On the morning of September 29, 1908, the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad Mir Mehboob Ali Khan stepped out into the streets of the city to witness the destruction of the worst flood in the history of Hyderabad. The water had receded to reveal thousands of human bodies and animal carcasses. At least 4,000 people had died and 2 lakh people were affected, many of them left homeless with all their belongings washed away.
The ruler of Hyderabad broke down in full public view at what he saw.
It was also the very same floods that left him determined that the city should never face such a situation ever again. Hyderabad, he thought, should be ‘flood-proofed.’
“At that time, the Nizam of Hyderabad was worried and he invited noted engineer M. Visvesvaraya. In 1909, he submitted a report which recommended that the two reservoirs be built at the outskirts of the city," narrates professor K Purushotham Reddy, a well-known activist, who used to head the Department of Political Science in Osmania University.
The first reservoir - The Osmansagar - was built on the Musi river on the outskirts of the city in 1920. While Mir Mehboob Ali Khan passed away, his successor, the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan inaugurated the Osmansagar. In 1927, the second reservoir, Himayatsagar, was built on Esa, a tributary of the Musi.
The two reservoirs would then go on to supply drinking water to all citizens of Hyderabad until the late 90s and early 2000s. But in the years since, multiple structures have sprung up around the reservoirs, threatening their future use as water sources.
What’s more, the state government is set to pave the way for further real estate development in the area, and the water bodies that once served as a lifeline to the city are now under threat of vanishing.
"All that will remain is the name. There will be no water," Purushotham says.
Rivers or reservoirs? The water Hyderabad drinks
"The reservoirs were built for flood control, but also to provide drinking water to the growing city of Hyderabad. For more than 70 years, Osmansagar was the main drinking water source for the city," says Purushotham. “The Nizam of Hyderabad had issued a 'firman' (royal decree) that in the catchment area of the two reservoirs, any activity which pollutes or obstructs the flow of water to these reservoirs was banned.”
During the time of construction, both reservoirs had a storage capacity of about 4 TMC with Osmansagar spread over 22 sq km and Himayatsagar spread over 21 sq km. However, the encroachments have resulted in drastic reduction in the storage capacity of the water bodies.
As the state continues to draw water from the Krishna and Godavari rivers, while scaling up supply from the latter, activists fear that the government is failing to consider the rivers’ future viability. "They are not taking into account that the flow in the river Krishna has been coming down each year and water levels in the Nagarjunasagar dam are depleting further annually," Purushotham says.
Already, there have been reported incidents where Hyderabad’s water sources have reportedly left taps dry throughout the city, either due to receding water levels in reservoirs or maintenance over leakages in pipelines that supply Krishna and Godavari water.
Meanwhile, Purushotham points out that the two naturally-replenishing reservoirs may soon vanish completely, citing 'Masab Tank' and 'Nallakunta' in Hyderabad as examples. “At such a time, it is crucial to understand that we have to save our water sources instead of destroying them further.”
A government order, defied
In 1996, under the tenure of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, Government Order (GO) 111 was issued, as the reservoirs provided drinking water to the city and there was a need for strict regulation to ensure that it was not polluted.
The GO "prohibits industries, major hotels, residential colonies or other establishments that generate pollution in the catchment of Himayatsagar and Osmansagar, up to 10 km from the full tank level (FTL) of the lakes."
However, since the beginning, there have been attempts to flout the norms. One such incident was related to a company which attempted to set up a factory within the 10-km radius of the two reservoirs and even got an exemption from GO 111 from the state government. The case went to the High Court and later even to the Supreme Court.
On December 1, 2000, in a judgement titled 'A.P. Pollution Board Vs. Prof. M.V. Nayudu', the Supreme Court said, "When such a prohibition was in force, the State Government could not obviously grant any exemption to a specified industry like the seventh respondent, located within the 'area.' Nor was it permissible for the State to direct the appellant-Board to prescribe conditions for grant of No-Objection Certificate (NOC).... Government could not pass such orders of exemption having dangerous potential, unmindful of the fate of lakhs of citizens of the twin cities to whom drinking water is supplied from these lakes. Such an order of exemption carelessly passed, ignoring the 'precautionary principle' could be catastrophic.” (sic)
"The situation is criminal. Several encroachments are within the Full Tank Level (FTL) itself. The government including the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (HMWSSB) is well aware of the structures. There are encroachments that can be spotted with Google maps. We have pointed out several such structures to the authorities but they continue to sit on the information and refuse to act," says Dr Lubna Sarwath, from Save Our Urban Lakes (SOUL).
One of the latest cases which Lubna has taken up, is a 'Sports Village' which has come up around Osmansagar's FTL, referring to the maximum amount of water that the reservoir can hold when full to the brim. Armed with satellite imagery, she notified the authorities but to no avail.
Satellite images from 2010, 2011 and 2018
In 2017, activists also pointed out that a road was constructed by the state government in Osmansagar's FTL, allegedly violating norms, near Khanapur village.
"How can the state, in such a brazen act, construct a road within the FTL? When you cut across the FTL of any water body, the small side which gets left out becomes land permanently," Lubna says.
"It has become almost difficult to name encroachers individually who fall within the 10 km radius. Lots of engineering and medical colleges have come up. One resort that came up in the catchment area of Osmansagar even blocked one of the inflow channels and all its effluents are discharged into the water. Many residential layouts have come up as well," says Captain J Rama Rao, one of the city's most noted environmentalists.
Activists allege that a lot of inflow channels were encroached, which was resulting in shrinking of the reservoirs.
"There is a HC directive that no permission should be granted for constructions but it is openly being flouted. Even the government has built the Telangana State Police Academy. The government is also one of the main culprits," the 89-year-old environmentalist adds.
In 2008, the Ministry of Environment and Forests had also noted after a study that “indiscriminate constructions had resulted in reduction of storage in the lakes,” recommending that “a comprehensive watershed development program has to be planned without endangering existing sustainable water supply sources to urban areas in the future.”
A growing desire for development
On the ground, locals say that they have issues with GO 111, especially the curb on construction of new structures. They claim that due to the GO, the permission to construct buildings on their own land is often denied.
"We are stuck with Outer Ring Road on one side and the reservoir on the other. What can we do? If we want to construct something new, they are citing 111. The population here has grown but the authorities have not caught up, where their policies are concerned," says Bhim, a local at Khanapur village, abutting Osmansagar.
“In all the neighbouring villages where GO 111 is not in place, they are able to grow and develop, but we are stuck in time almost, because of the rule,” he adds.
Speaking to TNM, Narasimha, the sarpanch of Khanapur says, "We don't get permission for construction. The locals say that if they even give a slight exemption to construct residential structures in their own plots, they will be satisfied. Many feel that GO 111 can either be scrapped completely and more tourism can be promoted at the two reservoirs, or apply GO 111 only where the survey numbers of the water body flows and drop the 10-km rule."
Scrapping GO 111
There has been a growing chorus to cancel the GO and activists have been protesting against it for years now. The land outside the 10-km radius has already been taken over by towering skyscrapers and plush residential outlets.
If scrapped, the locals who have been holding on to their land deeds hope that their land prices will shoot up as well and they can get rich overnight by selling it off to real estate companies. Activists on the other hand, warn that it would sound the death knell for the reservoirs.
"For the last 10 years, political parties have been toying with the idea of GO 111. There are two factors where locals are concerned as well. The local small farmers are not ready to sell their land because they don't know any other livelihood than agriculture. The soil is alluvial which lets them grow beetroot, carrot and several other delicacies and vegetables and produce excellent crop. If they sell this land, where will they go? They are not demanding GO 111 be abolished," Purushotham Reddy says.
"It is the greedy real estate lobby which is in cahoots with politicians. They know that if GO 111 is scrapped, the land values will shoot up. The vested interests are creating an argument that there is no use for these two reservoirs," he adds.
Last year, the Telangana government informed the Hyderabad High Court that GO 111 was 'redundant' as the two reservoirs no longer provided drinking water to the city. Additional advocate general, J Ramachandra Rao also said that the state government would still ensure that the water bodies were preserved, if permission was granted to construct within the 10-km radius.
While campaigning for the Chevella MLA Kale Yadaiah, Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) President and Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao said on December 1, "I promise you. It has become a curse to the people who live here. They are no longer needed for drinking water. GO 111 should be scrapped. I am promising as your bidda (child). Everyone is getting several crore rupees for their land. You should also reap the same benefits. Within six months of the TRS government coming to power, we will scrap GO 111. That is my promise to you."
The pipelines that once supplied water to the city
An uncertain future
"I don't see any hope. The state government is bent upon scrapping the GO,” says Rama Rao, the environmentalist, adding that nothing has changed even though cases have been going on since 2000.
“They appointed a committee to give a report on this with clear instructions to say that these two reservoirs are no longer needed to supply drinking water to Hyderabad. If this happens and they are able to denotify Osmansagar and Himayatsagar, then Supreme Court judgement won't stand because it declared that drinking water sources should be protected. That's what is ultimately going to happen. Next year, Osmansagar will be a hundred years old. The situation is regretful," he says.
And it isn’t just the government who is at fault. Citizens, Rama Rao noted, should be blamed as well. He adds, “The average Hyderabadi doesn't care as long as they not personally affected. But they are not seeking to ensure that their children inherit a good environment.”