Special Content


volume-43, 25-31 January 2020

Gandhiji Trained Indians in South Africa in Sanitation & Hygiene

Prof. Sudarshan Iyengar

In June 17, 1905 issue of Indian Opinion he discussed the inoculation issue. Quoting Dr. Turner from Bombay (now Mumbai) he noted that people in Bombay Presidency were reluctant to get inoculated. Dr. Turner and others had suggested various ways in which people could be incentivised or coerced into getting inoculated. Gandhiji did not agree with the idea and had argued that it was necessary to bring about an improvement in sanitary habits, morality and economic conditions of the people. He wrote that he believed that Indians committed sin by not observing rules of sanitation.

The plague epidemic had seemingly haunted the towns of South Africa repeatedly. In the issue of Indian Opinion of October 14, 1905,35 there appeared an item titled 'The Bubonic Plague'. It contained educative material meant largely for Indians residing in South Africa then. The article noted that the plague had come to stay and it appeared year in and year out as a warning against darkness, filth and overcrowding. The educative part was that it contained clear instructions such as: all the surroundings of dwelling-houses and business premises should be kept perfectly clean; people should get as much light, sun and air as possible; and all suspected cases should be promptly reported to the authorities. He also had a clear advice which stated that 'every educated Indian had a unique privilege: he could become a missionary in hygiene and sanitation' .

The civic issues continued to bother him and until he stayed in South Africa; he tried relentlessly to orient, educate and train Indians in sanitation and hygiene. In 1912 smallpox broke out in lndian settlements. Some Indians tried to hide the cases. Gandhiji was interviewed by the Evening Chronicle of Johannesburg on various issues bothering Indians including the smallpox. The correspondent wanted to know whether the Europeans needed some special protection from Indians as the community had cases of smallpox and that it was being concealed. The correspondent was perhaps trying to justify the civic authority's idea to segregate the Indian community's location from the Whites and others. To this Gandhiji admitted that there indeed were some black sheep in the community, but by and large people in the Indian community were cooperative to the authorities in declaring the incidence and following the expert advice. Gandhiji argued that, the people had not been cooperative and if they had not helped the public health authorities, the authorities could not have unearthed the smallpox cases. He said that protection to other communities would not come from segregating Indians from others. This was the main political point. Gandhiji said, "You will perhaps recollect that, when evidence was being laid before the Insanitary Area Expropriation Commission, medical testimony was given to the effect that any neglect of sanitation that existed among British Indians, or the others, was not to be successfully dealt with by segregating them to inaccessible Bazaars, or to places which would not lend themselves to effective supervision of the public control. The proper method of dealing with the trouble was to effectively enforce sanitation by-laws, and if the by- laws were insufficient, to make them wide enough to cover all kinds of cases."

Gandhiji stayed in South Africa until the end of 1914. More serious issues relating to settlement and citizenship came up against which the famous Satyagraha was born. Sanitation continued to be an issue, but not a prominent one. The ordinance published in the Government Gazette Extraordinary of Transvaal of August 22, 1906 was a Black Act where primary citizen's rights of lndians were taken back and every Indian was to be reduced to a compulsorily registered immigrant and nothing more.

Gandhiji thought that it was the result of unadulterated hatred of English towards Indians. He intensely felt that for Indians do or die situation had arrived. The struggle went on and took serious turns. It is history now of Indian people in South Africa as to how they attained status of dignified citizens under Gandhiji's leadership by putting up a non-violent resistance and protest movement called Satyagraha. To conclude, the young Barrister Gandhi who landed in South A frica , who had the first hand taste of colour prejudice, observed that the Indian community had serious lacuna with respect to sanitation and hygiene in the rsettlements. It had become the front for the British authorities in civic administration and the colonial governments to deny the basic living, working, property and proprietary rights to Indians. Since the Indian community had problems in observing desirable standards of sanitation and hygiene he had to 'with great mortification admit the charge partially'. This was an intelligent public admission. It allowed him to work within the community for continuous improvement in the status of personal cleanliness and hygiene. He could also build a strong case against the civic authorities and the governments in their intentional failure in providing decent locations and necessary public health infrastructure to the Indian community at large and without which 'everybody's business had become nobody's business'. In the final analysis, he able to convince the colonial authorities and win rights for dignified and decent living. In case of an outbreak of an epidemic Gandhiji did not confine to blame game, but plunged into activities of nursing the sick and cleaning and sanitising the areas. Gandhiji returned to India in 1915 and continued to make sanitation and hygiene a mission for the country.

Excerpts from the book 'In the Footsteps of Mahatma…Gandhi and Sanitation' written by Prof Sudarshan Iyengar, published by Publications Division. The book can be purchased online from publicationsdivision.nic.in @Rs 100 and e-version @Rs. 75.