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Osmania hospital, the Nizam era Hyderabad hospital caught in a heritage vs health debate

The more than century-old Osmania General Hospital in Hyderabad is crumbling and while a few like Owaisi & KCR want it torn down completely, heritage activists are up in arms against the proposal.   

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Hyderabad: Last month, the AIMIM chief and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi revived a long-standing debate around one of the country’s oldest hospitals — the Nizam-era Osmania General Hospital (OGH) in the city. 

Owaisi wants a Rs 1,000-crore hospital built on the premises, though he was ambiguous on whether he wants the old hospital pulled down, which Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao first proposed in 2015.

But much like KCR in 2015, Owaisi has faced flak from heritage activists, who are instead calling on the Telangana government to refurbish the hospital, which is a heritage building and build a new facility elsewhere on its nearly 26.5-acre campus.

“This is not just about heritage, it is also the great medical history this campus and the building have. How can the government just decide to wipe away such significance?” asked Anuradha Reddy, city convenor of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), a non-profit organisation working to conserve heritage buildings in the country.  

“When we forget history, we flounder in the future,” she added. “It is not like we do not care about people’s health.” 

What all sides agree on, however, is that the hospital building is dilapidated and crumbling.   

Last year in July 2020, a few hours of intense rain left the older part of the building (the heritage part) inundated. Soon after, the state health department ordered a closure of the building, and patients were shifted to the next block.  

There are other issues as well — the building suffers seepage, fallen plaster patches from the roof, and stray animals in its wards.  

But despite one wing being shut down, the hospital still provided non-Covid services last year when other hospitals in Hyderabad were grappling with the Covid pandemic, underlining its importance to the city. 

According to hospital superintendent Dr B. Nagender, the hospital performed about 44,705 operations and surgeries in 2020.

“There were about 42,663 admissions and more than 2 lakh outpatients in the same period,” he added. “On an average, there are 150 major operations and emergency cases a month in the hospital.”

Around 50 new ICU beds were added to the hospital last week. 

Also read: Jagan govt withdraws appeal in SC in Amaravati land case, says will pursue matter in HC

Tied to Hyderabad’s history

The Telangana government-run Osmania General Hospital is a 1,168-bed hospital covering roughly two acres of the 26.5-acre campus, which also includes a nursing and a dental college.  

The entire campus oversees the Musi river in the older part of the city and is not too far from the iconic Charminar. The hospital caters to poor outpatients, some from neighbouring districts.

Osmania started out as the Afzal Gunj Hospital in 1866 but the current building was built following the devastating 1908 floods in Hyderabad. 

The current general hospital, named after the last Nizam ruler Osman Ali Khan, was designed by architect Vincent Esch, who also built the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, and is considered to be one of the finest structures of the Asaf Jahi style. 

It was only fully completed in 1925 but parts of the hospital had been functioning by then.  

Mohammed Iqbal Jaweed, a Hyderabad-based doctor whose father was a surgeon at the Osmania hospital in the 1960s, told ThePrint that the facility is tied to Hyderabad’s history. 

Jaweed, an alumnus of the Osmania Medical College, pointed out that the college was first established in 1846 as the Hyderabad Medical School on the OGH campus. It was only moved to a nearby area in Koti in the 1960s.

According to Jaweed, the hospital has made some key contributions in the field of anaesthesia.

The Osmania campus held the first Hyderabad Chloroform Commission set up in 1888. And the world’s first female anaesthetist Rupa Bai Furdoonji was from Hyderabad Medical School.  

The hospital itself is from a period when Hyderabad was known for its medical infrastructure and treatment during the Nizam rule.  

For instance, Sir Ronald Ross, the Indian-born British doctor made his Nobel Prize-winning discovery on malaria in the city. Hyderabad also boasts of the Institute of Preventive Medicine, which started off as a ‘plague depot’ in 1870, where manufacturing of vaccines began in 1910. Then there was a tuberculosis hospital set up in the city by the sixth nizam in 1888.

All these are wings of Osmania Hospital,” Jaweed told ThePrint. “To make sure there is no chaos at one building and on the idea that people can go to any of these hospitals depending on their illness, the Nizams planned it this way. Such is the history of Osmania.”

Former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao used to visit his (spiritual) guru, Ramanand Teerth, while he was admitted at Osmania, and former President Shankar Dayal Sharma was treated here, recalls Jaweed.

‘Refurbish old building, build new hospital’

It is this heritage that conservation architects in the city want to save.  

Time and again, conservation architects say that they have been presenting detailed reports on the hospital restoration but nothing has moved in the last decade. 

In 2010, then Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister K. Rosaiah passed orders to renovate the building and his government reportedly sanctioned Rs 200 crore but activists allege none of it was spent.  

City’s conservation architect G.S.V. Suryanarayana Murthy, who was appointed by the then Andhra Pradesh government in 2013 to restore the building, said he prepared a detailed report providing alternatives to every issue within the building, from water logging to ceiling’s plaster to the vegetation growing on the terrace.  

“Any heritage structure loses its strength only due to poor maintenance. This is not just a building but it is the skyline of the city. The entire Musi and the banks of it tell the story of the city and how it took shape,” Murthy told ThePrint. “A suggestion was made to restore the old building at a cost of Rs 19 crore and build a new one worth Rs 100 crore.”

A 500-page detailed report was submitted to the then government following an inch-by-inch survey of the building but things hardly moved forward, Murthy added.

“They have kept the whole thing in abeyance. Nothing moved much after that report,” another conservation activist, who wished to be unnamed, told ThePrint.

In fact, on a voluntary basis, Murthy also presented an updated report last year suggesting restoration plans which that could restore the building at a cost of Rs 45 crore, and about Rs 300 crore for a new building.

Anuradha Reddy of INTACH told ThePrint that her organisation had examined the building in 2015. “Taking everything into consideration we observed that the heritage building is safe for another century, however it requires some repairs,” she said. 

She added that the high court should allow INTACH to carry out another examination.

There is a clutch of petitions filed in the Telangana High Court against the demolition. 

“The way the building was built shows how well it was planned — there was a lot of ventilation, large corridors, and proper outlets for the water,” she said. “The damage caused to it is purely due to ‘unscientific intervention’. There was also a park opposite to the hospital for people to relax, which has been destroyed.” 

Prof Salma Farooqui, from the city’s Maulana Azad National Urdu University, told ThePrint that the hospital is a witness to Hyderabad’s legacy. 

“Several activists agreed to Suryanarayana Murthy’s detailed report on restoration. It is not health vs heritage; there is a clear distinction,” she said. “The hospital is witness to the legacy of how Hyderabad was formed and it has great significance — that cannot be just wiped away overnight. A city is recognised by its heritage. The government should get heritage experts onboard and a dialogue needs to be initiated.” 

“Why can’t a new building be built while restoring the old one. Is that not an option? There’s also some open area within the premises,” Farooqui said.

The irony is that exactly opposite to Osmania is the high court and a little away is the City College, both of which were built in the same period. The high court building is being maintained and City College is being conserved.

“Doctors from Osmania’s windows look at the sister building high court and see how it is maintained and lawmakers from the HC windows look at Osmania with pity,” Jaweed said.

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)

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