I reach Hyderabad at about seven in the evening. They make me pass a second sanitary examination at the station; they change my first plague passport for another, more detailed, if such a thing is possible... I shake with indignation, I protest. For a crowning insult, they tell me that I must go the day after tomorrow to the Civil Hospital and have myself examined by a nurse appointed for this... If I decide to remain for 10 days, I shall have the advantage of being examined only every other day. What luck for me.” This is the lament of a French traveller who arrived in Hyderabad sometime in 1920.
A hundred years later, on May 18, 2020, when the first train from New Delhi reached Secunderabad, disembarking passengers were given a quarantine stamp on their left wrist and sent home. No medical examination by a nurse, no follow-up calls, no visit to the civil hospital.
Between 1918 and 1920, when the Spanish Flu swept through the land, killing as many as two crore Indians according to historians, it did not find the Nizam’s city ill-prepared, as our French visitor attests. Years of struggle against natural disasters, cholera and the plague had inspired the beginnings of a transformation.
Hyderabad at the turn of the century was an oriental kingdom that conjured images of an Arabian Nights fable. Isabel Burton described the mile-long palace of the Nizam, the ostrich races, cock-fighting, gymnastics and a boring nautch while visiting the city with her husband Richard Burton. But surrounding this make-believe world was a walled city where people lived in houses that were little more than tiled roof and mud walls. In September 1908, a wall of water from the Musi River swept through the city, killing thousands and flattening large areas. Three years later, a pestilence hit the city. It was on August 25, 1911 that one Hafiz Syed Abdul Qadir gave information about a bubonic plague case to the municipal commissioner. Within two days, the commissioner had found more cases. The death toll kept rising and when the Nizam travelled with his entourage for the 1911 Delhi Durbar to kowtow to King George V, the plague had killed thousands.
Residential areas on the edge of the Musi River and the Afzal Sagar lake were wiped out. Plague camps were set up, away from residential areas, in open spaces near dargahs and temples. At some plague camps, the inmates rioted, torching the tents. Then, the main quarantine hospital that treated plague victims was handed over to the Army. The residency surgeon, Lt Col H. L. Drake-Brockman, was appointed plague commissioner for Hyderabad.
According to historian Eric Beverley, about 20% of the city’s population, or roughly 1 lakh people, were killed. The plague commissioner’s report pegs the death toll at 16,901 from a population of 3,87,000, or a mortality rate of 4.3% over a nine-month period. The high court, which functioned on the southern bank of Hyderabad’s river, was shifted to a park on the other side of the river. As the plague raged, nearly half the city’s population was forced to live in temporary tented camps for six months.
This dance of death had an immediate impact. After his return from Delhi, the Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, created the City Improvement Board (CIB) in 1912 with the remit of ‘general improvement of the social, moral and physical conditions of the citizens’.
The CIB would transform the walled medieval city into a modern metropolis with a riverbank lined with gardens and secular buildings such as a court, railway station, school and a grand hospital. Densely populated areas with low houses were pulled down, lakes were drained, and in a break from the past, the land on the other side of the Musi River was explored. Planned self-contained townships were laid on a grid pattern with parks, grounds, religious places and shopping complexes developed in Sultan Shahi, Gunfoundry, Musallam Jung Gardens, Moghulpura, Begum Bazar, Pathanwadi, Feelkhana and Errannagunta.
The airy Osmania Hospital, completed in 1925, became a magnet for modern medical care. “It was the hospital of choice for everyone in Hyderabad. Everyone from the nobility to ordinary people went there for treatment. By 1942, there was a network of hospitals in Hyderabad,” says Anuradha Reddy of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.
A city remodelled
Outbreaks of plague and cholera soon became localised. “The plague camps were for the healthy people so that they could escape the affected areas,” says Reddy.
The area where the plague first broke out in 1911, to the west of the Hyderabad Railway Station, was transformed into a planned residential colony by draining a lake and turning a part of it into a playground. Its centrepiece was a mosque — one that, ironically, had to be turned into a containment zone this year after a number of people tested positve for COVID-19. Incidentally, the playgrounds that were built then were key to Hyderabad’s rise as a football powerhouse. A survey by architect Anuradha Naik found that the Mallepally area produced four Olympians, five international players and 11 national players.
The city’s transformation had a significant impact on the health of its people. The mortality rate due to the plague dropped from between one and five per 10,000 in 1897-1906 to less than one per 10,000 by 1917-1926.
The population figures show the success of the plan to remodel the city. Hyderabad’s population grew by 55.2% between 1931 and 1941, going from 4,66,896 to 7,39,159. “The prevalence and frequency of epidemics like plague, influenza, cholera etc., were much mitigated by the successful operations of the Public Health Department,” says the census document of 1941.
The epidemics had helped remodel the city from within. What was once an oriental fantasy with bastions, walls, palaces and slums was now a modern urban centre with the domes and cupolas adding a patina of the medieval. The working class had flat concrete homes with playgrounds, parks and markets. The slums had disappeared. And so had diseases. Till COVID-19 struck.