The Musi River floods of 28 September 1908 caused about 15,000 deaths. It destroyed more than 19,000 homes, and made one quarter of the entire city’s population homeless.
It was a great tragedy in the history of modern Telangana. With a population of 448,466 people in 1901, this large metropolis, Hyderabad was the fourth largest city in the Indian sub-continent.
In fact, the first quarter of the 20th century witnessed several calamities like Plague, Influenza, Cholera, Small-pox, and Malaria, which devastated the socio-economic and demographic fabric of Hyderabad City, the capital of the India’s largest princely state.
The floods occurred due to the cyclonic storm formed in the Bay of Bengal and resulted in heavy downpour and breaching of many upstream tanks which led to the extensive loss of life and property. In the 48 hours leading up to the flood, Hyderabad city alone received twelve inches of rain. Consequently, the Musi River rose suddenly about sixteen feet in less than three and half hours and breached and washed away the Afzal, Mussallam Jung and Chaderghat bridges. Water poured into the streets of the old city. It also destroyed the Hussain Sagar bund, cut-off all communications within the city and put half of it under water. Kolsawadi, Ghansi Bazaar, Ziyaguda, Purana Pul, new Kachiguda, Oliphant Bridge were the worst hit areas. It is estimated that in Kolsawadi alone about 2,000 persons were washed away and an equal number perished at Ghansi Bazaar. A contemporary journalist estimated that about 50,000 people were dead and described the city, as a vast grave. He wrote,“The streets and basements have been transformed into a gruesome mass of stone and mud and decomposed flesh.” Property worth Rs 20 crores was lost. Between the Purana Pul and the Chaderghat bridges was a densely populated part of the city that suffered the greatest loss of life. A 200-year-old tamarind tree inside Osmania Hospital saved over 150 people who climbed over its branches. Communication between the Residency, the Nizam’s palace and the old city was disrupted, as was railway traffic between Hyderabad and the cities of Nizamabad to the north and Vijayawada to the east.
The Sixth Nizam, Mir Mahabub Ali Khan was deeply disturbed by the tragedy. When the British Resident, O’Dwyer visited the Nizam in the wake of floods, he found that the Nizam and his Government were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the catastrophe. According to O’Dwyer the Nizam appeared almost shocked into incompetence. Deeply moved by the situation, the Nizam did what was within his power to alleviate the suffering of Hyderabad’s residents. He had personally taken utmost care and arranged whatever was needed for those whose homes and belongings had been swept away. In the midst of crisis Nizam issued orders for immediate relief and summoned his military commander, Sir Afsar-ul-Mulk to his palace and directed him to carry out relief and rescue measures at once.
Known for his religious tolerance and goodwill, Mir Mahabub Ali Khan left his palace for the river water’s edge and on the advice of religious priests offered prayers, performed ceremony and pacified the River Goddess. An eyewitness recounted the Nizam’s action and the gratitude of the people. ‘At the sight of the sufferings of his beloved people, he wept tears of blood. His sorrow, his sympathy, his eagerness to assist wherever he could was such as cannot be described in words.’ The Nizam genuinely felt sorrow over the devastation and went about comforting and inspiring his subjects to undertake rescue and burial operations. Moved by the pathetic conditions of the flood victims, he ordered that his Panch Mahalla Palace and Purana Haveli to be thrown open for sheltering the destitute. The Nizam also ordered the construction of temporary huts in the premises of various royal palaces. Arrangements were also made for Parda ladies at Asad Bagh palace (today’s Nizam College) which belonged to Nawab Fakhr-ul-Mulk Bahadur. Along with free accommodation, several kitchens were set up in various parts of city for Hindus and Muslims where 6.25 lakh people were fed at a total cost of Rs. 37,894. The leading nobles of Hyderabad like Maharaja Kishan Pershad, Nawab Moinuddin Khan etc., also arranged kitchens at their palaces and the displaced persons were fed day and night from the communal kitchens for several days.
The Nizam issued a Farman for undertaking relief and rehabilitation works and formation of a central relief committee. He also ordered mobilization of public donations for relief fund and as per government reports a sum of Rs. 15.70 lakh were collected. In addition, government granted a sum of Rs. 5 lakh. The Nizam himself contributed an amount Rs one lakh from his personal funds/Privy Purse. For taking care of women, who were unable to get any help, a separate ladies committee was formed with well-known women like Lady Hyderi, Sarojini Naidu, Humayun Mirza, Cason Walker etc. They worked for the destitute women with their own funds and took care of flood-stricken women, orphans and widows. The Nizam’s government spent Rs.10.09 lakh on rebuilding the homes of those affected and Rs. 2.02 lakh as grants for marriages (many were planned but disrupted by the flood), books for students, the reestablishment of shops and the purchase of domestic utensils. The government also spent Rs. 17,849 towards pensions of retired persons. In addition, Rs. 3.59 lakhs have been utilized for remitting the balance of loans granted to Government employees and others for rebuilding houses destroyed by the floods. On the whole, a total of 17,849 people were benefited by the government grants. Relief measures also included the quick disposal of dead and setting up of temporary hospitals for the distribution of medicine as precautionary measures against epidemics like Cholera. The government also controlled the rise in prices and opened fair-price depots for the distribution grain to the needy people.
After the flood, the Hyderabad Government embarked on a series of changes that would prevent a future disaster. The Nizam invited M. Visvesvarayya, a famous engineer to advise and assist in the reconstruction of the city. He was also given the task to devise measures for the prevention of the recurrence of similar catastrophe. After a detailed investigation and deliberations, Visvesvarayya suggested that the immunity of Hyderabad city from flood should come from the construction of flood catchment areas in the basin above the city. He proposed to construct reservoirs a few miles north of the capital. During the reign of the last Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan, the two dams, known as the Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar were built under noted engineer Nawab Ali Nawaz Jung Bahadur. These lakes not only prevented the flooding of the River Musi but also served as major drinking water sources for Hyderabad city.
The post-1908 period witnessed the shift of government offices and the residence of Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan from the Old City to the Chaderghat area north of Musi River. The Seventh Nizam constituted a City Improvement Board (CIB), Aaraish-e-Balda in 1912 for the development of Hyderabad in a planned and phased manner. According to a historian, the CIB “set the DNA of the city”. The City Improvement Board was entrusted with slum clearance, acquisition of lands, developing new colonies, housing for poor, recreation parks, play grounds, road widening, building shopping complexes and so on. Accordingly, the Board constructed houses in various localities including Khairatabad, Nampally, Malakpet and Mallepally. The Board took up the work of rehabilitation of slums in Dabeerpura, Sultan Shahi, Mughalpura, Nampally and Gunfoundry, Red Hills, Mallepally and those that were lined along the banks of Musi River. Besides this, the Board also enhanced the look of Hyderabad by constructing elaborate gardens, planned housing colonies, potable drinking water supply, sanitation and underground drainage with separate storm water drains, wide roads and bus and train services, much before many of the major cities of India.
The CIB was credited with the construction of the Nizamia Tibbi Hospital (near Charminar), Pathargatti Complex, Moazzam Jahi Market, High Court, Osmania Hospital and the City College. The CIB had also undertaken the development of industrial areas like Azampura, Patancheruvu, Sanathnagar and Maula Ali, as well the construction of arterial roads around the railway station. The architecture of domes and arches that was used for these projects became known as the Osmanian style. The modernization projects of CIB were a consequence of the recommendations of M. Visvesvaraya. He opined that “it would not be right to ignore the artistic, economic and sanitary considerations associated with the development proposals.”
The Asaf Jahi rulers, especially the Sixth and Seventh Nizams have occupied a prominent place in the Telangana region for the socio-economic transformation in the 19th and 20th centuries. They have immensely contributed for the modernization of Hyderabad city by changing its physical and infrastructural landscape.
Adapa Satyanarayana is a retired Professor of History, Osmania University, Hyderabad. His research specialization is modern Indian and Telangana history.