One of the most popular hill stations in India, Nainital is threatened by rampant constructions, even in landslide-prone sites. Ajay Singh Rawat, an environmental activist and history professor at Kumaon University, filed a public interest petition in 1993, and in 1995 stringent building rules were framed by the Nainital Lake Region Special Area Development Authority. Rawat spoke to Jigyasa Watwani about his efforts to make Nainital an eco-sensitive zone. Excerpts
How far have conditions improved in the Naini Lake since you filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in 1993?
In 1995, the Supreme Court (SC) gave directions that the Naini Lake should be saved on a war footing. Following this, a number of activities were done: dredging helped remove silt from the lake and aeration and bio-manipulation was introduced to improve the lake ecology. The horse stand, which was the main source of pollution, was shifted outside the catchment area. The maximum permissible height of new buildings in Nainital was fixed at 7.5 metres and the maximum covered area was fixed at 250 square metres. As a result, water quality and oxygen level of the lake improved tremendously.
Studies show great improvement of water quality in the lake’s entire water column. Before aeration was introduced, oxygen was limited to only 5-7 metres depth of water, in which, oxygen concentrations varied between 8 mg/L and 0.5 mg/L. After aeration, a constant level of oxygen was observed. As a result, fish movement in the lake increased from a depth of seven metres to 23 metres.
The biological oxygen demand of Naini Lake shot up by 20 times and the concentration of carbon dioxide increased by 670 per cent during 1981-91. What were the reasons behind this huge jump?
During the militancy in Gorkhaland and Kashmir, people preferred to go to Mussoorie and Nainital. Between the two, people preferred Nainital because Mussoorie had a paucity of water. The sudden surge in population and tourism led to a mad rush for construction of new hotels in Nainital and, in some cases, rules were openly flouted. Today, we have more than 350 hotels in Nainital, most of whom are not registered with the government. During the tourist season, every third house rents a room to tourists.
I filed a PIL against the builder mafia in the SC in 1993. My focus was on the heavy construction by builders, reviving the polluted lakes and saving the Ballia Nullah and Ballia Ravine, through which the outflow of the lake water passes. Builders would dump all their construction debris in the drains and then wait for the rains to sweep it away to the lake. As a result, a lot of dirt found its way into the lake.
Does Nainital face a water shortage?
How can there be a shortage when we have so many lakes in and around here. It’s just an engineered paucity of water that stems from an unnecessary high demand. The problem is that all the water is being diverted. Take the case of the Sukha Tal, a lake. According to the National Hydrological Ins-titute, more than 50 per cent of the water in the Naini Lake comes from Sukha Tal during the monsoon. This water is being diverted to feed illegal constructions.
In fact, construction is still going on with the tacit support of the Lake Development Authority. If this continues, the Sukha Tal will dry up in the next 10-15 years. My petition to the SC in 2012 also sought to ban such constructions in the lake bed.
Lakes such as Khurpa Tal and Saat Tal are also bearing the brunt of mindless exploitation of resources. How far have conditions improved in these lakes?
I had filed a PIL against the illegal boring of groundwater from the Khurpa Tal in 2009. A survey report by the Department of Geo-logy in Kumaon University and the Jal Nigam clearly mentions how mindless extraction of groundwater from the area would affect springs, of which the lake is the main source.
Boring has now been stopped in Khurpa Tal. In all, nine lakes, in a radius of 22 km around Nainital, required restoration. These included Bhim Tal, Nakuchiya Tal and Saat Tal. In the lakes of Nakuchia Tal, Sat Tal and Khurpa Tal, remedial measures like aeration were also undertaken to protect them from dying ecologically. In Bhim Tal, a small island restaurant which was responsible for pollution around the lake, was shut down.
What makes Nainital fragile?
Geologically, Nainital is very fragile as it is bound by two thrusts (a thrust is a high angle dislocation plane on the surface of the Earth or below the surface). The Main Boun-dary Thrust forms the southern boundary and the Ramgarh Thrust forms the northern boundary of Nainital. There are several other fault lines, such as the Nainital fault, the Giwalikhet fault and the Kuriya fault, which are responsible for the fragility of the region.
For instance, the continuous subsidence of the Raj Bhawan road is due to the Giwalikhet fault. In fact, the entire north-western and south-eastern parts of Nainital are located on a succession of landslide debris fans. Moreover, the mountains in Nainital are made of calcium and magnesium carbonate rocks, making them all the more fragile. It is also important to note that the acceleration of erosion and increased instability of the hill slopes is due to human activities, combined with indiscriminate buil-ding construction and disposal of debris.
How crucial is the role of the drains constructed during the British rule?
The nearly 79-km drains around Nainital have been called the arteries and veins of the city. They were built in the aftermath of the landslide in 1880 that killed 151 people, 43 of whom were Europeans. In the aftermath of my petition in the SC in 1993, Nainital was connected by sewer lines and new branch line connections were being made to prevent sewer from entering the lake.
Unfortunately, today, there is no maintenance of these drains. In recent years, hotel owners have encroached upon areas that were previously drains, building even 11-room hotels. My PIL in 2012 also sought to address the issue of encroachment on the drains. Now the HC has removed illegal constructions on the drains. As a result, during rains this July, as all illegal constructions were removed, the enormous flow of debris cascaded and settled. At least three hotels, apart from several other buildings, were saved.
Why do you want Nainital to be declared an eco-sensitive zone?
In fact, in 2003, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) had constituted an expert committee to identify the parameters to determine the environmental sensitivity of hill stations. According to its report, Nainital, Mussoorie, Matheran and Mount Abu should be declared as eco-sensitive zones. While Math-eran and Mount Abu have received the status of an eco-sensitive zone, Nainital and Mussoorie haven’t. The conservator of forests, Nainital, also sent a report to the principal chief conservator of forests, Uttarakhand in March 2007. However, no action has been taken by the state government till now. The situation has improved drastically in hill stations that have been declared to be eco-sensitive zones. In Nainital’s case, the state government seems unwilling to clear the MOEFCC’s proposal because then, local politicians will not be able to oblige their henchmen and all illegal constructions would come to an end. I filed a PIL in 2012.
There have been several hearings since the petition was filed in 2012. However, the High Court (HC) of Uttarakhand tried to divert the issue in each of these hearings. For instance, the HC paid little heed to the clause requiring Nainital be declared an eco sensitive zone. Instead, they ordered slums in ward number seven to be cleared.
As the issue was not being addressed, I demanded a new bench hear the case. Following the landslide in July this year, the bench was changed. The new bench is sympathetic to the poor people living in ward number seven. However, even now the need to make it an eco-sensitive zone has not gathered momentum. If this continues, I will approach the SC.
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