Published: Monday 30 November 1998


Jaisalmer is one of the world's prettiest 4 desert forts. And it is one of the few in which people still live. But modern Jaisalmer is also bursting at the seams and using water in a way that may destroy the very Jaisalmer tourists throng to see.

Unlike other towns in this study, Jaisalmer, named after Rao Jaisal who built the huge fort in 1156, has no surfeit of industries clogging the town and its rivers. The town thrives on tourism drawing more than two lakh tourists ever year, to see the forts and to ride on camels across sandy dunes that stretch across the horizon. Most of the industries in the town revolve around the famous yellowstone and marble and the units house stone crushers, carvers and the like. Jaisalmer is also the distribution centre for local millets and pulses.

Like other desert towns in Rajasthan, Jaisalmer has a string of tanks and lakes which have been its source of water for generations. The 600-year-old Gadisar was the biggest natural water reservoir with a vast catchment area of about 2,000 ha and a perennial water supply. These lakes and tanks also kept the groundwater levels high. But now, most of these tanks are dry or have very little water. Gadisar is used for bathing and cattle also find the tank a cool place for beating the heat. The drainage in the catchment area has also been destroyed and, as a result, the water level in the tank has gone down considerably. Jaisalmer now depends mainly on the mining of the limited groundwater reserves around the fort.

The immediate and major problem that Jaisalmer faces is that of drainage water. Wastewater has seeped so excessively into the earth that the entire peripheral wall of the fort remains constantly damp. In many places, the ramparts of the fort are beginning to crack. The problem is basically that of plenty. Clean piped water is available in plenty but there is no drainage system. The drain water of the fort is brought down to four points along the slope of the fort from where it spills over to the outer limits and joins the main lines of the drainage. The drainage water is finally opened out near the railway station where it spreads forming a cesspool of filth.

Jaisalmer has expanded five times since the municipality was set up in 1965. A master plan was drafted in 1982 but the plan, as in the case of other cities, is observed mostly in the breach. The classic skyline of Jaisalmer with forts and buildings with latticed balconies is fast disappearing due to the mushrooming of hotels and other buildings catering to the tourism industry. Every third house in the town, even the old buildings with latticed balconies or jharokas with out any idea of the damage being done to the old structures, is being converted it into a hotel or a tourism office. "There is a need to establish a 100-metre-wide zone where buildings are prohibited. Jaisalmer is a living town and not a dead monument. The real challenge is in conserving it without evicting the people," says Amita Baig, director, Jaisalmer Conservation Initiative, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

On the edge
Not many people in these towns swamped by industrial, agricultural and domestic waste are aware that they are poised on the edge of a precipice. The crisis of urbanisation is for real and a governmental initiative at the macro-level is called for to stem the rot. The lack of care and the absence of local level popular movements against pollution is also worrying. This CSE study is once again a reminder that some of these towns could indeed slip beyond the edge.

With inputs from Vineet Katariya in Ludhiana, Jetpur and Jaisalmer; George K Varghese in Bhaga1pur, Aligarh and Rourkela; and P R J Pradeep in Tirupur and Koaayam

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