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Public Health, Housing
Extracts from A History of Rangoon
by B.R. Pearn, published 1939
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Extracts from A History of Rangoon
by B.R. Pearn, published 1939
to search this page press ctrl f
... Rangoon was a thoroughly unhealthy place to live in. The returns of death for not, however, fully reflect the real position. In 1870 the death rate per thousand was recorded as 22.71, in 1872 it was 26.51 and for the five years 1870-1874 inclusive the average was 21.95. These statements represent only the deaths reported.... The cases of the deaths were reported, vaguely, to be “fevers.”
The Municipal Committee thus found itself faced with a very serious problem which had existed for years and which the preceding administration had only in the last twelve months of its existence attempted to deal with. The population of the city was not merely increasing, it was changing in character. The opportunities for trade and for employment which were now available attracted a considerable Indian population.
The census of 1872 shows that there were some 16,000 Indians (16 per cent of the population of Rangoon) in 1881 there were over 66,000 Indians being about 44 percent of the whole. The Burmese population had actually undergone a slight decrease from 69,000 to 67,000 and relatively had declined considerable, from 70 per cent to about 50 per cent.
Of the population in 1881, less than 49 per cent had been born in Rangoon. Thus was commerce the process which has made Rangoon an Indian rather than a Burmese city. Indian immigration was not a new phenomenon in Lower Burma, for there had for centuries been a close connection between Burma and the eastern coast of India, but it was not till the development of communications in the later 1860’s and the 1870’s and the reduction of passage-rates consequent thereon, with also the establishment in 1873 of more frequent sailings between Rangoon and India, when the British India Steam Navigation Co. introduced fortnightly sailings between Rangoon and Madras in place of the previous monthly sailings, that such immigration became possible on a large scale. The establishment in 1880 of the Asiatic Steam Navigation Co. on competition with the British India line led to a further reduction in rates and so further accelerated immigration. This immigrant labour played an important part in the economy of Burma, for the development of paddy cultivation....
The problem does not appear to have grown acute till the late 1870's when uneasiness first began to be felt about the insanitary conditions under which the collies lived.... the coolies were living in "old pucka houses in a very dirty state, with few and small windows and doors, which they are very fond of keeping shut. The ground floors of most of these pucka buildings are damp and generally soaking with house-slops and dirty water... Many of these houses are very much over-crowded and very little cubit (sic) space is allowed for each inmate... In one house in 29th Street, there were found in one room 23 inmates, the dimensions being only 18 x 14 and ventilation defective... The greater number of houses in 27th and 28th Streets are overcrowded... But the Municipality found that it was extremely difficult to take any effective measures towards the mitigation of these evils. Though lodging-houses were supposed, under the laws relating to municipalities, to be registered, the definition of the term "lodging-house" was too narrow and also there were no suitable municipal regulations relating to sanitation and building. It was the case that over-crowding was contrary to the law, but only a Magistrate could pass orders for the reduction of the number of occupants of a house and could only do so after the Health Officer had inspected the premises and given evidence of over-crowding that would satisfy a court of law... So while Rangoon was rapidly growing in prosperity a large section of its population was housed under the worst possible conditions.
Census Returns, Rangoon
3. Other indigenous races
4. Total of 1-3
7. Total of 5-6
8. Chinese 9. Europeans
10. Anglo-Indians 11. Armenians
13. Total Population
... The problem of the immigrant continued rapidly in character and the town was becoming increasingly Indianised. In 1881 there were still more Burmans.... In addition to the Indian permanently resident in Rangoon and the coolie employed by the rice and timbre forms or by the port, there was the agricultural labourer who came to Burma for two or three seasons and passed through Rangoon on his arrival and departure. After 1886 then the Kingdom of Burma finally fell, the rice industry of Upper Burma developed and many Burmese families who had removed to Lower Burma returned to the upper province, thus more Indian labour was needed in the Delta....
The problem of over-crowding which had begun to engage the attention of the nominated Municipal Committee in its later years inevitable occupied a good deal of the attention of the new administration. The Health Officer pointed out in 1882-83 that "the worst cases are about a hundred houses used as barraacks; their ocupants are Madras coolies. The houses do not really come under the legal definition of lodging-houses and therefore are unaffected by those byelaws." It was, he considered "imperatively necessary that these barracks and the large number of dwelling-houses used as lodging-houses by a large floating population should be brought under proper supervision and control, the more so in the places wer now being found in some of the best streets in the town, where they casue depreciation of property and are the foci of disesae and filth of the neighbourhood." He complained that "the health of the city is at all times of he year threatened by the arrival of thousands of coolies by the steamers from the Madras coast.
“...On arrival the coolies are crowded in places unsuited to their reception and should sickness break out the consequences might be most disastrous.” The condition of these unfortunate people was utterly miserable; “they frequently arrive in Rangoon without the means of paying their passage-month, when their services are virtually sold by auction to any person who will release them from their obligations.” As the President of the Municipal Committee noted, there was a suspicion that something “resembling a slave trade” was growing up.
Again in his report for the following year the Health Officer emphasised the necessity for some reform of the housing conditions of these people. “The matter, “ he observed, “ has been utterly neglected in the past and it is difficult to make satisfactory progress against the evils arising from a long established custom, the perpetuation of which is to the pecuniary interest of a large number of people.” There was, indeed, strong opposition to any proposal to enforce suitable regulation of the lodging houses. “Many owners of the most dilapidated dwellings in the town,” it was said, “collect enormous rents from these people.” Nor was much help to be obtained from the courts.
Rules had been made by the Municipal Committee in 1882 requiring all lodging-houses to be registered, but no restriction had been placed upon the number of occupants of such establishments, thus in practice the only byelaws affecting them were those prohibiting the keeping of unlicensed lodging houses and even these could not be enforced, for although in one or two cases the Assistant Magistrate gave decisions against keepers of unlicensed lodgings, in a large number o cases which came before the Honorary Magistrates the charge was dismissed, the court saying that “if this law were to be enforced, half the native houses in Rangoon would have to be licensed.” Thus even the law requiring registration of lodging houses was made a dead letter.
The Municipal Act of 1884, however, extended the powers of the Committee to make bye-laws affecting lodging houses and in July 1885 the Committee made certain lodging house rules, but these, like the old rules failed to provide a minimum floor-space per occupant and instead authorised the Committee itself to fix the number of occupants of each individual building on the report of the inspecting officer. Thus when an attempt was made to utilise these powers against owners of overcrowded buildings, there was a great outcry amongst the wealthy Burmans and Europeans to whom these “overcrowded coolie-barracks have hitherto been a lucrative investment,” and when a new Committee came into office in 1886 a resolution was passed that even these feeble rules should be modified.
The Chief Commissioner, however, exercised his power of veto and directed that the rules be given a fair trial. The Health Officer then instituted proceedings against no less than ninety-three owners and was successful in each case, both in the Lower Court and in the Recorder’s Court on appeal. The byelaws were still defective but again the influence of owners and their representatives on the Committee was sufficient to prevent any amendment, until in 1891 new rules were at last passed which, it was hoped, would prevent wealthy owners of what the Chief Commissioner has declared to be the pest-houses of Rangoon from any longer fattening on the ignorance of the poor whom they profess to suitably lodge, from spreading death and disease through the town and from throwing discredit (perhaps not altogether undeserved) on the Committee.
These rules prescribed a minimum floor-space of twenty four square feet per person and required the owner of the building to keep the premises clean, to have all refuse removed by 10 a.m. each day, to provide proper ventilation, to provide suitable cooking and washing accommodation, to report cases of disease to the Health Officer and to allow access to the building to the Health Officer and his staff. Many prosecutions were made under the new rules which came into force in November 1891, though it was still complained that the leniency of the Magistrates was an obstacle.
The Health Officer, moreover, found that his staff was inadequate for the duty of inspecting lodging houses as well as carrying on the duties of his department in connection with infectious diseases. There were, in his view “some habitual offenders against Municipal regulation, persons of ample means in good positions in the community to which they belong and it will be necessary to make an example of them” but though in one year alone, 1892-93 there were 226 prosecutions for breaches of the lodging house rules and fines aggregating Rs. 2,068 were imposed, the shortage of staff and the leniency of the Magistrates continued to be a ground of complaint.
The presence of a large Indian population had also the effect of introducing into Rangoon a new element of civil disturbance, communal rioting. In June 1893, on one occasion of Bakr’id, a party of Muslims insisted on killing a cow outside a Hindu temple in 29th Street, despite a prohibition by a Magistrate. In the riot which followed, it became necessary for the military police to fire on the mob and some loss of life was caused, the troops were summoned from the barracks on Pagoda Hill, but by the time they arrived all was quiet. For some years afterwards troops were posted in the town at Bakr’id, but their services were not in fact required.
The unhealthiness of the town was accentuated by the growth of insanitary settlements on un-reclaimed land in the suburbs. The rapid increase of population was responsible for this state of affairs also. The Pazundaung quarter was notorious for its unhealthiness but other quarters were almost as bad. In 1884 the Municipal Report stated that there was much malaria in Pazundaung as a result of the marshy nature of the whole district and the existence of tidal creeks which ran through and beyond the premises of the firms who had mills along the Creek. "The houses, most of them of bamboo, are built over broad shallow trenches by the roadside and on the adjoining low ground, the tidal water runs under all the houses, but the mud is exposed for 22 hours out of 24, there are no latrines or attempt at conservancy possible, and pigs abound in numbers. The stench from the putrid mus beneath the houses is at times unbearable."
Some improvement was introduced by the extension of the system of conservancy by carts in connection with he sewage works to this area where "the houses are, most of them, in swamps which had become saturated with years of filth of every description," but both there and in quarters nearer the town conditions remained unsatisfactory. Lanmadaw on the west, Botataung on the east, Theinbyu and Tamway in the north-east were thoroughly unhealthy and as was pointed out in the Municipal Report for 1888-89 in these areas "thousands of people are living over filthy swamps and nullas amidst low-lying paddy fields."
The reason for this state of affairs appears to be that despite the great increase in population little had been done in the 1870's and 1880's in the way of draining the land and raising levels. The town proper had nearly all been raised in the 1850's and 1860's but in the succeeding twenty years reclamation work almost ceased, although as the population was increasing by tens of thousands each decade there was much overcrowding in the city, rents were high and the poor were driven into the unhealthy suburbs described above.
It was admitted as early as the middle of the 1880's that there was urgent need for the reclamation of land on both east and west which, if drained and raised, would be suitable for building sites, but the cost of such work was almost prohibitive. The work of reclamation had originally been met from the proceeds of sale and rent of town lands and as long as there was plenty of land to be sold no financial difficulty was experienced, but as the sales continued, the land available dwindled until by 1872 nearly all land of any value in central Rangoon had been disposed of and so the policy of leasing was introduced to avoid the complete alienation of he public land within the town. Thus the only income received by the Land Sale and Rent Fund was the ground-rent paid by lease-holders and this income, being insufficient for extensive works,became in effect merely a part of the normal revenues of the Municipality. In consequence of this suspension of activity, there continued to be within the municipal limits low-lying and unhealthy swamps. Moreover, after 1872 leases were granted for fifteen years at most, and generally for only five years, so that there was no inducement at all for private persons to undertake the reclamation of any land which they held any more than there was for them to erect sound buildings on land suitable for pukka houses. The short-term lease policy thus acted as a severe handicap to the development of the city. These circumstances, together with he practice early adopted of permitting squatters to settle on un-reclaimed land from which they might be ejected on three months notice, had produced the conditions from which such quarters as Pazundaung suffered.
... Another contribution to the unhealthy condition of the city was the continuance of cultivation in the neighbourhood of the town, though by 1891 the cultivated area within municipal limits was only 1,431 acres, its condition can be judged from the issue in 1893 of a Government order prohibiting the use of night soil and urine as manure in the Chinese gardens of the quarter between Upper Phayre Street, Stockade Road (after the old Theinbyu or White House Stockade,) Culvert Road and Lake Road and in the area between Upper Phayre Street and Cantonment Boundary and Dalhousie Park.
It is not surprising that such conditions the rate of mortality in Rangoon was excessive. Such half-hearted measures as the introduction of a water-supply and a sewage system that applied to only a fragment of the municipal area had very little beneficial effect on the death-rate. In the nine years preceding the inauguration of the new water-supply, that is, the years 1875-1883 inclusive, the average death-rate per thousand had been 28.07, the worst years being the cholera-stricken period of 1877 and 1878 though still "fevers" are reported as h cause of the majority of deaths.
In the years 1884 to 1889 after the water supply had been introduced but before the sanitary system was working, the deaths averaged 31.87 per thousand, the worst year being 1889 when there was a bad outbreak of small-pox. Actually small-pox, plague and cholera as well as dysentery and typhoid were endemic in Rangoon, though worse in some years than others. In the succeeding ten years, 1890 to 1899, following the introduction of the sewage plant, the average of deaths was 33.75 per thousand. It would thus appear that the introduction of the new eater supply and the new sanitary system had not any beneficial effect at all on the public health, for the rate of deaths registered compares poorly with an average of 21.95 in the years before the Municipal Committee came into existence and with the average of 28.07 before the establishment of the new water-supply. The apparent progressive increase in the rate of deaths is, however, misleading, with improved methods of municipal government, registration was more strictly enforced and the registered deaths of the earlier period do not, therefore, give a true basis for comparison. But whatever the rate of mortality may have been in earlier years, the average of 33.75 deaths per thousand of population was much too high. The worst quarters in this respect were Lanmadaw, Theinbyu and Pazundaung, where the death-rate was year after year between forty and fifty per thousand, although the average for the whole town was between thirty and forty.
... Such funds as were available were urgently needed for maintaining the roads, which were in a very bad condition, as is indicated by the fact that until it was metalled in 1893 Judah Ezekiel Street between Dalhousie and Mongomerie Streets was " in a low swampy state." Nothing was done however, until in 1890 the reiterated complaints about the death rate induced the Chief Commissioner to appoint a committee to consider the whole subject of reclamation... The northern ridge formed the Cantonment area and lay outside the jurisdiction of the Municipal Committee... it was a source of complaint that most of the higher-lying land of Rangoon should be in the hands of the military and thus hundreds of acres of good land lay vacant while scarcely a healthy building site was available elsewhere....
In the Municipal Report of 1897-1898 it was stated that "Lanmadaw is the plague sport of Rangoon. Every year its position must become worse and worse. The soil is yearly becoming more impregnated with filth and the danger is yearly becoming more pronounced. The condition of this quarter is a serious menace to the rest of the town. South Kemmendine cannot be reclaimed for some years to come but portions of it are nearly as bad as Lanmadaw. Tamway too, has numerous villages of the most insanitary description - low, and, in the rains, waterlogged and filthy. The same remarks apply to parts of Theinbyu."...
The growth of population had the effect of producing once more a shortage of water....
... An attempt was made to ensure unity of administration by appointing a Town Lands Reclamation Advisory Committee but this committee could do little more than supervise the expenditure of whatever funds the Collector passed on to it..... The rents derived from the Town Lands Fund were from the first inadequate for the work of reclamation and loans had to be raised... but by the middle of the second decade of the century the financial position of the Fund was most precarious. The Municipality had borrowed in all over sixty lakhs, and the revenues now received from the Collector were scarcely sufficient to cover the interest and loan charges, thus further loans could not be raised, the Government Estate being fully mortgaged and although the whole of the borrowed money had been exhausted by 1917 so that no funds were available, reclamation was still urgently needed. The urgency of the problem was yearly accentuated by the steady increase of population. The over-crowding in the town proper was such that by 1911 in one quarter of central Rangoon the density of population amounted to 636 persons per acre (omitting non-residential buildings and open spaces).... Rangoon was fortunate in that Fraser's scheme provided some 43 per cent of open space in the form of roads and back drainage spaces, a circumstance which moderated the evil of overcrowding as known in Indian cities but in spite of this advantage there was obviously need for expansion into the outskirts of town.
... Suburban development had so far been slight. As late as 1890 there was hardly a house round the Royal Lakes. Golden Valley (this development was first commenced in 1907 by the Golden Valley Estate Co. The term “Golden” was applied as indicative of the excellence of the property, hidden, like a buried treasure in the jungle,) was as yet uninhabited, only one or two houses lay along Boundary Road and nothing at all to the north thereof. Between the Royal Lakes and the Railway were only Chinese market-gardens and paddy-fields. For another thirty years suburban development consisted of little besides the buildings of houses along Boundary Road and on the northern verge of the Royal Lakes, the opening up of Golden Valley and the duplication of houses within the vast compounds of the older houses that lay on the land transferred piecemeal from the Cantonments....
... It was observed that “Rangoon is situated on a peninsula bounded on the south and west by the Hlaing river and on the east by the Pazundaung Creek. Expansion is therefore possible in one direction only, viz., northwards. But although the peninsula is four miles across, in 1921 practically the whole width was blocked by an impassable barrier. This consisted of the area occupied by Government House and grounds, the series of Military lands and open spaces stretching from Government House to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the Pagoda precincts, the Cantonment Gardens, the race-course maidan, the British Infantry Lines, the Burma Athletic Association grounds, the Provincial Museum grounds, the Agri-Horticultural Society’s gardens, the Victoria Memorial Gardens, the Municipal Wash-houses, the Theinbyu Recreation Ground, Dalhousie Park with the Royal Lakes and the Fokkien Chinese Burial Ground. Nor was it possible for the city to expand past the ends of this barrier. The Timber Depot of the Forest Department and the Singan and Alon swamps completely closed the area between Kemmendine Road and the Hlaing River to expansion on the West. On the east the Tamwe Rubbish Depot of the Corporation, the Mahlwagon Railway Sidings and the swamps extending from Tamwe to the Pazundaung Creek imposed an even more insuperable obstacle to expansion....
These peculiar conditions forced the population to crowd together in the immediate neighbourhood of the industrial areas, generally under the most unhealthy conditions, while the land most suitable for dwelling places remained unoccupied. The fairly well-to-do classes were still residing in the town proper or close to it, so that not only were the poorer workers overcrowded but also rents were abnormally high, the clerical class spending an average of 25% of income on rent alone. The only solution was to be found in a centrifugal movement of the better-off class and in reclamation on an extensive scale. The laterite ridge running northwards from the Pagoda was naturally adapted for the residences of the well-to-do and middle classes while the land behind the river and creek both east and west of the town proper could, if reclaimed, accommodate a large industrial population which was as yet overcrowded along the verge of the industrial arc.
... As it was, “there were only three roads leading out of Rangoon to the north, viz., Prome Road, Tiger Alley and Kokine Road. These three roads ultimately culminated in two roads, the Insein Road reaching as far as Mingaladon and the Prome Road.
... At the beginning of the century the only method of street transport was the steam tramway but the tramway system had fallen into a very bad condition, traffic returns were insufficient to pay dividends and to provide funds for the proper maintenance of the track with the result that the Municipal Committee in 1900 declared that the system was "a nuisance and a danger to the public and in consequence of the high fares charged, it is doubtful whether it is, or has ever been, of the benefit to Rangoon that tramways are supposed to be and are, to most town" The passengers, moreover, complained that the sparks from the engines burnt their clothes. In 1896 the tramway company...
... Thus a movement of population away from the centre was not possible until the advent of the motor car. The private motor car had made its appearance about 1905 and by 1906 the number of such vehicles was sufficiently numerous to call for legislation... The advent of the motor-bus was slightly later. In 1913 the Rangoon Electric Tramway and Supply Company introduced five motor-buses and in 1915 there were eight buses and twenty-six taxicabs plying....
... That the condition of the roads needed serious attention was made the more evident by the advent of the motor-car.
... A thorough reconstruction of the roads was therefore undertaken and thought work was held up during the war, when, moreover, the heavy timber traffic of the Munitions Board played havoc with the roads, the last thirty years have seen an almost complete reconditioning of the 183 miles of roads in Rangoon...
... was found in the institution in 1920 of the Rangoon Development Trust... More than ten thousand housing sites have been prepared, of which eight thousand are ready for habitation and seven thousand five hundred are already occupied. Much yet remains to be done, however, for evil slums still exist in such areas as Dalla and in the neighbourhood of the Pazundaung Creek...
... Other important suburban road developments have been made such as the University Avenue and Goodliffe Road, which have opened up extensive suburban areas in the north, where housing development has recently been rapid...
The last two decades have thus seen considerable development of suburban Rangoon, especially on the laterite ridge where more attractive building sites are to be found than in the lower-lying areas such as along the Kokine Road. The opening of the Government Estate for suburban housing as in Windermere Park, which was commenced in 1921, gave stimulus to this development..
... an area of 654 acres of land was transferred from the Cantonment Authority to the Municipality...
Despite the undoubted improvements which have been effected by the public bodies of Rangoon in recent years, much remains to be done. The housing conditions of the poor are still extremely bad and there are quarters of Rangoon which cannot be characterised as anything but slums. The situation in regard to housing continues to be complicated by the presence of the immigrant labourer. In 1913 there were 288,582 immigrants from Indian ports, in 1920 there were 300,288, in 1927 there were 361,086. The numbers of emigrants to Indian ports in the same years were respectively 242,679, 188,999 and 280,739, so that in those years there passed through the port no less than 531,261, 489,287 and 641,825 travellers mainly of humble status from and to Indian ports. Of these a considerable number must have remained in Rangoon in some form of occupation.
The census of 1901 showed that of the total population of 248,000 there were 119,000 Indians as against 81,000 Burmans, i.e. 48 per cent as against 33 per cent. In the Census of 1911 there were, of a total of 293,000, no less than 165,000 Indians i.e. 56 per cent, as against 90,000 Burmans i.e. 31 per cent and in 1921 the Census gave a return of 187,000 Indians as against 105,000 Burmans, out of a total of 342,000, i.e. a similar proportion of 55 per cent as against 31 per cent. In 1931 the Indian population was 212,000 or 53 per cent of the whole, as compared with 128,000 Burmans or 32 per cent of the whole.
Thus with a growing population of poor labourers living in the city and a vast horde of poor travellers passing through it, Rangoon was still faced with the housing problems that had caused so much difficulty in the 1880’s....
A report issued by the Social Service League states that in Lanmadaw the houses occupied by the poor are “insanitary in every respect, the latrines being particularly bad” and in Ahlone there were found “very many old houses, whose construction is faulty and the general sanitation of which can be best described as hopeless.” Overcrowding in the lodging-houses continues and though prosecutions are numerous, amounting in one a year, 1925, to as many as 1,414 with resultant fines Rs. 10,367 and costs Rs. 1,285, nevertheless overcrowding cannot cease because no alternative accommodation exists. In the words of an observer better qualified than anyone else to state the facts, “It is surprising that in an extremely well laid out town, dwelling houses are allowed to be so constructed as hardly even to allow proper light, air and sunshine to enter the living rooms, which, owing to the conditions of labour in the city, are perennially greatly overcrowded....
It is astonishing that in an important industrial and commercial centre like Rangoon, where thousands of Indian labourers live and work, no steps have been taken to provide suitable and sanitary accommodation for the working class population.” The Social Service League, in words which might have equally well been written forty years before, asserts that “our visits have shown us clearly that the physical, mental and moral health of the labouring population of Rangoon is being endangered, that money is being made out of this by the unprincipled action of landlords and that these last are enabled to do this because the Municipal Authority has hitherto failed to make adequate provision for the labour on which this Municipality is founded.” It may, however, be observed that not dissimilar criticisms might be made of nearly every large city in the world.
Under such conditions the statistics of public health inevitably show little improvement. In the first ten years of the century, from 1901 – 1910, the average number of deaths per thousand was 38.95, the worst years being 1905 and 1906 when, owing to a severe epidemic of plague, the mortality was 45.9 and 47.57 per thousand respectively. In the succeeding decade, 1911 – 1920, the average mortality was 36.18 per thousand, the worst years being 1918 and 1919, the years of the influenza epidemic, when the death rate was 47.84 and 47.68 respectively. In the third decade of the century the average death rate was 33.81. Infant mortality continues to be heavy and the death rate of children under twelve months of age remains constant at somewhat over 300 per thousand, so that only one child in three that is born has any prospect of surviving its first year. Occasionally, as in 1919, 1925 and 1925, the infant death rate has risen to over 350 per thousand.
Census Returns, Rangoon
2. Karens 3. Other indigenous races
4. Total of 1-3
5. Hindus 6. Mulims
7. Total of 5-6
8. Chinese 9. Europeans 10. Anglo-Indians 11. Armenians
13. Total Population