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Colonial Responses to Public Health


Mohan Rao

HEALTH CARE IN BOMBAY PRESIDENCY 1896-1930
By Mridula Ramanna
Primus Books, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 202, Rs. 795.00

VOLUME XXXVII NUMBER 2-3 February/March 2013

I had the privilege of reviewing Mridula Ramanna’s earlier volume, Western Medicine and Public Health in Colonial Bombay, 1845-1895 in The Book Review (Vol XXVII, No.8, August) in 2003. Subsequently, I chaired the lecture she delivered at the Jamia Milia Islamia, the prestigious XXV M.A. Ansari Memorial Lecture, delivered in March 2007. The excellent lecture was titled ‘State Intervention and Indian Responses: Plague Epidemics in Bombay Presidency’ which, I suspect, forms the first chapter in this volume. The author and I know each other, and I admire her work. This is thus not an ‘objective outsider’s’ review—as if that ever exists. Writing the history of health or medicine in India is, for obvious reasons, monopolized by western scholars. Not only are the archives located in either the UK or USA, scholars from these countries seem to have endless access to the field that is India. For an Indian scholar or indeed a PhD student, the situation is terminally bleak. Imperialism exists and thrives in academia and it is indeed a structural factor. So it is utterly creditable that Ramanna has been able to access archives in the UK and the US, without being part of a select group of globalized Indian academics, the celebrities of the academic world, for whom of course all doors open. I wonder if there is data on how many dalit or adivasi scholars obtained any of these fellowships to go abroad for either data collection or study. I feel I can precisely say again what I said in my previous review of her work. The slim volume is divided into six chapters, and discusses for no apparent reason of ordering, colonial and Indian responses to plague, the promotion of sanitary consciousness, the changing reactions to hospitalization, maternal health, women physicians and Indian medicine. ‘In each of these areas, the author has unearthed a great deal of data, from a rich variety of primary sources, pertaining to Bombay in the relevant years. This is, of course, the great strength of the book, but the obverse is that this huge and painstaking mining of data has not been adequately utilized to craft some richly gilded arguments. Given the fact that each of these areas has been extensively dealt with by a host of scholars, what is the import of Ramanna’s mining of fresh data pertaining to Bombay? Unfortunately, we do not know.’ But I ...


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