- Contagion and Enclaves: Tropical Medicine in Colonial India by Nandini Bhattacharya
public health, Darjeeling, miasma, tea plantations
Understanding the ways in which ideas and practices of public health were shaped by the imperatives of the colonial state and in particular, that state’s responsibility for the neglect of public health in colonial India, have been some of the most important problems that have preoccupied historians of medicine in South Asia. Scholarly assessments of this conundrum have been varied. Some historians have emphasized the culpability of the colonial state, drawing attention to the general lack of interest in providing public health measures and infrastructure for the Indian population. By contrast, [End Page 144] others have located the failure to establish a functional and comprehensive public health system in local opposition to Western models of sanitation and local reluctance to pay higher municipal taxes. Nandini Bhattacharya’s book provides a fresh and nuanced perspective to this ongoing debate by examining the practices and ideologies of tropical medicine in two little-explored colonial enclaves: the hill-station of Darjeeling, summer capital of the Bengal Presidency, and the adjoining tea estates in northern Bengal, with their increasing population of migrant laborers, many of whom hailed from eastern Nepal. This is a highly effective choice of setting, one that allows the author to unravel the intricate mechanisms of power, which shaped public health policy and practice in colonial India.
Through an analysis rich in administrative detail and socioeconomic insights, the author convincingly demonstrates how Darjeeling, albeit not entirely healthy or “white,” was constructed as a salubrious, rejuvenating enclave in the colonial imagination and benefited from superior medical facilities. This was in stark contrast to the neighboring tea plantations of northern Bengal, where laborers had little access to medical care, and disease management was largely driven by the predominant precepts of colonial capitalism, “profit” and “parsimony” (142). The administrative structure of the two enclaves served these different public health arrangements. While Darjeeling was placed directly under colonial administration and had privileged access to government grants (for the improvement of sewerage and septic tanks, for example), the tea plantations were relatively free from government interference and benefited little from its benevolence. Paradoxically, however, despite the fact that planters welcomed the government’s noninterventionist policy on the plantations themselves, which were continuously posited as “sanitary enclaves” free from diseases and malnourishment (125), they did expect central authorities to cater to the bastis (settlements) and the bazaars adjacent to the plantations. Most of the casual laborers on which the plantation economy depended lived in these areas, usually described as “centres of disease” in official and planters’ discourse (139). Thus both in Darjeeling, with its increasing Indian population, and on the plantation estates, therewas a clear understanding that diseases came from “outside,” either from the insalubrious and disease-ridden plains of India or from neighboring Indian settlements and bazaars.
Tropical medicine as a field of study has received a considerable amount of attention from historians of South Asia, yet enclaves, understood by Bhattacharya not only as “institutions of regimentation and confinement,” but rather as “special and distinct zones of colonial habitation, power and productivity” (8), have been little studied before. One exception is David Arnold’s Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), which [End Page 145] documents the importance of jails and barracks as medical and sanitary enclaves as a kind of laboratory, where much of medical knowledge in colonial India was created. Regarding the tea plantations in Jalpaiguri district, which form the object of study in Bhattacharya’s book as well, Samrat Chaudhury’s and Nitin Varma’s exercise in oral history (“Between Gods/Goddesses/Demons and ‘Science’: Perceptions of Health and Medicine among Plantation Labourers in Jalpaiguri District, Bengal,” Social Scientist 30 : 18–38) also provides a fascinating insight into the intersections of medicine and plantation life from the perspectives of the laborers themselves, a dimension that is largely absent in Contagion and Enclaves.