Just ask any Chennaiite to list the city’s civic woes and the answer will be unvarying. Garbage mounds, bad roads, poor drains and chaotic traffic. A daunting list indeed. Not included in it, but one that’s above all would be the civic indiscipline practised by the people themselves. Official records and writings of visitors, officials and administrators since 1639 reflect the same.

One example is A Book of South India written by J. Chartres Molony in 1926. Long out of print, it has recently been reissued. Deftly written with gentle humour, it is an eminently readable work. Extensive references abound in the book on the civic administration of Madras, for Molony was president of the Corporation from 1914 to 1919. Nothing appears to have changed since then.

How about beginning with the shoddy laying of drains? “Efficient drainage is a prime necessity of a city and the drainage of Madras was a heartbreaking affair. A drainage system had once been attempted on the cheap, with the natural and inevitable result that the work had to be undone and done afresh.” Repeated digging made the Madras citizen regard the “drainage department as a nightmare.” To us, it is all familiar stuff.

Next is the problem of garbage — its handling by citizens and the Corporation. Here is what Molony has to say: “The output of rubbish from an Indian house is astonishing. The Madras householder, having collected his rubbish was wont to sling it broadcast into the street. The winds of Heaven blew the fragments hither and thither and the sweeper chased them. I raged still more against the practice when I saw the householder emerge five minutes after the rubbish-cart had passed his door and redecorate with ashes and plantain leaves the street which the sweeper had just swept clean.” At least Molony did not have to deal with plastic waste.

The sweepers were no paragons of virtue even then. “They swept well enough so long as I, or someone else in authority looked after them; but I do not think that it occurred to them that there was any reason, other than the whim of an insane master, for sweeping at all.” His harrying led them to strike work. Garbage piled up.

Molony’s tenure saw the number of motorised vehicles increase. He noted rather presciently that Madras would soon choke with vehicles. “The old roads were made for the traffic of horse carriages and bullock carts. This traffic, by reason of its slowness was never intense at any moment. The roads crumbled under the swirl of private cars and commercial lorries.” I wonder what he would say now.

This man, who loved South India and in particular Madras, is commemorated in a street in T. Nagar, for it was during his time that plans for that area were drawn up. The name has since metamorphosed on signboards into Melanie Road. Is that due to the proximity of a Griffith Road?

This article appeared in The Hindu dated 24th July 2012 in the Hidden Histories column