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Down the drain over the years

A city’s sewers can show how it values its people. Sangeeta Ghosh takes us through some historic cities to know about its lifestyle and ideology.
None | By Sangeeta Ghosh
UPDATED ON JUL 11, 2007 03:23 AM IST

There are huge parts of Mumbai, which the city can see only when they are submerged in overflowing sewers during the monsoon. And, yet again they are lashed with guilt and rain. Aptly so as Victor Hugo said in Les Miserables “Sewers are a city’s conscience”. And if you followed history along its sewers, you would learn to trust your nose rather than listening to a city’s collective dismay — to understand how much it really cared for the people.

We marvel at the well planned urban drainage system in the cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro dating from about 2400 BC, where virtually every house had flushing toilets and sanitary drains connected to the main municipal drainage system. Such even distribution of public works only seems to support other studies, which show the citizens enjoyed a remarkable degree of empowerment and democracy.

Ancient Greek civilisation gave the world its first lessons in citizens’ rights. Is it just a coincidence that it also exhibited a very advanced notion of urban drainage? Ruins of their earliest cities like Knossos reveal sophisticated dual networks for urban drainage to collect waste and storm water. We may say, the sewers of ancient Greece were the real cradles of democracy-in-practice.

The Mesopotamians constructed sewers with a fervour because they believed they were banishing evil by removing sewage. The Persians went one step beyond good urban drainage. They restored precious groundwater by leading the urban runoff into aquifers underground. Polluting the runoff was declared a crime. This marvellous system predates our own Sustainable Urban Drainage or SUD by 25 centuries. As time passed, this wisdom was lost and water pollution hastened the downfall of the civilization.

But among all the sewers of history, it is the main sewer of ancient Rome, Cloaca Maxima, which more or less flows at the top. About 500 years before even the first of their famous aqueducts was built, Cloaca Maxima was washing Rome’s waste, and possibly some gladiators’ blood too, into the Tiber river. From 800 BC it served Rome without any major renovation till 1840!

Besides one of the most massive urban waste-water collection systems, Rome also had the earliest pay toilets. And with a little ingenuity of Emperor Vespassian, the ‘produce’ of the facilities was collected and sold to the then dry-cleaners — they had newly discovered that our bodies’ ammonia waste had good cleaning properties! To his son Titus’ genteel objections, the emperor is known to have famously said: “Gold has no odour”. For his labours, not only did the bankrupt Roman Empire reach its peak under him, but Vespassian’s illustrious name lives on till date in Paris. There, the more elegant public urinals are called Vespassiennes.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, the drainage systems fell apart in its former colonies. Water supply, sanitation and indeed public health declined in Europe. Streets became the dumping ground of human and animal waste. Tenements swarmed with people yet provided no basic necessities. It was all an indication of the disintegration of Res Publica and apathy of the ruling class for the masses. Epidemics began to ravage Europe and the first wave of black plague struck England in 1348, wiping out one-third of London’s population. The Dark Ages had begun.

Chamber pots became very elaborate for the rich and royalty though. Henry VIII’s pot was padded in black velvet, trimmed with ribbons, fringes and quilting. But if only the same attention was paid to the disposal of their contents. Sewage continued to be flung out of windows. An unwanted shower on the passerby wasn’t uncommon. To warn the pedestrian that a missile was on its way, people cried out “Gardez L’eau” or beware of the water. It was pronounced gardy loo. Hence the English slang for toilet: loo.

During the industrial revolution in the 16th century, hundreds of factories emptying industrial effluents into the Thames turned it into one big open sewer. In 1859, its stink stalled the activities of the British Parliament nearby!

Across the channel in Paris, underground sewers had become hideouts for criminals and the sign of France’s class struggle. The subterranean labyrinth of filth and vermin was seen as a nuisance of the lower classes while the fine buildings above were associated with the nobility. Finally the festering sewers of Paris boiled over in 1832 with the first of simultaneous outbreaks of cholera and civil unrest.

An efficient sewerage and sanitation can be such a freeing experience. The Prince of Wales once said after being nearly killed by drinking contaminated water, “If I could not be a prince, I would rather be a plumber”. Who can feel these words more keenly than a Mumbaiite. But unfortunately it seems the city will have to wait till the Brihanmumbai Storm Water Disposal System, a Rs 1,200 crore project originally supposed to be completed by 2002 gets over in 2011. Till then, we will have to live with engineering from antiquity and choking conscience, our own Cloaca Maxima. Clogga Mumbia?

Sangeeta Ghosh is a copywriter with an ad agency.

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