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  • As part of Swarajya’s Smart Cities series, here’s an excerpt from Sir M Visvesvaraya’s autobiography on how the great engineer made Hyderabad flood-free.

    The keys to making Hyderabad flood-free were efficient town planning, sewerage management and engineering lessons.

Bharat Ratna Sir M Visvesvaraya is known for designing one of the best flood management systems of his time. As an engineer, he was instrumental in the construction of dams, reservoirs and hydro-power projects across the Deccan.

In Hyderabad, following a catastrophic flood in 1908, Sir Visvesvaraya’s services were requested by the Nizam’s government in the construction of a flood protection system and a drainage system for the city. Sir Visvesvaraya proposed the construction of storage reservoirs of adequate capacity above the city, which proved effective in controlling future floods. In order to keep sewage from flowing into the river and prevent mosquito breeding, he built a sewage farm and laid pipes to carry the city’s sewage there.

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Our smart city planners need to take lessons from the work of this genius town-planner. Below are edited excerpts from his autobiography: ‘Memoirs of my Working-Life’.

The river Musi passes through the city of Hyderabad (Deccan) and divides it into two parts. On 28 September 1908, a cyclonic flood of unusual intensity passed through the middle of this city. The rainfall recorded at Shamshabad, one of the principal rain-gauge stations in the catchment area, was 12.8 inches in 24 hours and 18.90 inches in 48 hours. This fall resulted in the most destructive flood that had been witnessed in Hyderabad City for over three-quarters of a century.

Ferrying across the Musi River/Getty Images Ferrying across the Musi River/Getty Images

The northern bank of the river was on a lower level than the southern one. The river basin above the city abounded in small tanks, there being 788 tanks in a basin of 860 square miles, roughly at the rate of one tank for every square mile of catchment. The valley of the Musi River which caused this flood consisted of two rainfall basins — the Musi proper with a catchment of 285 square miles and the Easi with one of 525 square miles. From the levels marked by the flood it was calculated that the discharge began with 1,10,000 cu. secs and rose to a maximum of 4,25,000 cu. secs. In the valleys of these rivers every tank of any consequence gave way. In all 221 tanks are reported to have breached, of which 182 were in the Easi catchment and 39 in the Musi.

My special work in Hyderabad was:

(1) To advise and assist in the reconstruction of Hyderabad City;

(2) To frame proposals for future protection of the city from floods; and

(3) To prepare a complete scheme of drainage for the Hyderabad City and Chadarghat.

On arrival there on 15th April 1909 I looked round for the staff required to undertake surveys for the two major schemes contemplated, namely, (1) a project for flood protection works, and (2) a modern drainage scheme for the city. Surveys were necessary for the preparation of plans and estimates for both these projects.

Additional works like town planning, concrete roads within the city and other similar works were suggested later. But on this occasion attention was confined only to the two important projects which the Government of Hyderabad considered to be urgent.

The flood of 1908, as stated before, estimated to amount to 4,25,000 cu. secs, representing an unusual run-off of 4 inch per hour from a catchment of 862 square miles. The fall of rain was, no doubt, of exceptional intensity, but had many tanks not breached simultaneously and released unprecedented volumes of water into the river, the flood would not have risen to the extraordinary height it did and caused such great damage.

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The flood occurred on Monday, 28 September 1908, as already stated, reaching its maximum height about an hour before noon. After midnight it developed into a cloud-burst. Rain descended in sheets, flooded the small tanks and overburdened their waste weirs. As a result, one tank after another gave way and the flood in the city rose to unprecedented heights, many buildings in the populous quarters being demolished. In an area known as Kolsawadi about 2,000 people were stated to have been drowned or washed away.

A few engineers and a large number of surveyors and subordinates were required to carry on the necessary surveys and investigations. The principal Engineer-in-charge of the PWD in Hyderabad at that time was Mr. T. D. Mackenzie, M.I.C.E., a well-known and able officer of the Madras Public Works Department. At first this officer was inclined to be critical but later became a warm friend and gave me all the help in his power.

The staff required for the works was obtained partly from the regular P.W.D. establishment of the Hyderabad State and partly from Bombay where I knew people. The surveys were put in hand as soon as the staff began to come in.

When the material collected by the survey was nearly ready and the engineering aspects of the problem were fully investigated, it was found that immunity to the city from floods could come only by providing storage room above the city by temporarily impounding all floods in excess of what the river channel could carry. This necessitated the construction of storage reservoirs of adequate capacity above the city. Two reservoir dams were proposed — one across the river Musi and another across its tributary, the Easi — both on the most suitable sites available within distances of 8 and 6 miles, respectively, above the city. The storage which was to be impounded on the Musi River was 8,439 million cubic feet and that on the Easi 11,950 million cubic feet, the total storage room as actually estimated being 20,389 million cubic feet.

Proposals were also made for raising the river banks in places within the city and converting portions of them into walks and gardens to give the banks an artistic effect along the river front.

When the project for all the flood protection works was ready, meetings were held for considering the proposals. The Prime Minister or President of the Executive Council, Maharaja Sir Kishen Prasad Bahadur, Yaminus-Sultanath, and Mr. Casson Walker, the Finance Minister, were both present but no decision in favour of the immediate commencement of the work could be obtained before I left Hyderabad.

Mr. P. Rosco Allen, a well-known engineer of the Madras service, who had at one time held office in Hyderabad (Deccan), seems to have been consulted. That officer wrote to Mr. F. Mooraj, Secretary, Public Works Department, Government of Hyderabad, under date 25th November 1909, as follows:

” I would congratulate Hyderabad firstly on their wisdom in taking steps to turn this dire misfortune into, a positive blessing and secondly on their selection of an engineer to report on the matter. I strongly advocate carrying out the schemes recommended at once without any talking.”

Charminar of Hyderabad/Getty Images Charminar of Hyderabad/Getty Images

“As to the designs, they are, so far as I can see, what one might expect from the distinguished engineer who drew them up.”

In March 1913, that is, some three and a half years after I left Hyderabad, the Government of the State took steps to construct the Musi Reservoir. On the occasion on which H.E.H. the Nizam performed the ceremony of laying the foundation-stone for the reservoir dam on the Musi River. Mr. T. D. Mackenzie, who was still the head of the PWD in the state, presented an address to the Nizam in which, among other statements, he added:

“His late Highness’s advisers were fortunate also in the officer selected to plan a method of protection. The choice fell upon Mr. Visvesvaraya, one of the very ablest of India’s engineers, who would have made his mark in any walk of life and who is now doing splendid service as Dewan of Mysore. In his report, he has borne cordial testimony to the great assistance, he received from Mr. Ahmed Ali and to the high qualities shown by that officer in the course of the investigation.” — (Times of India, 24 March 1913)

The Easi Reservoir was taken up later. For that work I was able to secure the services of a competent Indian engineer, Mr. C. T. Dalai, a retired Executive Engineer who had done very efficient dam construction work in the Mysore Public Works Department.

The officer who worked out the details of the Musi Dam in the year 1908 was Mr. Ahmed Ali, the officer referred to by Mr. T. D. Mackenzie. He was without question the ablest officer I had on these works. This officer possessed capacity and initiative and he later rose to the position of Chief Engineer of the Hyderabad State and earned the title of Nawab Ali Nawaz Jung. This same officer was later, in the year 1929, appointed by the Bombay Government as my colleague on a committee to investigate and report on the engineering and economic aspects of the Sukkur Barrage Works on the river Indus, also known as the Lloyd Barrage and Canal Construction Works, near Sukkur, Sind.

The Easi Dam was constructed partly by Mr. C. T. Dalai and later by Mr. (afterwards Sir) Clement T. Mullings, the engineer who subsequently earned distinction by completing the construction of the Mettur Dam under the Madras Government.

Hyderabad Drainage Scheme

A second important scheme entrusted to me was the preparation of a modern system of sewerage for Hyderabad City.

The river Musi, as stated above, passes through the city and the sewers from both banks emptied into it. The river itself in this way was at times converted into a huge sewer, especially in the hot weather.

In the crowded back lanes the house-owners used to dig pits in front of their houses and allow the liquid refuse from them to fill these pits. The pits sometimes overflowed and sometimes dried up and thus became a breeding ground for mosquitoes. It was remarked at the time that a stranger visiting the city for the first time and insufficiently acquainted with the habits of the people, might suspect that “ mosquito breeding “ was one of the industries of the city.

The more important work that was first undertaken was the diversion of city sewage from both banks of the river through pipe ducts into a separate sewage farm. A site was selected for the farm on the left bank of the river and to the east of the city. The sewage from the south bank of the river was taken by a pipe across the river below the Chadarghat Bridge and conveyed to the farm mentioned in an earthen channel along with the sewage from the left bank.

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My understanding with the Government of Hyderabad was that I should supply schemes both for flood protection works as well as for a modern sewerage scheme for the city. The two schemes were completed and printed reports of both together with plans and estimates were submitted to Government before I left Hyderabad. The report on the flood protection of Hyderabad was submitted on 1 October 1909 and that for reservoirs on the two branch rivers above Hyderabad on 20 October 1909.

A report in outline on the City Sewerage Scheme together with preliminary plans and estimates was submitted on 6 November 1909. All the slums which had proved a nuisance were brought into the scheme but as Government had no intention of financing a complete pipe sewerage scheme for the entire city all at once, many of the district sewers were left to be designed and constructed later after detailed surveys.

At the request of the British Resident, a note on the Secunderabad Drainage was furnished to that authority on 4 July 1909. In a letter dated 18 October 1909, the Resident wrote to me:

“I have also to thank you for your very valuable report on our Cantonment Drainage Scheme which has been accepted by the Cantonment Authorities and which I think we now see our way to putting in hand.”

I left Hyderabad service in November 1909. For 13 years thereafter I had no connection with the engineering works of that city. In the year 1922, I was again invited to look into and advise on the drainage scheme, the construction of which was not progressing satisfactorily. To meet the wishes of the State, I paid some half a dozen visits to Hyderabad at intervals. The principal works designed or carried out were the construction of a sewage farm and the laying out of proper sewers to carry the city drainage from both banks of the river to the farm. The farm was located on the north bank of the river below and beyond the city. Special attention was paid to the development of district or street sewers and house connections.

During my visits to Hyderabad City for consultation, the Special Engineer who worked on City Engineering Works was Mr. M. A. Zeman (later Nawab Ahsan Yar Jung) who held the official position of Superintending Engineer in the State Public Works Department.

During this, my second term of association with the Hyderabad State, I found the Easi Reservoir Dam was still under construction by Mr. C. T. Dalai and the Musi Reservoir, constructed for flood protection, was being used also for water-supply to the city.

I understand that the aggregate outlay on works and improvements with which I was associated in the State till about the year 1931 came to about Rs. 2 crores.

Before I ceased my connection with the city works, I complied with a request of the authorities in 1930 to supply, in the shape of a report, a connected picture of the city’s deficiencies and wants and the remedial measures and improvements which they called for.

There is much yet to be done, I stated, to improve the city. When the improvements suggested were carried out and the city was equipped with clean houses, flush-down lavatories, dustless roads, paved footpaths and a plentiful supply of open spaces, parks and gardens, it was thought Hyderabad would be able to hold her head high among her sister cities in India. Progress, it was stated, would be achieved only if efficient men were put in charge and funds to meet all reasonable demands allotted for expenditure from time to time.

Sir Akbar Hydari/Getty Images Sir Akbar Hydari/Getty Images

Before I close this chapter, I wish to place on record my indebtedness to Mr. (afterwards Sir) Akbar Hydari for the interest he took in the improvements to Hyderabad City and for the cooperation and help I received from him throughout my work in that connection.

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