The last five years of the 19th century were disastrous for India, which brought an array of misfortune and distress.
The rapid growth of Bombay’s commerce led to a large influx of workers. In the 1891 census the population of Bombay was counted to be 820,000. Most of the immigrant workers (over 70%) lived in chawls. The city services were not geared towards the well-being of this part of the population and various diseases were endemic to the slums.
In September 1896 the first case of Bubonic plague was detected in Mandvi. It spread rapidly to other parts of the city, and the death toll was estimated at 1,900 people per week through the rest of the year. Many people fled from Bombay at this time, and in the census of 1901, the population had actually fallen to 780,000.
The Plague was studied at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and the studies were done by a Russian Bacteriologist Waldemar Haffkine. He had also developed an anti-cholera vaccine which he tried out successfully in India.
He was the first microbiologist who developed and used vaccines against cholera and bubonic plague. He tested the vaccines on himself and was acclaimed as “a savior of humanity”.
On 9th December 1898 the Bombay City Improvement Trust was created by an act of the (British) parliament. It was entrusted with the job of creating a healthier city. One of the measures taken by the CIT was the building of roads, like Princess Street and Sydenham Road (now Mohammedali Road), which would channel the sea air into the more crowded parts of the town.
The Bubonic Plague spread from Bombay Presidency to other parts of the country such as Punjab, Bengal, United Provinces and in 1905 its traces were seen in even Burma.
By 1901, 4 Lakh people had died; the death toll reaches over 10 Lakh by 1905. It was on its height when in the last week of April 1905, fifty eight thousand people were reported to have killed. However, since then the number of deaths fell.
The plague spread rapidly in the Bombay Presidency and people started fleeing from Mumbai, Pune and other places. In 1897, the death started dancing in Pune and the government decided to take drastic steps against the killer disease.
There were riots in various locations due opposition to government policy of sanitary measures. The government had decided to take drastic action against the Plague and as per the Special Plague Committee’s recommendations 893 officers and men both British and native were placed under the command of Mr. WC Rand and Lieutenant Ayerst.
The soldiers started house searching and the social taboos took it as a kind of oppression. The people got irked and Tilak also opposed this way of the Government’s suppression of the disease. He wrote inflammatory articles in “Kesari” his newspaper. The result was that these two officers were shot dead by some Pune youngsters.
After this, a series of trials began and some people including Tilak were charged of sedition. Tilak was sentenced to 18 months rigorous imprison. In the court he declared: “Swaraj ha maza janmasidha adhikar aahe ani to mi milavinach”. This made Tilak a national Hero and when he returned from jail, Mother India had found herself given birth to a true hero.
The opposition of the Government policy in the Indian Press that led to the series of sedition trials. The result was that a new Press Regulation was adopted in 1898.
But this was just a part of the misfortune for India. The same time was of severe famine attacks affecting several parts of India.