Purifying the River: Pollution and Purity of Water in Colonial Calcutta

Pratik Chakrabarti
2015 Studies in History  
This paper explores the river as a site of urban modernity in India. At the heart of this paper is the colonial project of purifying the water of river Hooghly for the domestic supply of Calcutta. The British built the first water purification system for the city around the middle of the nineteenth century at Pulta. Around this history, the paper looks at the various discourses and practices of pollution, purity and purification. The debates were not just about whether the river was polluted or
more » ... ver was polluted or suitable for the supply of water to the city but whether piped water itself was pure. In this story, the science of purity confronted Hindu ritual purity. At another level, the very idea of purity itself was on trial. One of the main sites of examination for this paper is thus the various notions of purity at play in Calcutta at this time within both western science and Hindu scriptural deliberations. These were accentuated by the fact that in Calcutta and several other colonial cities, water was conceptualised through multiple semantic and spatial tropes. The paper situates the project of purification at the heart of this entangled reality and discourse of purity of water. At the heart of this paper is the colonial project of purifying the water of river Hooghly for the domestic supply of Calcutta. The first water purification system for the city was built by the British around the middle of the nineteenth century at Pulta. Around this history, the paper looks at the various discourses and practices of pollution, purity and purification. The debates were about not just whether the river was polluted or suitable for the supply of drinking water to the city but whether the piped water itself was pure. At one level, these were based on two different notions of purity and pollution. On the one hand, in the Victorian sanitarian regime that imposed itself upon Calcutta and its river, impurity had a clear physical dimension in terms of visible filth on the surface of the water, microscopic germs, or silt. On the other, within Hindu ideas pollution and impurity had a more intangible and ritualistic meaning. The river itself, the object of the colonial project of purification, was venerated by Hindus as sacred and was thus considered inherently pure and incorruptible. In this narrative thus, the modern sanitarian ideas confronted the Hindu notions of ritual purity. Yet, this was more than a debate between orthodox Hindus and the colonial regime, as for both the parties the question of filth had deep moral connotations. Modern practices and habits of cleanliness have often been seen to resemble non-modern rituals of warding off impurity. 1 For both the Hindus and the colonial sanitarians, the impurity and purity of the river had layers of visible and invisible meanings. While the natural and visible muddiness of the Hooghly was perceived to be an impurity by the colonial officials, it was accepted as an essential part of the presumably pure and sacred Gangajal. On the other hand, Hindus believed the floating effluents discharged from the septic tanks to be polluting the sacred river, but the colonial officials regarded these as chemically sterile. Moreover, the Hindus in their arguments about the purity of the Hooghly imbibed Victorian sanitarian values and among the British sanitarians in India, there was considerable diversity of opinion regarding the purity of the waters of the great rivers of India and the merits and modes of their purification. Even within the colonial or modernist ideas of impurity, there was, despite the often-repeated phrase of 'pure water', a remarkable lack of agreement about what that 1 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966), pp. 30-32. 2 purity constituted or how it could be achieved. 2 There were different versions of this purity in colonial literature; pure water, natural water, clear water, purified water, wholesome water. It was as if pure water was a vital and obvious category and yet at the same time, an inaccessible ideal. The very idea of purity itself, it seems, was on trial. One of the main sites of examination for this paper is thus the various notions of purity at play in Calcutta at this time. Nowhere was this more prominent than on the question of water since in India water had been for much longer linked to purity and cleanliness than compared to Europe, where it was linked to hygiene only in the nineteenth century. So, what is 'pure water'; is it water in its natural state? Or, water without dirt and pathogenic microbes? Or, water in its most essential form, i.e. just H 2 O? We will come across similar questions in the following narrative repeatedly. These questions have been difficult to resolve even within modern philosophy of science. Hasok Chang has shown that the question whether water is H 2 O has complex scientific, philosophical, moral and political undertones. There is no set standard of what pure water is. 3 Moreover, if we take Chang's plea for appreciating the pluralism in science a step further, towards the pluralistic understanding of purity of water, then the analysis becomes even more challenging, particularly if we include Hindu notions of purity into this examination. Historians have shown that purity is a fluid concept. The science of purity of water in this period was at its formative stage. Even a century after scientists showed water to be constituted of hydrogen and oxygen, debates continued among chemists, physicians and bacteriologists about what constituted 'pure water'. 4 Christopher Hamlin has shown that most often, pure water was defined by 'commonsense standard', appearance, smell, and taste. During the emergence of the science of impurity in Britain during the Victorian era, this standard was overthrown and a new regime of experts, comprising of chemists, hygienists, and bacteriologists commenced. Even then, the various specific analytic procedures continued to be a matter of scientific controversy. In India, and several other colonial sites, the science of purity confronted ideas of ritual purity. Yet, despite such close scrutiny, pure water, in all its semantic and physical sense, remained elusive for the majority of the residents of the city. If purity is a difficult concept to untangle, the question of purification has been placed at the heart of modern conceptualisation of nature and environment. Bruno Latour argued that the idea of 'purification' is based on the separation between nature and culture. 5 Latour's work challenges us not to think of nature and society in modernistic terms, in which purification appears to distil nature from the social. This challenge becomes even more acute while writing the history of water in Calcutta, in which the natural and the social were deeply enmeshed, and yet that enmeshing was the problem of modernity. The natural water of Calcutta was seen to be endemically pathogenic and heavily silted and unsuitable for social/human consumption. Latour thus makes it perilous for us to write a linear history of 'nature', as for him, the very construct of nature, engendering a separation of the human and the non-human is a modernist construct. The only way out of this dilemma seems to revert to the non-modern; to write in terms of networks in which the human and non-human appear intermingled.
doi:10.1177/0257643015586908 fatcat:kk7fguocgvgspdvcqkm4jbitzi