Lake assault

Udaipur's waterbodies run dry, authorities run amok

Published: Tuesday 31 May 2005

-- (Credit: Tez Rajdan)on april15, people living near Roopsagar lake in Udaipur were shocked to see bulldozers ripping apart its dry bed. "When I asked the contractor, I was told a 80-feet (about 24 metres) wide road was to be carved out in the peta (bed) of the lake," says Ramlal Vaishnav, ex-councillor of Pahada area, where the lake is situated. The news spread like wildfire through the area. An irate crowd assembled at the site and got the work stopped. "This talaab is very important for us because when there is water in it, our wells are full. If any construction takes place here, our hand pumps will dry up," says Naresh Vaishnav, a resident.

On April 18, the residents gathered again and took to the streets, led by Surya Prakash Upadhayay, husband of councillor Shipra Upadhayay. They vowed to stop any construction in Roopsagar. The involvement of the former and the present councillors lent the issue a political hue, leading to an extensive media coverage. And it then came to light that construction was taking place in almost every waterbody that had dried up in Udaipur.

Similar to the case of Roopsagar was that of Naila talaab whose embankment was cut to make way for a road.

But what was glaring about these two incidents was that not only did the 'development activities' violate the city's Master Plan but also an order of the Rajasthan High Court (rhc). On August 2, 2004, rhc had directed the state government to make a plan to restore the catchment areas of all the waterbodies in Rajasthan. The directions were further passed to all the districts.

Why then did the Urban Improvement Trust (uit) of Udaipur along with the district administration proceed with an activity that ran contrary to rhc's directions? "On April 16, I came to know that roads were constructed in the low-lying area and I ordered for the removal of whatever construction was going on," says district magistrate Abhay Kumar, who is also the uit chairperson. He says the roads were being constructed as part of the Asian Development Bank-funded Vasundhara Road Network project.

But even the Master Plan doesn't show the lake can be built over. "The land use of the area is garden, open area and playground," claims Kumar. However, page 49 of the plan mentions that only the land 'adjacent' to Roopsagar and Naila talaab be developed, not the lake bed itself.

Further, this land use of the area (from lake to playground) appears to be a recent change included in the Land Use Plan 2022. As late as 1997, these two were shown as waterbodies. Why the change? Explains chief town planner H S Sancheti, "These waterbodies are dry for years and have no value now." But Kumar himself had ordered the irrigation department to restore Roopsagar under the Akal Rahat Karya (drought relief) scheme just 2-3 years ago.

The whole affair points to a nexus between the authorities and builders, says Tej Rajdan of the Jheel Sanrakshan Samiti, a non-governmental organisation in Udaipur. "The land mafia of the city got the land use changed so that they can construct buildings on the bed of the lake. The district administration, uit, and the town planning department are hand in glove with the land sharks," he alleges. Rajdan took the issue to the court and on April 27, 2005 got a stay order against any construction in the lakes. The land use of these lakes is petakast, which means only the farmers who have the rights to its land can use it for agriculture for the time it is dry. Land use of petakast land cannot be changed under the Rajasthan Land Revenue Act, 1956, he stresses.

For a city like Udaipur, lakes constitute the lifeline for the people. "Besides recharging groundwater, these lakes are the only source of water here. Since they all are interlinked, they were also used as a flood control system," says L L Sharma, a limnologist (one who studies the physical, chemical and biological properties of freshwater) who heads the department of aquaculture, College of Fisheries, Udaipur (see box: City of lakes). "Microclimatic changes are being experienced here due to the drying of lakes. Nobody could see a babool (Acacia nilotica) tree in Udaipur, now they are common. Udaipur is moving from semi-arid to arid zone," he fears. Kumar is repentant: "We have damaged some lakes but won't be damaging more. At the same time, we have started the restoration of other lakes. Now we are planning to plant neem trees around the lakes so that they can be saved from further encroachments. Whatever construction was done is being removed."

Why are Udaipur's lakes drying up? "Among the main reasons are overextraction of water and choking of inlets by building colonies," opines J C Dubey, a hydrologist, who has also worked with the Rajasthan government. But for government officials, there is only one: "Low rainfall during the last decade is the biggest reason for the lakes drying up," claims J N Golani, additional chief engineer, Public Health Engineering Department (phed). Dubey counters saying the rainfall in Udaipur during the period has never been less than 40 per cent of the average of 660 millimetre/year. In some years, it has been more than the average but still the water did not reach the lakes.

Dubey blames the phed, which is responsible for supplying water to the city. "After exploiting the lakes up to their basin, the phed have now put bore-wells in the bed of these lakes," he says. Even industries such as the Hindustan Zinc Limited (hzl) have put nearly 20 bore-wells in the bed of Udaisagar lake to meet its huge water demand. As a result, the hand pumps in the surrounding villages dried up. On April 27, the villagers surrounding the lake agitated against groundwater extraction from the lake bed. "The tube wells drilled in the bed of these lakes have become permanent conduits for rapid seepage and are resulting in faster losses of surface water storage whenever the lakes are filled with rainwater," says Dubey.

phed pleads helplessness. "All the three big lakes (Pichola, Fatehsagar and Badi) which used to be the source of water for phed, have dried up. Where should we get water from?" asks Golani. "We need at least 70 million litres a day (mld) for domestic and bulk consumers," estimates phed executive engineer K Mathur. "But we are getting barely 38 mld using all our resources." phed's hopes are now pinned on the completion in 2006 of Stage i of the Mansi-Wakal Scheme (mws) under which it will receive 24 mld. But if the current trend of rainfall continues, phed would run short of water even if it gets its share of mws water. What's the way out? "Udaipur cannot meet its water demand if its lakes won't remain full throughout the year," says Mathur. If even just Pichola, Fatehsagar and Badi lakes were full, there would be enough water to meet the demand for a year-and-a-half, he says. After the Roopsagar incident, Sancheti has identified 39 waterbodies in and around the city.

The formula for keeping the lakes full is not difficult to find: it is located just 5 kilometres from Udaipur -- in the form of Jogi ka talaab. This talaab, which is in the same terrain, and gets the same amount of rainfall as Udaipur, is brimming with water and laughing silently through its lotus flowers. None of the villagers living around it use its water for irrigation. Its inlets and outlets are not suffocated with construction. On top of that, no government body has reached here yet -- it is still being managed by the local people, who understand its importance. Looking at Jogi ka talaab, one wonders if the city's authorities are managing or mismanaging the lakes.

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