How do India’s policies and guidelines look at ‘urban lakes’?

The country has come a long way in the fight to protect these bodies of water, but much more needs to be done

By Shivali Jainer
Published: Friday 03 January 2020
Lake Pichola in Udaipur. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Historically, cities were built along waterways or lakes. The multi-faceted relationship between urban planning and water has influenced the development of metropolitan areas, cities, towns and even neighbourhoods throughout history and will continue to do so.

Over time, human settlements near water bodies and lakes have transformed the natural environment into the towns and cities we see today. Urban lakes are an important part of city ecosystems as they play a major role in providing environmental, social and economic services.

Appropriate lake function can ease the impact of floods and droughts by storing large amounts of water and releasing it during shortages. Lakes also help in replenishing groundwater level as they are essential receptors for groundwater recharge, positively influencing water quality of downstream watercourses and preserving the biodiversity and habitat of the surrounding area.

Lakes in urban areas provide us with prime opportunities for recreation, tourism and domestic purposes. They hold historical and traditional values and at places are a source of water supply for a municipality.

In 1559, for securing and conserving water, Udaipur built a chain of lakes as a 'cascade system' and transformed itself from being a rainfall-deficient city to be self-sufficient in water supply. Lakes in urban areas are also used as a source of water for industries, irrigation and agriculture.

Lakes such as Carambolim (Goa), Chilika (Odisha), Dal (Jammu and Kashmir), Deepor Beel (Assam), Khabartal (Bihar), Kolleru (Andhra Pradesh), Loktak (Manipur), Naini (Uttrakhand), Nalsarovar (Gujarat), and Vembanad (Kerala), have long been providing recreational, tourism, fisheries, irrigation and domestic water supply services.

Although fundamentally very important to humans and the environment, these lake ecosystems are presently endangered due to anthropogenic disturbances. Urbanisation has come at a cost for these lakes, as they have been heavily degraded due to pollution from disposal of untreated local sewage or due to encroachment, resulting in shrunken lakes.

But how do we define urban lakes?

There is no specific definition for ‘urban lakes’ in India. According to the National Lake Conservation Plan (NLCP), a water body having a minimum depth of three metres, spread over more than 10 hectares, and having no or very little aquatic vegetation, is considered as a lake.

The definition provided by NLCP is based on broad hydrological and morphometry criteria of a lake:

The apparent definition of urban lakes seems to those located entirely within city limits (census town) and directly surrounded by urban developments, with some recreation facilities limited to the shoreline area (parks, playgrounds).


The lakes which are predominantly affected by urban human populations and their drainage basin is dominated by urbanisation, rather than geology, soils or agriculture. Such lakes are situated only partially within city limits, or attached but not necessarily surrounded, entirely by city development.

Lakes located in most Indian cities are generally permanent bodies of open water, with a significant size (>0.1 ha). These lakes are located according to the cities’ topography and are often placed in a series (inter-linked) to play a key role in urban stormwater management. Urban lakes also help to mitigate the density of urban developments by creating passive open space areas.

One of the obstacles for effective protection of these interlinked lakes in cities is the lack of a clear definition of an ‘urban lake’ in the Indian context. The definition provided under the guideline of NLCP acknowledges only broad hydrological criteria to define a water body as a lake.

This definition ignores the fact that the water depth and spread keep changing every year, depending on various environmental factors. In fact, there are very few urban lakes that fit into this definition since most of them occupy a small area (<10 ha), are seasonal and shallow.

Timeline of policies and guidelines around urban lakes

In India, water was traditionally seen as a responsibility of the community, who not only built but also maintained water bodies. Since independence, the government has taken control of water bodies and water supply.

Over time, this has led to the neglect of water bodies and catchments areas. People have become used to getting water at the turn of a tap and are no longer interested in maintaining water bodies.

However, there is still hope as concerned citizens across India have come together to halt this degradation of urban waterbodies. In state after state, citizens and non-profits have filed legal cases for protection of urban lakes. Public interest litigations have been filed for the protection of urban lakes in many cities.

Planning interventions for water bodies started as early as 1927. In the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act in 1974, directions were given to control the flow of sewage and industrial effluents into water bodies. 

The need for lake conservation was felt when India became a signatory to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, 1982. The Convention called for the conservation and wise use of wetlands (including water bodies). Twenty-six Ramsar sites, covering an area of 689,000 ha, were identified in India.

The Indian government operationalised the National Wetland Conservation Programme in closed collaboration with concerned state governments during 1985-86 under the Ministry of Environment and Forest Notification. Under the programme, 115 wetlands were identified, which required urgent conservation and management initiatives.

Recognising the importance of lakes, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), launched NLCP, a centrally sponsored scheme exclusively aimed at restoring the water quality and ecology of lakes in different parts of the country. The scheme was approved by the Union government during the Ninth Plan (June 2001) as 100 per cent central grant.

Funding pattern under NLCP has since been changed wef February, 2002. From 100 per cent central funding, the costs are now shared according to a ratio of 70:30 between the Union and the concerned state government.

The NLCP focuses on the development of national level policies and actions for urban lakes. To improve the process of implementation and coordination between the Centre, state or urban local bodies, the MoEF directed all states to constitute City Level Monitoring Committees. The selection of lakes was on hydrological (Lake size over 10 acres or 3 acres if of religious and cultural importance and lake depth more than three metres), scientific and administrative criteria. Many lakes and waterbodies have been conserved and protected under this scheme for the past 18 years.

In continuation with the NLCP, the Centre had launched the Repair, Renovation and Restoration of Waterbodies' Scheme in 2005, with the objectives of comprehensive improvement and restoration of traditional waterbodies, including increasing tank storage capacity, ground water recharge, increased availability of drinking water, improvement of catchment areas etc.


Timeline of policies and guidelines relevant to lakes (Compiled by author)

The Union Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) has the mandate, inter alia, to conserve / restore urban lakes / water bodies, re-use and re-cycle waste water, etc. These points have been summed up in the Advisory on conservation and restoration of water bodies in urban areas by the Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation in 2013 for the use / guidance of state governments / ULBs with the hope that they shall improve it further and apply according to their own needs.

The initiative gains immense importance in the sense that urban lakes / water bodies are first victims of urbanisation and their conservation / restoration is a sign of healthy and sustainable urban development. The Advisory is also directed under the URDPFI guidelines, 2014, which classifies land use for waterbodies and lakes as protective and eco-sensitive zones.

Later, in 2016, the National Lake Conservation Plan was merged with National Wetlands Conservation Programme to form National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Eco-systems (NPCA). The principal objectives of NPCA is holistic conservation and the restoration of lakes and wetlands through an integrated and multidisciplinary approach with a common regulatory framework. 

All lakes that were a part of NLCP, were brought under this scheme, and are being restored till date.

Following the central government's active participation in lake conservation and management, many state governments formulated dedicated lake conservation guidelines and acts for execution and monitoring of projects. Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Rajasthan are the few important states working for lakes and water bodies.

What is missing?

Even after 26 years of pollution abatement works, only ten per cent of waste water generated in the country is treated. The rest collects as cess pools or is discharged into the 14 major, 55 minor and several hundred other rivers.

It is quite clear that the overall status of quality of water in rivers, lakes and its links to groundwater has not been adequately addressed. Neither have adequate policies, legislations or programmes been formulated.

Out of the 43 Indian guidelines passed by the central and state government, 41 per cent of those talk about conservation and restoration of waterbodies but only 10 per cent exactly describe the conservative measure to be adopted. Only 22 per cent of the guidelines are on subjects related to policies to be adopted by state government, urban local bodies etc.

This clearly identifies the missing links and marks the future prospects that India should adopt for the preparation of better and sustainable lake management plans.

Under the Jal Shakti mission and AMRUT, the revival /rejuvenation of water bodies is in piecemeal approach, with short-term measures like beautification, enhancing recreational activities, addressing immediate solid waste dumping into waterbody, treating wastewater used to revive storage in lakes.

Even in the case of the national capital, the Delhi Jal Board is proposing to revive 155 bodies with no pre-defined action plan / management plan. Although cities have initiated to work towards water bodies' rejuvenation, the long-term approach is still missing.  

Since a lake is a reflection of its catchment area, it is essential to first understand the significant changes or trends concerning the primary land uses within the catchment area / watershed draining into the lake.     

There is no approach which defines the planning process for preparation of short, medium and long-term action plans for lake rejuvenation, considering its watershed area. It is essential to have a document with clear understanding of the lake’s watershed area, with specific goals, objectives, producing time-bound action plans.

‘Lake management planning’ is an approach for different stakeholders to come together with a common interest in improving and protecting their lake.

Focusing on planning process rather than quick-fix solutions makes lake rejuvenation a manageable process. Moreover, it guides how time and resources are utilised, keeping future sustainability of the lake in account. 

Missing links:

  • No clear definition of ‘Urban Lake’ and thereby missing the approach of ‘Urban Lake management plan’.
  • A Lake Management Plan: 1) Encourages partnerships between concerned citizens, special interest groups, government body and water resources management practitioners 2) Identifies the concerns regarding the catchment/watershed of the lake 3) Sets realistic goals, objectives, and (short, medium and long-term) actions, and identifies needed funds and personnel.
  • Conservation of Lakes and wetlands through an integrated and multidisciplinary approach with a common regulatory framework.
  • No authoritative measures taken for formulation of inventory of ‘Urban lakes or waterbodies’, ponds and lakes in Indian cities.
  • Specified roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders along with Centre, state and urban local bodies.

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