Saturday, March 29, 2014

Pump it out

"A civilisation is known by the quality of its drains". I am sure it was not Florence Nightingale who said this, but she said quite a lot about sanitation in India. Particularly, she was the moving force behind Madras' efforts to get a drainage system in the second half of the 19th century. She was convinced that Lord Hobart, Governor of Madras between May 1872 and April 1875, was a victim of the city not having proper drains. In her letter of June 25, 1875 to William Clark, who was in-charge of the sanitary engineering project in Madras, she writes, "There is small doubt that Lord Hobart died of delay: i.e. in carrying out Drainage".

Despite her support, the sanitary engineering project for Madras moved at an excruciatingly slow pace. The reasons could have been many, but in 1882, a letter to Lord Ripon, then Viceroy of India, she despairs, "You ask me to tell you "as to what is doing with the sewerage and draining of Madras." I wish I could. I only know that they are doing something different from any of the plans which have been discussed." Lord Ripon had had the work kicked off in 1881, but even then it did not proceed quickly. Somehow, it seems to have all come together and the city does have a drainage system today, just in case you are wondering.

The system as it worked then was to collect all the sewage in what is today the May Day Park and pump it out to the sea, possibly through the Cooum. That sewage farm has disappeared, but a key office of Chennai's Metrowater operates from those premises. The name of that road also calls to memory a time when all of Chennai's drains would come here to be pumped out! 

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