity in Colonial Bengal’ in Ranjit Kumar Roy (ed), The Imperial Embrace: Society and Polity under the Raj, Essays in Honour of Sunil Kumar Sen, Rabindra Bharati University, Calcutta, 1993.20 This however does not mean that the discoveries of Laveran, Mansion, Ross and Grasi concerning the role of the anopheles mosquito in the trans-mission of malaria did not have any effect on ma-laria research. C Strickland, Professor ofMedical Entomology and K L Chowdhury of the School of Tropical Medicine jointly published “An Anophe-line Survey of the Bengal Districts” which tried to investigate the cause for local variations in malarial incidence in the province. Stickland criticised and opposed Bentley’s views and put forward the theory that the problem of malaria should be studied entirely in terms of the mos-quito. M O T Iyengar’s paper on the distribution of a species of anopheles mosquitoes in certain parts of Bengal highlighted the prevalence of this malarial parasite in areas which had previ-ously been free from its existence. See Sujata Mukherjee,op cit. 21 D Arnold, Colonising …, p 36. 22 D Arnold, New Cambridge …,p80.23See Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Swadeshi Samaj’ ‘Atma sakti’, Rabindra Rachanabali, Vol III, Calcutta, 1961. For an analysis of how this became part of constructive ‘swadeshi’, see Sumit Sarkar, Swadeshi Movement in Bengal: 1903-1908, People’sPub-lishing House, New Delhi, 1973.24 For a recent analysis of the rural reconstruction programmes advocated by some of the Bengal intellectuals, see Bipasha Raha, ‘Rural Recon-struction in Early Twentieth Century Bengal: Perceptions of Nagendranath Gangopadhyay and Radhakamal Mukhopadhyay’ in History, Vol VII, No 1, 2005, Department of History, University of Burdwan. I am indebted to Prof Anuradha Roy for directing my attention to this.25 Ramachandra Guha (ed), Social Ecology, OUP, Delhi, 1994, p 12.26 Some of his famous works areRegional Sociology, Century Co, New York, 1938; Changing Face of Bengal, Calcutta, 1938; The Regional Balance of Man: An Ecological Theory ofPopulation, Univer-sity of Madras, Madras, 1938; Social Ecology, Longhans, Green and Co, London, 1938; Planning the Countryside, Hind Kitab, Bombay, 1946.27 Excerpted from Radhakamal Mukherjee, ‘Eco-logical Contributions to Sociology’,The Socio-logical Review, Vol XXII, No 4, October 1930.28 For a discussion of the different traditions in environmental thought, see Ramachandra Guha, Environmentalism – A Global History, OUP, New Delhi, 2000.29 R K Mukherjee,The Changing Face of Bengal, op cit, p 74.30 Rabindranath Tagore was the grandson of ‘Prince’ Dwarakanath Tagore, a renowned entrepreneur, landlord and social reformer in 19th century Bengal, and the youngest son of Debendranath

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top