Colonial Infrastructures and the Politics of Engineering: Sanitation Systems in Madras City, 1866-1940

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This dissertation challenges dominant scholarly understandings of colonial sanitary engineering, and in doing so revises broader arguments about the distinctiveness of the colonial technological landscapes. There are two dominant scholarly viewpoints on this subject, both of which reflect powerful historiographical currents in the study of imperial science and technology. The first view, focusing on social implications of modern sanitary systems, argues that the building of such systems furthered imperial domination in colonial cities, functioning as a tool for segregating the enclaves of the colonial elites from that of the colonized subjects. The second view, focusing on the nature of engineering involved, sees imperial sanitary engineering as embodying the politics of Western knowledge production about colonial environments and cultures, namely high-modernism and orientalism. Through a study of water supply and sewerage systems in colonial Madras city between 1866 and 1940, this work argues that a global, rather than an exclusively imperial framing, attuned to the political economy of the colonial state, rather than to colonial ideological frameworks, is needed to clearly comprehend the distinct engineering practices that shaped sanitary provision in colonial cities. The Madras case indicates that sanitary infrastructures reflected both class and racial distinctions, which of course interacted profoundly with each other, albeit at different levels.

While class was important in shaping the axis of differential provision of sanitation systems, racial considerations remained important on matters of who was considered an engineering expert. On epistemological issues, this thesis points out that neither high-modernism nor orientalism explains the nature of engineering involved or their environmental implications. The water supply system of Madras city was built on locally rooted practices of agrarian water use, which profoundly shaped its economic, and environmental aspects. Sewerage design, on the other hand, was a contested body of practice, where there was disagreement even among British engineers themselves on whether modern sewerage systems were suitable for Indian contexts. In early twentieth-century Madras, modern water carriage systems were preferred, albeit with local adaptations, as colonial engineers sought to tailor them to socio-economic realities of the city; this brought in its train novel artefacts such as cheaper types of water closets, new drainage devices, etc., and novel operational arrangements to keep the city’s sanitary systems functional.

On questions of water pollution and quality, actions in Madras city were informed by contemporary global developments in sanitary engineering and bacteriology, guided through local experiments and inquiries. In all these respects, engineering practices or the politics around it varied little from those in other parts of the world. But even as there was a convergence in expert views on engineering matters, their implementation was profoundly shaped by the financial constraints facing colonial city governments. In bringing these different dimensions to light, this thesis also makes a case for rethinking the adequacy of extant scholarly notions in the historiography of technology, such as ‘technology transfer’, ‘hybrid’ technology, or ‘acculturation’, for understanding the novelty and distinctiveness of the colonial technological landscape, and colonial modernity more generally.
Date of Award1 Jan 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorDavid Edgerton (Supervisor) & Jon Wilson (Supervisor)

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