The 1908 flood that changed the face of Hyderabad

As Kerala grapples with a deluge of unimaginable proportions, the second time in under 100 years, it is interesting to remember the Hyderabad experience. Around 110 years ago on September 26, 1908, it began to rain in the surrounding areas of Hyderabad as a result of a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal. Over the next 48 hours, the downpour continued in the Musi river basin logging 98.57 cm rainfall. Of the 788 tanks and lakes in the river basin, 221 breached due to the cloudburst. At 11 a.m. on September 28, an estimated 4,25,000 cusecs of water raced through the city swirling and sweeping away over 19,000 homes, and killing about 15,000 people.

According to historian Benjamin Cohen, the flood and deaths were used by the Nizam and his advisers to remake the city in a way that made it flood-proof. It also changed the power equations of the city.

“The modernising spirit that infused changes to the Musi and its environs helped cement a permanent shift of the city’s power centres north. This shift had begun with the construction of British Residency on the north side of the Musi. After the flood, a further shift north occurred, first because a section of the old city’s population was displaced from the Musi’s banks and second because elites – including the Nizam himself – did not want to live within the river’s striking distance,” writes Mr. Cohen in
Environment and History

The credit for city’s transformation goes to the team of experts put together by Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan, who drafted engineer M. Visweswaraya for the work.

He was drafted for a princely salary which a Bombay newspaper reported: “What kind of expert this Indian engineer could be to demand and obtain the salary drawn by the Commissioner of a Revenue Division?”

Beginning his task on April 15, 1909, Mr. Visweswaraya submitted his report in November the same year. Among the proposals was to create impounding dams, a functioning sewerage system and bolstering the river banks. The river banks were transformed into walks and gardens. In March 1913, the Nizam’s government began constructing the impounding dams on the twin tributaries of Musi. A City Sewerage Scheme was put into operation. A City Improvement Board was constituted a few years later to take care of the slum issue.

“I would congratulate Hyderabad firstly on their wisdom in taking steps to turn this dire misfortune into a positive blessing…,” wrote one Madras engineer to the secretary of Public Works Department of the Nizam’s government.

Mr. Visweswaraya wanted dust-free roads. The Nizam commissioned cement roads to make the proposal into a reality. “A huge quantity of cement was required. A cement manufacturing company was consulted which said it will need to commission a plant to take care of the needs. A captive cement manufacturing plant was built to take care of the needs in Nizam’s dominion,” informs engineer and historian Sajjad Shahid.

Today, the Musi has been tamed to an extent that even a massive amount of rainfall in the catchment area of 352 km river is a small wave that sweeps away garbage.

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