Scattered as they are through every portion of the city in large numbers, any unrest
or tendency to strike among them immediately affects numerous other low-caste natives,
and any development of panic or alarm straightway spreads to their immediate surroundings.
Among the first to have followed their example would have been the large staffs of
labourers employed under the Executive, Water, and Drainage Engineers, on whom we
were largely dependent for carrying on our struggle with the plague.
A strike of hallkhors is not unknown in Bombay. The great hallkhor strike
occurred in 1866 and lasted for ten days; 480 men left work, causing an inconceivable
amount of danger and nuisance. The scavengering bigarris struck work on the 3rd July
1889 for a day and a half, and again on 29th of the same month till the 3rd August. The
whole city, except a portion of F and G wards, was affected. Luckily the men on the
Trdeo Reclamation did not join the strike while the hallkhors remained faithful and
assisted in scavengering work. This strike, though so short and partial, was very serious
and caused dangerous and widespread nuisances of every kind. It can be imagined, then,
from the above data, what would be the result if the whole body of bigarris and hallkhors
struck work. In a fortnight the city would have to be abandoned, dependent as it
is on the hand-removal of sewage and cart-removal of sweepings by these men.
It will, thus, be seen in the face of a foe like the plague, with what grave anxiety the
Municipal Executive regarded any possible spread of alarm or disaffection among its
working staff. On their presence or absence, respectively, depended the safety or ruin
of this vast and important city-a ruin which, in the midst of an increasing epidemic like the
bubonic plague, would have been so absolute and complete as to render even partial
recovery a question of years. On these men and their good-will hung the carrying out
of every sanitary measure, and even in ordinary times were they all to remove from the
town for a fortnight, Bombay would be converted into a vast dunghill of putrescent
ordure. I grasped the hard reality of the situation at the end of September, and
determined that, whatever else happened, the bigarris and hallkhors must be kept
together at all hazards, as if they struck work and left, half the inhabitants would
speedily follow them, and no single measure could be adopted against the plague either
then or thereafter, nor could even the Europeans, Prsis and high caste natives have
remained in the city.
It must be remembered that in ordinary times these men are irreplaceable for the
reason that even if drafts of sweepers were obtained from 'Rjputna and other places,
they would be quite useless for several months until they had been thoroughly drilled and
had become acquainted with the town: new men would have no knowledge of the various
gullies and privies they had to clean, and would be late ignorant of the difficult conditions
under which they would have to work. With the p gue raging in Bombay it would have
been quite impossible to induce any sufficient number of sweepers or labourers from other
places to come and work, in the face of the fact that the regular staff had gone, and the
inhabitants were moving hither and thither.
On 6th October 1896, a notification granting extended powers to the Municipal
Commissioner, under Section 434 of the Municipal Act, was issued with the approval of
Government. Under this notification such measures of segregation and removal to
hospital as had been adopted were legalised and continued, and the necessary right of
entry into affected houses was placed on a clear footing.
The epidemic, however, continued to increase and, coupled with the operations in
progress, was productive of widespread alarm. The people refused all medical aid, or to
listen to any advice, and many began to leave the city.
Discontent, unrest and alarm speedily manifested themselves among the hallkhors
and bigarris; the Health Officer was in daily communication and held frequent con-
ferences with me on this all-important subject, and every possible means was adopted
to keep the men together. Throughout October the panic continued to increase, and with
it the exodus from the city; resistance and obstruction were offered to every municipal
measure, whether of segregation, disinfection or cleansing; medical aid was rejected,
and the attitude of the people was "Let us alone to die, but do not interfere with our
customs or prejudices which are far more important than any danger from the plague."
Of all measures taken at this time for combating the plague, the one which caused
most alarm was segregation or removal to hospital. The people not only regarded
hospital treatment with detestation, but reports were freely circulated that the authorities
merely took them there to make a speedy end of them. A gang of sconndrels took to
blackmailing by personating the police and municipal servants, and increased the general
terror, extorting money as they did under threats of removal to hospital. Several of
these free-lances were at last brought to book by the police, and with a few salutary
convictions and sentences by the Magistrates that danger disappeared. None the less
surely, however, the panic increased, and while our municipal employs showed signs of
wavering, the great body of mill-hands began to be infected by the general alarm and
flight of so many persons from the city.
On the 10th of October, a number of mill-hands assembled outside the Arthur Road
Hospital and threatened its speedy demolition as well as violence to the employs. After
causing great alarm to the inmates and staff of the hospital they dispersed. On the after-
noon of the 29th October a gang of nearly 1,000 mill-hands attacked the Arthur Road