Early sources of drinking water
From the standpoint of health, sanitation and drinking water, Calcutta was a poor choice for a capital city. The collection of villages of varying sizes that were gradually incorporated into Calcutta were situated in a low-lying plain sandwiched between the Hooghly River on the west and a network of saltwater lakes towards the east (around the modern Salt Lake, Rajarhat, and East Kolkata Wetlands). The land between these two natural boundaries was crisscrossed with creeks and, perhaps, some irrigation-related runnels connecting a series of tanks. Due to the natural incline of the landscape, these creeks and channels flowed eastward from the river, draining into the salt lakes and acting as a natural sewage and flood protection mechanism for the city.
Apart from the creeks and interconnected tanks, old maps of Calcutta also show the excavation of several rectangular tanks to supply water for the village communities, not unlike the village tanks of Bengal today. Contrary to popular belief, these scattered rural communities were using water from these tanks for multiple uses, including drinking and cooking. The water from the Hooghly was rarely used as daily drinking water, generally playing more of a ritual role. The communities living on the banks of the Hoogly collected and stored river water in the winter months for cooking for the rest of the year since the river turned brackish during the monsoon and was therefore unusable.
The early records of East India Company’s settlement in Calcutta suggest that the Europeans depended solely on water from the Great Tank (Laldighi in modern BBD Bag) adjacent to Old Fort William in the European part of the town for drinking, cooking and cleaning purposes. This tank was extended and deepened in 1709 to facilitate a greater supply of drinking water for the ever-growing European population of early colonial Calcutta. This was also substituted by the collection of rainwater in large Pegu jars during the monsoon, to be used for drinking and cooking for the rest of the year by the European families.
The first drinking water supply system
In 1803, the Governor General of India, Lord Wellesley, published a damning report about the sanitation and drinking water supply of Calcutta. The report cited significant lack of planning: the drains constructed in the city had been made to flow westwards towards the Hoogly, against the land’s natural incline. This resulted in the clogging of the drains, especially in north Calcutta, leading to waterlogging, the contamination of tanks, and regular epidemics of cholera and dysentery.
In response to this report, successive Lottery Committees supervised by Justices of the Peace were appointed to improve the sanitation and drinking water supply. Although proposed sanitation plans continued to be shelved, these committees did take some visible steps toward providing wider access to drinking water. First, several large tanks were excavated in the central and northern parts of the city between 1805 and 1836. Then, in a move towards the mechanization of the drinking water supply, a small, steam-powered pumping plant was installed at Chandpal Ghat in 1820; water from that spot was considered clean enough for drinking.
Messrs. Jessop and Co. worked the engine by contract at Rs400 a month, running it seven hours a day for eight months in the year.
This water was supplied through aqueducts to the European part of Calcutta (see cover image), and even some parts of north Calcutta where the Indian communities lived. Houses without easy access to these aqueducts were supplied by bhistis, or professional water carriers, who brought water from the aqueducts in buffalo- or goatskin bags. However, the water from these aqueducts was not used strictly for drinking: it was also used for cleaning the roads and filling tanks. Once stored in a house, this water was put through a simple sand-filtration process; often a red-hot iron was also placed inside the jars as a second layer of purification. The ships leaving Calcutta were supplied with this filtered water, which, in at least one instance, did not pass the “sweetness and transparency” tests at Liverpool port.
As debates regarding health, sanitation and the necessity of a good sewage system raged in the mid-19th century, the importance of having a separate, purified water supply became apparent. An Act of 1848 led to the repair of several old tanks in different parts of Calcutta through municipality funding. New aqueducts were constructed to expand the water supply, and a special fund of Rs. 25,000 was sanctioned to purify the drinking water. However, the municipality failed to decide on a plan for water purification, and the project took a backseat as the civic authorities, headed by William Clark, concentrated their funds and intellectual energy on establishing an elaborate sewage system instead.
As the civic authorities concentrated on the sewage system, Calcutta experienced sporadic outbreaks of Cholera, especially those residents of the “native” quarters of north Calcutta. In 1865, for example, more than 200 people died of Cholera alone. The colonial authorities cited the unregulated dumping of night soil into the Hooghly as the reason for this. Since most parts of north Calcutta were not supplied by the aqueducts, and since the growing urban space cut off access to many of the old tanks, people began to drink the visibly “impure” water from the Hooghly, thereby leading to epidemics. As a result, the perpetually muddy texture of the Hooghly water and its perceived impurity became the centre of a heated debate.
Between 1861 and 1863, Prof. MacNamara, a chemistry professor at Calcutta University, was employed to do some tests on Hooghly water from three locations to examine the feasibility of establishing a water purification plant and pumping station. In 1863, he was sent to England to gain understanding about the latest water filtration technology there, which he would ultimately apply in Calcutta. Based on his tests and understanding, MacNamara suggested building a waterworks and pumping station at Pulta, 26km north of Calcutta. This water works would be fitted with the latest filtration technology (e.g. Spencer’s Regulating Cup), to be imported from England. MacNamara’s proposal envisaged that this water works would supply 6,000,000 gallons of filtered water to 400,000 residents of Calcutta every day.
On the other hand, the Scottish chemist David Waldie had a different opinion. He collected samples from several spots in the river and conducted chemical tests at his independent laboratory in Baranagore (a suburban area north of Kolkata). Based on these results, Waldie suggested that the Hooghly’s water was not inherently impure: the impurity came from siltation, which could be controlled by artificially increasing the salinity of the river, especially during the monsoon. He suggested that, if this were done, water from most spots in the river would be good for drinking.
Both MacNamara and Waldie presented their findings to a panel at the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1866. After a heated debate, the Sanitary Commissioner of Bengal rejected Waldie’s claims about the water’s purity based on the contemporary Victorian perception of the inherent (and visible) impurity of the Ganges. Although Rajendralal Mitra, a pioneering Indian scholar, openly opposed this view by citing the impurity of the Thames, the Sanitary Commissioner ultimately accepted MacNamara’s plan.
The Pulta Waterworks that was established following MacNamara’s proposal used three 50horsepowerr engines to pump water from the river in Palta to a settling tank. After some amount of silt had been deposited, the water was passed through 12 slow sand filtration devices imported from England. After this, the filtered water was sent through iron pipes to underground reservoirs at the Tallah Pumping Station, located 23km south, at the edge of Calcutta at that time. This was done via gravity, since there was a difference in elevation at these two places. The water was then redistributed to the consumers throughout north and central Calcutta, and a part of the water was also sent via gravity to an underground reservoir in Wellington Square, 7km south in the heart of the city. The consumers were charged Rs. 1 per 1000 gallons of water consumed.
However, the government soon realized that the initial volume would not meet the needs of the city’s ever-growing population. To prevent the waste of filtered water and to keep up with the growing demand, a supply of unpurified water pumped directly from the Hoogly was soon installed on the roadsides for the common people to use for bathing, washing clothes and cleaning, and for fire brigades to have easy access points for water in case of emergency.
Reaction from the local community
Although many Indian inhabitants of Calcutta welcomed the purified water supply, there was staunch opposition from some quarters. For example, the Indian members of the government-run Board of Improvement for Calcutta opposed the plan of mechanized water purification, as they thought the use of machines would pollute the ritually pure water from the holy river. In the early 1870s, when the filtered water supply started to become available, a debate took place at Sanatan Dharma Rakshini Sabha in Calcutta about the ‘impurity’ of the mechanized water supply. The Brahmin members apparently opposed the fact that the Pulta Waterworks was run by labourers from lower castes, and worried that touching the water would make them lose their own caste. After long deliberation, including consultation of the scriptures, the use of filtered water from a mechanized water supply was accepted in 1875. As a part of this prolonged debate, Kamal Krishna Deb Bahadur, the President of Sabha published a treatise named Jantradhrita Jal Shuddhi (Mechanical Purification of Water) to challenge the opposition of the Brahmins, where he mocked their opposition to mechanically filtered water.
An ever-growing population of the Colonial Capital put pressure on the filtered water-supply in the city. This resulted in the expansion of the pumping and storing facilities at Tallah, and a new elevated tank was erected with a large capacity. This tank started functioning in 1912 and has since been providing for the regular purified water requirements of the city.
Chakrabarti, P. (2015). Purifying the river: pollution and purity of water in colonial Calcutta. Studies in History, 31(2), 178-205.
Choudhuri, K. (1957). Calcutta Story of Its Government. Orient Longman, Calcutta
Goode, S. W. (2005). Municipal Calcutta: Its Institutions in Their Growth and Origin. Reprinted by Kolkata Municipal Corporation and MacMillan, New Delhi, India (originally published in 1916 by T and A Printers to His Majesty, Edinburgh, UK).
Martin, S. J. R. (1837). Notes on the Medical Topography of Calcutta. Bengal Military Orphan Press, Calcutta
Mukhopadhyay, H. (1915). Kalikata Sekaler o Ekaler. PM Bagchi and Co, Calcutta,
Waldie, D. (1873). On the Muddy Water of the Hugli during the Rainy Season with Reference to Its Purification and to the Calcutta Water-Supply. Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 42, 175-178.
A View of the Scotch Church of Calcutta from the Gate of Tank Square by James Baillie Fraser – 1826 (The British Library)