It is said that a city without its past is like a man without his memory. Unfortunately, in Hyderabad, we have been adept at erasing our collective memory – and there is weak political will to safeguard heritage buildings.
One such heritage building, which is experiencing a similar fate right now, is the Osmania General Hospital (OGH), situated on the north bank of the Musi River in Hyderabad. The Telangana government is planning to tear down this 114-year-old landmark to make way for a new hospital to be built across 35.76 lakh square feet.
Magnificent and stoic, this purpose-built hospital has silently served citizens of Hyderabad of every class, and nearly a century later, it continues to be the largest allopathic hospital in Telangana.
But of late, the only mention the hospital ever finds in the papers is that of condemnation, destruction, and demolition. Ironic, for it is a temple of healing.
The story of the present hospital can be traced to the reorganisation of the city following the devastating floods of 1908.
The OGH was built along the Afzal Gardens, in a "decided advantage to the hospital as it presents a bright outlook to the patients from the hospital and refreshing walk to the invalids."
The Nizam, HEH Nawab Sir Mir Osman Ali Khan, issued a farman (royal decree) on 18 September 1917 to commence the work. British architect Sir Vincent S Esch was commissioned to design the hospital, and he worked closely with Dr A Lancaster, then Director of the Nizam's Medical Department.
The OGH was completed five years later in 1925.
Architect Esch combined Hindu elements with Islamic ones and produced a masterpiece that was christened in the Osman Shahi style in Hyderabad.
A sturdy load-bearing structure, it was constructed in stone masonry and lime plaster. The foundations were carried to various depths to meet the hard ground and the safe load calculated to be allowed on the foundations was 2.5 tonnes/square feet.
This is more than comparable to the safe loads calculated on buildings of this size today – and it is appalling and defiant of the logic that the building is being deemed unsafe now.
Planned and constructed as a large hospital, it has a central block that had administrative offices on the ground floor and operation theaters on the first and second floors, with well-ventilated wards in the wings.
A century later, the hospital continues to be an awe-inspiring and magnificent landmark of Hyderabad.
While the hospital served the citizens of Hyderabad dutifully, its custodians have neglected their duty towards the hospital and its upkeep, especially in the last couple of decades. Its problems are largely related to inappropriate interventions and poor maintenance.
Civil and structural engineers, who are not conversant with load-bearing masonry in lime structures, are responsible for maintenance through the Roads and Buildings Department.
Not only are incongruous repair materials like cement used unsparingly but the principles used to gauge the strength of Reinforced Concrete Cement (RCC) post and beam structures are wrongly applied to buildings constructed on inherently different methodologies and a diametrically opposite palette of materials.
Lack of internal planning, haphazard growth, and lack of facilities are the chief concerns for the hospital. Years of neglect have certainly led to deterioration, but the structure itself is sound, sturdy, and robust, and in no way warrants demolition.
The constant pressure to demolish the hospital and a historical landmark in the heart of Hyderabad city may be viewed from two lenses, one that looks at the past and the other that looks to the future.
Hyderabad was among the first Indian cities to formulate guidelines for heritage protection, despite which historic structures have been at risk. It is the intervention of civil society that has, in recent years, protected some of these buildings from demolition, the most recent being the much-publicised Irrum Manzil.
Every democratically elected government is a custodian of the city's architectural fabric, and obliterating the much-cherished and fast-depleting finite heritage of Hyderabad cannot and should not be an option for consideration.
Looking to the future, the planet is in a state of climate emergency. The resource scarcity facing us hardly makes any act of demolition justifiable. The energy expended in demolition, the creation of copious amounts of debris and rebuilding using materials that do not have a comparable life cycle also does not make it a sustainable option.
The cost of demolition for a public building that can be restored and used also cannot be justified.
Examples are abound of historic buildings being used as cutting-edge medical facilities, worldwide.
Perhaps the oldest surviving hospital in continuous use is the St Bartholomew Hospital in London. It has existed on the same site since its founding in 1123 and its oldest building still in use as a hospital, dates from 1546.
Another important conglomerate of medical centres is the world-renowned Harley Street, also in London. Today, some 5,000 medical professionals operate in the Harley Street Medical Area and the property director Simon Baynham writes, "It is a place of curious opposites – modern medicine and centuries' old architecture – and marrying the two remains a real challenge. As we've consistently proven, however, it is a challenge that can be readily met."
At Harvard, the Massachusetts Hospital building constructed in 1818 has remained at the heart of the Harvard Medical facility as has the Boston Women and Children's Hospital affiliated to the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Excellent medical centres in historic buildings exist across the world and while they have been continuing as powerhouses of modern medicine, what makes each of them unique is an undeniable respect for their past and a reverence for those that have left an indelible mark and an unforgettable contribution to the medical world.
The Osmania General Hospital is by no means different from the great medical institutions of the world, being at one point a world leader in modern medicine itself.
The medical and research history of Osmania Hospital is equally spectacular to its architectural one. Dr Rupa Bai Furdoonji, India's first lady doctor and the first qualified lady anaesthetist in the world studied at Osmania and Major Edward Lawrie, whose work here confirmed that chloroform was safe to be used as an anaesthetic, in a landmark study reported in the medical journal, the Lancet on 25 September 1915.
The historical importance and relevance of the Osmania General Hospital has been obscured from mainstream view as those in positions of power now use private medical services.
Since its completion in 1925, the OGH remains the state's largest hospital, and no government since 1948, whether Andhra Pradesh or Telangana, have constructed a facility of a similar scale or relevance. It is the largest hospital accessible to the citizens of the Old City – and its demolition would be an unforgivable act.
Unforgivable because it is the epicentre for medical treatment for the citizens of the old city of Hyderabad, providing excellent medical care, free of cost to those who cannot afford the crippling charges of the private sector.
Unforgivable because the brightest and best qualified doctors still work and teach here and most of the corporate medical world's doctors were trained here.
Unforgivable because it was built for the people of the city as a hospital and because its well-thought-out designs still comply with the standards and guidelines for patient care over a century later.
Unforgivable because while there is ample legislation in favour of conservation, no cognisance is made of these laws.
Unforgivable because of the pollution its demolition and reconstruction will cause when we are going through a climate crisis.
Unforgivable because the modern material palette of concrete and glass cannot last even half a century when the life of the existing building can be extended by at least another century if not more.
Unforgivable because it is an integral part of the skyline of the city of Hyderabad.
Unforgivable because its architectural fabric proudly represents the syncretic traditions of the city.
And most unforgivable because it is Hyderabad, and by losing it, we will all lose a part of what is the best in us.
(Anuradha S Naik is a UNESCO award-winning conservation architect, designer, and author who focuses on conservation and craft revival, especially in the Deccan. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)