HL Deb 01 May 1854 vol 132 cc1037-42

presented a petition from the Trade Association and Inhabitants of the town of Calcutta, complaining of the inefficient manner in which their city is lighted, drained, and cleansed under the Local Municipal Act of 1852, and praying for the extension of Municipal Institutions to Calcutta similar to those enjoyed by towns in the United Kingdom, so far as the same may be applicable to that city. The noble Earl said he thought the prayer of the petitioners for a charter of incorporation was moderate, constitutional, and practicable. Calcutta was a city, the population of which amounted to 416,000 souls, and its annual rental 650,000l. It was the capital of our Indian possessions, and the most important port in our Asiatic dominions. Its annual exports amounted to 11,000,000l., and its imports to 9,000,000l., whilst the shipping which entered it reached 426,000 tons. Such a seaport was surely entitled, then, to some conveniences for the loading and unloading of ships; yet, although it had a river frontage of deep water two miles in extent, which was all public property, and without a single private right, strange to say, it did not possess a quay or a wharf. The city was also worse lighted, paved, drained, and cleansed, than any fifth or sixth-rate town in England. It was lighted with oil lamps, which were few and far between, and gas was wholly unknown there. Yet he questioned whether there was any town in England which had greater conveniences for gas than Calcutta, situated as it was about fifty or sixty miles from Burdwan, where there were abundant coal mines, with water communication. In consequence of its bad paving, draining, and cleansing, Calcutta was the most un- healthy of the great towns in India. Bilious affections, dysentery, remittent fevers, and malaria, were the common diseases of the place, and as old as its oldest inhabitants; but Calcutta was subject to a more fatal epidemic, which he believed was distinctly traceable to British exactions and British neglect. It was well known that many diseases of a preventible nature derived their origion from the squalid misery of the East—the measles, small-pox, and the Turkish plague were all of Oriental origin; but it was reserved for one of the oldest possessions of the British in India to inflict on mankind the scourge which went by the name of Asiatic, but which ought more properly to be called British, cholera, because it was in a part of the widely extended province of Bengal that this fearful epidemic first broke out, and thence commenced its destructive march over all parts of the globe, from China to Peru, and was uhappily now in our own manufacturing districts; and he believed that in its course it had swept off a greater number of souls than the whole population of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1817 this preventible disease made its first visit to Calcutta, carrying off thousands of the inhabitants. It raged with the utmost virulence during the three years of his (the Earl of Albemarle's) residence there; he believed it was never absent from it, and it never would cease unless the influence of Parliament, the commands of Her Majesty's Government, and the pressure of public opinion were brought to bear upon the local Government, in order to effect the removal of the present shameful and disgraceful mal-administration. The remedy for this state of things was a well-constituted municipal body. There would be no want of funds for such a body, because 35,000l. a year was raised from the inhabitants of Calcutta for municipal purposes; nor was there a want of competent persons, because there were 757 Christian inhabitants who had signed this petition. There was also the Bengal Chamber of Commerce, a body of powerful and intelligent merchants; and there was likewise the Trading Association, who were principally concerned with this petition, and who had for twenty years laid before the Government prayers for municipal incorporation, and rights similar to those existing in the mother country. There were no local difficulties in the way of drainage works in Calcutta, because there was an outfall of twelve feet from the city. A highly intel- ligent officer had made an admirable survey of Calcutta, and showed that at a slight expense a complete, perfect, and self-remunerative system of drainage could be established. The Report had been under the consideration of the Government ever since 1817. It was said to a Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, that the reason why his predecessors had not drained Phœnix Park was, that they were too busy draining the country. This was the case with the Indian administration; it was too busy draining the country of its resources to find time to remove the causes of disease, misery, and death, from the capital of our eastern empire. Of late years there had been much tinkering at the municipal institutions of Calcutta, the endeavour always being to give the semblance of popular representation, but to exclude its reality. In 1840 an Act was passed with this object; but it was succeeded in 1847 by another, the preamble of which showed its predecessor to have been inoperative. Two years afterwards, disease and mortality continuing, the Trade Association presented to the Governor General a plan of incorporation similar to that now suggested. All they gained was an admission from the Governor General that he was fully alive to the inconveniences; and to show that he was, the noble Marquess set off the following morning for the upper provinces, where he could breathe the pure air from the hills, leaving the inhabitants of Calcutta to inhale the filthy and destructive atmosphere by which they were surrounded. In 1851 another Act was passed, which was found to be inconvenient and ineffectual, and it was therefore repealed. In 1852 another Act was passed, and it was not difficult to understand why this did not succeed. The Administration of the affairs of Calcutta was by it vested in four Commissioners, two elected by the ratepayers and two appointed by the Government, a casting voice being, in all doubtful cases, given in favour of the Government nominees; so that virtually the office of the scavenger of Calcutta was in the hands of the Supreme Government, already burdened with the civil, military, and political administration of seven or eight nations and 150,000,000 of inhabitants. The Government Commissioners received no pay as such, but they were amply remunerated for the discharge of other duties. These duties were of so onerous a character that they had not time to attend to those which devolved upon them as Com- missioners; and they were at the same time as ignorant of what occurred in the native town, as was a dweller in Belgravia of what occurred in Whitechapel. At the same time there was a constant change of official persons; and on this account every plan of improvement, however well intentioned, fell to the ground. The elective Commissioners were paid a salary of about 300l. a year; but, owing to the existence of the Government veto, the office was one of such discredit that no one, either Native or European, of any standing, would fill it, and it was held by Natives of inferior character, whose only object was to obtain the pay. This was a perfect mockery of popular representation, and he did hope that on this part of the subject Her Majesty's Ministers would give a favourable answer. He also trusted that the Government would extend the benefits of any improvement to other large towns in India. Madras, with its open port and roadstead, suffered from a combination of evils which produced perpetual pestilence, perpetual famine, and a revenue which never met its expenditure. Bombay, which nearly equalled Calcutta in commercial importance, had no loading or unloading docks. In consequence of this, all traffic between ships and the shore was carried on by native boats; a circumstance which gave rise to an association of thieves to plunder the merchandise while in transit to the shore, which carried on its operations for 30 years, but was at last betrayed by one of its members, and those who composed it were transported. Sir Erskine Perry, the Judge before whom these thieves were tried, stated, in mentioning the case, that though the existence of the association and its operations were well known in the bazaar, no complaint had ever been made to the police. This was the consequence of not allowing the Natives to have a fair share in the management of their own affairs. He asked this question in no hostile spirit towards the Government, to which, as he believed their measures, with the exception of their Indian legislation, had had for their object the well-being of the country, he had given a general support. He begged to move that the petition which he had presented should be laid on the table, and to ask Her Majesty's Ministers what steps they meant to take in reference to the matters referred to in it.


said, that as the noble Earl had given no notice of the particular grievance of which he complained, neither himself (Earl Granville) nor any of his Colleagues could give him any answer in that respect. Considering the interest which the noble Earl took in the affairs of India, it was natural that he should have been requested to present this petition, and should have thought it courteous and right to have supported it in the argumentative speech which he had addressed to the House; but he (Earl Granville) had so much confidence in the soundness of his judgment that he did not think that he seriously intended to press the prayer of the petition upon their Lordships. He did not know that there was, in the course of the debates upon the India Bill, any stronger feeling expressed by any of their Lordships, than that care should be taken not in any respect to weaken the authority of the Governor General and the Legislative Council. What had fallen from the noble Earl had shown how competent the Governor General and the Council were to deal with this subject; for he had mentioned several Acts which had been passed upon the subject, and had particularly referred to one passed in the year 1852. The objections to that Act, as he (Earl Granville understood the noble Earl—for the Government in England had no knowledge that any appeal had been made to the Governor General in Council, against either the constitution of the board or the working of the system—seemed to be, that it was composed of two members appointed by the Government and two elected by the ratepayers. With regard to the former of these he apprehended that all their Lordships were aware that there were many things which in England could be done entirely by private individuals, with respect to which in India the Government was obliged to interfere. The objection that the other two Commissioners were not respectable Europeans, but Natives who undertook the office for the sake of the pay, was the last objection which he should have expected to have heard from the noble Earl. The population of Calcutta amounted in number to 416,000 persons, of whom about 400,000 were Natives; and he (Earl Granville) thought it an advantage that the elected members of the board should be two Natives rather than two Europeans, however respectable. He had recently been making some inquiries as to the actual state of the town of Calcutta, and he had had put into his hands one of the latest newspapers published in that place, in which there was a very long and able report in regard to the lighting of the town. That report gave a history of what had been attempted, and the difficulties which had been encountered, and finally gave the satisfactory assurance that one individual, a factor of great experience, had made very good offers to light the town with gas, and that a company had actually been formed with the same object. It would be idle to detain their Lordships by a lengthened discussion of these purely local matters. He could see no reason why the Governor General and the Legislative Council should have a bias in favour of a bad rather than of a good form of municipal government in Calcutta; and he really thought that their Lordships, who, as had been said by a noble friend of his, had been struggling for some years against darkness, and had referred the matter to a Select Committee who had been much puzzled how to light them, and who held their sittings in a town that had not very satisfactorily managed its own drainage, had better not take upon themselves to encroach upon the province of the Governor General of India, and assume to themselves duties which it was clear they would fail satisfactorily to discharge.

Petition ordered to lie on the table.