Churning the stilled waters

The citizens of Udaipur are increasingly taking on the government to check degradation of the city's famed lakes

By Rita Anand
Published: Saturday 15 October 1994

Churning the stilled waters

Crowding out the Fatehsagar la (Credit: Photographs: Rita Anand)NESTLED within the degraded Aravalli hills are Udaipur's 5 lakes, easily the city's greatest asset. Since 1678, these human-made lakes have provided revenue, recreation and water to the people crowded around their shores. Seven lakh tourists came last year to feast their eyes on their green waters, providing 50 per cent of the city's total revenue.

The lakes are also the only source of drinking water to 3.5 lakh people in the city. But, despite 9 doctoral theses on their inarguable importance, the lakes continue to languish, throttled by pollution, encroachment and heavy siltage.

It is not as if the people of Udaipur are not trying. In June 1992, the Jheel Sarakshan Samiti (JSS) was formed to help reduce the pollution in these lakes and resist encroachment. Says JSS chairperson P L Agarwal, "The JSS is an open forum and all citizens of Udaipur were welcome to participate." Although hamstrung by red tape, the organisation managed to make some headway: it located 26 polluting points, prepared a sewage disposal plan and campaigned for a lake authority. But it seems to have failed in its main objective.
A race towards doom In the first week of July, a local businessman, Shyam Siroya, put into action his plan of building a hotel along the perimeter of the Fateh Sagar Lake, protruding right into its water. Members of the JSS were shocked and angry at this sudden invasion. Says P L Agarwal, "Another hotel on the lake will surely spell its doom. A race to build structures on the lake will begin. This will worsen pollution, jeopardise the drinking water supply and ultimately affect the tourist trade on which hoteliers depend." Adds a visibly angry Anil Mehta, JSS joint secretary, "The collector, Vipin Chandra Sharma, who is a JSS member, knew about this. Yet we were not informed. Our association with government officials has brought us only disrepute."

Some JSS members accuse government officials of colluding with politicians. Sharma admits that the decision to build a hotel on the Fateh Sagar Lake was made by the government. "The minister for education, Gulab Chand Kataria, was deeply interested in the project. As a government official I had no choice but to pass the proposal. In any case, I am not interested in playing Khairnar," he says.

Siroya, however, denies allegations of courting politicians and bribing government officials. "I saw this plot clearly earmarked on the master plan of the Urban Improvement Trust of Udaipur and bought it." He intends building a 3-star hotel with 47 rooms and accuses other hoteliers of ganging up against him out of professional jealousy.

Siroya claims that his hotel will not affect the lake. He assures that he "will build a sewage treatment plant even before I start the construction." He also maintains that if the government is willing to pay him the market value for the land, he will hand it over. Legally, adds Siroya, he has committed no crime. He has committed, of course, an environmental one.

The Fateh Sagar Lake is less silted than the others as it is last to receive water from the hill streams. The Rajasthan Pollution Control Board (RPCB) has withheld the no-objection certificate and public attention is now focused on whether it will be able to prevent Siroya from going ahead. Said a nervous RPCB official, "The lakes are a sensitive issue in Udaipur. As politicians and the bureaucracy are involved, we are afraid to go to the public with our objections. But a technical advisory board comprising officials from the National Environmental Engineering Institute will make an environmental impact assessment report and decide on the issue within 3 months."

Some JSS members are determined to fight back. Corner meetings have been organised and people have demonstrated outside the collector's office. A public interest litigation is also on the cards. Concerned citizens have also tried to help clean the lake. Tej Rajdhan, a surgeon, says that he once tried to de-weed the waters of the Pichchola lake and ordinary citizens enthusiastically participated in the effort. A drive launched by Sharma on August 15 this year to rid the Pichchola and Swaroop Sagar lakes of the water hyacinth and the blue-green algae met with enthusiastic response from citizens, especially schoolchildren. Two tonnes of water hyacinth were removed.
From lake to swamp "It's of no use," says L L Sharma, professor of fisheries science, University of Udaipur. "The lakes receive a high percentage of organic matter and nutrients. As a result, water hyacinth and the blue-green algae increase by 50 tonnes every day. The Pichchola lake is slowly becoming a swamp with the siltation as high as 8.5 metres. At Fateh Sagar lake, siltation is about 3.5 metres. This means that Udaipur will receive less water every year." Sharma recommends the cultivation of fish such as silver carp and katla, which feed on algae, to control the growth of the weed.

The Udaipur Urban Improvement Trust plans to lay a 60-km pipeline to tap water from the Jaisamand Lake. The JSS, however, has located 28 points from where raw untreated sewage flow into the lake (See box Shadow over calm waters). Based on this survey, the deputy chief planner of the city, R Sharma, plans to link up the sewage from these points to the city's chief sewage pipe and then dump the whole lot into the Ahar river. The city, incidentally, has no sewage treatment plant.

"The citizens of Udaipur need to own up responsibility for the pollution in the lakes," says Prem K Saint, professor of hydrogeology at the California State University at Fullerton, who is conducting an in-depth study of the lakes. Says Saint, "Udaipur's lakes are closed reservoirs. The waters are stagnant and warm, and contain low oxygen. But during the monsoons cold water from incoming streams rushes into these waters. The subsequent churning that ensues helps flush out the stagnant water from the lakes and aerate the water." The problem of siltage, however, remains. "Better watershed management is needed to control siltation. When the lakes dry up during a lean monsoon, the beds could be cleared of silt," says Saint.

Tell-tale figures
The polluted Fatehsagar lake in Udaipur
Parameters measured in June '94
Water clarity 86 cm
Dissolved O2 5 mg/I
Total hardness 217 mg/I
Orthophosphate 0.23 mg/I
Total coliform bacteria (most probable number) 72,400/100 mg
Faecal coliform
(most probable number)
Faecal streptococci
(most probable number)

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