It was October 23rd, 2020, 10 days since Hyderabad witnessed the highest 24-hour rainfall ever, resulting in a flood-like situation. The sun was shining bright and there were no signs of clouds. At noon, I left for Nadeem Colony, one of the worst affected areas in Hyderabad.
I live just 11 kms from Nadeem Colony, and yet reading about and watching the videos of people in distress gave me an alien feeling, as my area appeared to be in perfect shape. What ails Nadeem Colony, I wondered, as I waited for my Ola bike.
As we proceeded on the Old Mumbai Highway Road, the high-rise buildings that have mushroomed all over the Cyberabad region of Hyderabad over the years, started appearing. The rally of high-rise glass palaces continued till we took a U-turn and crossed over to the other side, to enter the narrower lanes of Tolichowki.
We could see streams of water along the sides of the roads now; the cemented paths of pucca road had started crumbling; the turns became sharper, the houses crunchier. It was around 1:45 in the afternoon and men in white skull caps were returning from nearby mosques. As we went deeper into the area, signs of destruction started appearing: shoes half caked in mud, brown lines on the walls of the houses, marking the levels of the now receded water. The mess was here.
I got down at a random spot and paid the driver. Here, at the periphery of the colony, I found three women sitting in the basement of an apartment with a bunch of kids playing around.
Different people, similar stories
After talking to them for an hour, I came to know that they were waiting for the leaders who were then touring the more affected interiors, to ask for the money they were promised. On October 19th, the KCR-led government had announced Rs 10,000 for each of the affected households in the low-lying areas; the package amounted to Rs. 550 crores.
All one had to do was to go up to the desks set up by the GHMC workers, get her name written down in the register, produce an address-proof and the money would be hers. Or so they were told. “They made us stand in line for hours, scrunched together. They noted all of the details down and told us they will reach each of us individually and give us the money. That was three days ago. I am still waiting for it,” said Asma.
Asma is a single mother with three children and works as a domestic servant to make ends meet. All her belongings were ruined in these last 10 days. With no water and no electricity, she strived to feed her kids. “That money means something to me. I will wait till they come to this area. I have already made three rounds to that desk,” said a resolute Asma.
But my mind was stuck on the elephant in the room. What about COVID? Surely, they can’t make you stand in queues, crushed together that way?
“COVID? What’s a bigger virus than this flood? All of us have forgotten Corona in the last 10 days. The electricity only came back yesterday (22nd October). We had a relative who lives nearby. We went there to freshen up and change our clothes. These people didn’t even have that,” said Afsha, a resident of that building, pointing towards the other two ladies.
“My husband is the watchman of this building. We live in this single room, four of us: our two kids, me and my husband. Take a look for yourself,” Muneera told me, encouraging me to walk into her house. The small room had a bed which was overloaded with almost everything they owned, dumped there in an attempt to save it from the water — a stove, and an almirah.
“We just survived the last 8-9 days somehow, sleeping while sitting on the bed, hunched together. Night before last, my son started bleeding from his nose. We had to rush to the hospital. They say it’s something to do with his bone-marrow. His body does not make enough platelets. They said it will cost us 50-60 lakhs to cure it. Where do we find such kind of money?” says Muneera, smiling, turning to Afsha.
This is something that they have often talked about. This is their life. Already tough lives, made tougher by nature. But is it solely nature that’s taking so much away from these people?
Angry residents, absent leaders
In the inner areas of the colony, the picture became worse. The black layer on the road became thicker, slimier; silent streams of water were still finding their way into the manholes. Some drain pipes lay broken at the sides of the road, submerged in dirty stagnant water.
At the turn of the road, I saw a man frantically gesticulating at a group of people (mostly women). On walking closer, I gathered he was asking the women to find a place to sit and wait for the officials to arrive. As the group broke apart, I introduced myself and asked what was going on.
“There is no administration here. This area is administration-less. The whole thing gets so much news coverage but nothing is getting done. This place is just a mess and nobody cares. You write that down”, he said.
One of the men, Mir Ali, asked me to accompany him so that he could show me his home. We started walking and the condition of the path fell several notches from this turn. There was no road anymore. It was a thick carpet of mud and garbage, swollen with filthy water.
“Where’s the said relief camp?” I asked him.
“There’s a marriage hall called Shahi Garden nearby. People who had nowhere to go are in there. Most of us had left for our relatives’ houses in other parts of the city,” he told me. Some boats had been arranged by NDRF and army personnel but there have also been reports about people arranging boats on their own.
We had by now reached the final turn in the road which would lead to his home. But we couldn’t go further because that lane was almost a quagmire. There were clothes, grains, pieces of furniture — all embedded in the thick mixture of mud and filth.
Another friend of Ali, Muneer Ahmed, joined us. “You see that gate? That’s my house. Furniture, fridge, clothes all gone. We will have to start from scratch. What will 10,000 bucks do? It means nothing to us. I lost at least 6 lakhs in these floods,” Ahmed told me.
Floods: The real reason
But has this happened before?
In 2000, unusually heavy monsoon rain in the month of August had caused havoc in the city. “You see, the lake the water is coming from, Shah Hatem, has three exit points. It wouldn’t have been this bad, had two of its openings not been closed to build a golf course. It’s mostly because of that,” said Ahmed, with a disgusted look on his face.
In 2010, the Hyderabad Golf Association (HGA) started filling up areas of Shah Hatem Talaab to build a golf course. The construction extended to the premises of Naya Qila which was a violation of ASI rules that prohibits any kind of construction within 300 metres of a heritage site. Protests had taken place against these encroachments but none of the construction work stopped.
“They are all the same, the officials. No matter which party they come from. None of them care. They just passed all these lanes in their cars. Their shoes are too clean to step in here.”
And the relief work? The compensation?
Ahmed says he had asked one of the women in the line the other day where she was from. She said she was from Hakimpura and her house wasn’t even affected. She said she was told by one of the officials of GHMC that Rs.10,000 was being distributed here and was asked to come and collect it. Rs. 2,000 of that money goes into their (the officials’) pockets. “All parties are the same. All officials, they just get down at a cleaner spot, get photographed and tweet it and then their job is done. You can see for yourself. It’s the 10th day, you see what the condition is. Do you see even a single GHMC worker doing anything?” asks Ahmed. All others agreed.
Mohammed Anwar has a small laundry shop in the same lane as Ali’s house. It was a jumble of mud, clothes and everything in between.
“This is worse than the virus. I used to come here everyday from the old city to run my shop. Lockdown had already affected our income so much,” he says. The rent for that small room is 5,000. He used to be able to save up to Rs. 6000-7000 every month from his earnings from the shop. But this month is totally ruined, he laments. In fact, this whole year is ruined.
We shared an uncomfortable silence as he looked into the distance. “Will your report help us in some way?” he asked me. I didn’t have an answer.
We all just stood there and looked around us, the ruins of lives on display on the roads. My job was done here, I had gotten everything I could from this place. But I felt a sense of obligation to stay with them. I had a place to go back to that held my belongings intact, like all the ‘leaders’ who toured the place in their cars and left.
“You should go or else you’ll get infected with this dirty water, too,”Ahmed said to me, showing a sepsis in his left foot.
On my way back, I ran into some of the women I had met earlier, when they were waiting to meet the leaders.
“Are you going back home? The officials didn’t show up?” I asked them.
“No, they didn’t. We have homes to run, food to cook. So, we’re going back,” they all said at their own pace, in their own words.
Another day was coming to a close without any help. People with less affected homes had started cleaning their gates and walls themselves, showering them with pipes and rubbing the dirt off with sponges and clothes.
Even after all these conversations, some key parts of the story seemed to be missing. So, I decided to speak to Yunus Lasania, a journalist at Siasat.com, who runs The Hyderabad History Project along with Serish Nanisetti, a senior journalist at The Hindu.
“Shah Hatem Talaab was about 87 acres in size. Now, it is 11 acres. See, this whole colony is built on the lake bed itself. It gets flooded every year. This year, it got worse. But these houses are not supposed to be there in the first place,” Lasania explained.
How do these plans get passed then, I asked him.
“It’s all politics. People who own these houses are not poor people. The local leaders have a strong electoral base in the Muslim settlements, because they get these people properties at sites that are not supposed to be residential areas anyway. Most of these new settlements are built by encroaching the heritage sites and the wetlands. Things are not simple as they appear,” he said.
Nanisetti agrees. He shared satellite images of the area around Shah Hatem Talaab (below) to emphasise the degree of encroachment that has taken place between 2003 and 2020. This holds true for most of the water bodies and forested areas in Hyderabad. The demands of rapid urbanization are being met by encroachment of natural water bodies, heritage sites and cutting of hills.
A number of studies done over the years on the urbanization of the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad reflect the same.“If there was no corruption, this flood would never have happened”, Nanisetti added.
Who takes the worst hit?
The death toll in Hyderabad stood at 70, as of 19th October.
Nadeem Colony is not a slum. It has medium-sized houses that houses people who are rich enough to hold lands. At the same time, it also houses poor people who rent out small rooms in such buildings.In this mix of bureaucracy, electoral politics and urbanization, the people who suffer the most are people like Asma and Anwar.
They are the ones who get caught in the web of deceit and factors beyond their control, while losing their assets in the yearly urban flooding. If it’s so bad for them, what must have happened to the people who lived in make-shift homes, I wondered.
On my way back, before we turned to the roads studded with another range of glass palaces, five star hotels and IKEA, I saw numerous mattresses lying in the bushes, near the ruins of several make-shift homes. I had got my answer and it made me shiver.