Sun­set over Udais­agar

The lake in Udaipur is un­der im­mense pres­sure and could die in the near fu­ture


UDAIPUR, THE his­toric cap­i­tal of Ra­jasthan’s sto­ried Me­war re­gion, is known as the Venice of the East for its lakes. Ma­ha­rana Udai Singh II founded Udaipur in 1559 and built a chain of lakes to make the rain­fall-de­fi­cient city self-sus­tain­able in wa­ter sup­ply.

While Fatehsagar and Pi­chola are more vis­ited land­marks, just out­side the city’s mu­nic­i­pal bound­ary lies Udais­agar, which is in grave dan­ger of dy­ing. Be­ing the last in the chain of lakes, Udais­agar is fed by the over­flow from up­per lakes such as Pi­chola and Fatehsagar (see ‘ Udais­agar’s threat­ened catch­ments’ on p25). Sev­eral sea­sonal streams also flow down the catch­ment hills, span­ning 479 sq km, to re­plen­ish Udais­agar. But over the past three decades, the catch­ments of Udais­agar and other lakes have de­graded. Tej Raz­dan, con­venor of Jheel San­rak­shan Samiti (jss), an Udaipur-based non-profit ,says that ac­cord­ing to data avail­able with his or­gan­i­sa­tion, of the to­tal catch­ment area, 10-15 per cent has been en­croached upon in the past decade. In the same pe­riod, 15 per cent of for­est cover has been lost. More­over, he adds,the wa­ter bod­ies atop the Aravalli hills that feed th­ese lakes have been choked with mar­ble slurry de­posited af­ter mar­ble min­ing. A num­ber of na­tional and state high­ways also pass over the catch­ment hills. All this is af­fect­ing the wa­ter flow from up­per lakes, re­duc­ing the wa­ter level of Udais­agar, says Lak­shmi Lal Sharma, re­tired lake ex­pert from the Ma­ha­rana Pratap Uni­ver­sity of Agri­cul­ture and Tech­nol­ogy in Udaipur. Re­duced rain­fall in re­cent years has com­pounded the sit­u­a­tion, he adds.

The lake is also be­ing threat­ened by in­creas­ing pol­lu­tion, says Pradeep Ku­mar Singh, pro­fes­sor at the uni­ver­sity.The Ahar, a trib­u­tary of the river Ber­ach, is the lake’s ma­jor source of wa­ter. But more than wa­ter, the Ahar brings do­mes­tic and industrial waste into the lake as it passes through Udaipur city. Hin­dus­tan Zinc Limited lo­cated in the vicin­ity of Udais­agar, ex­tracts the lake wa­ter and re­leases its un­treated ef­flu­ents into it.The bi­o­log­i­cal oxy­gen de­mand (bod), a pa­ram­e­ter used by sci­en­tists to un­der­stand the pol­lu­tion level of the lake, reaches as high as 65 mg per litre which is al­most 20 times the per­mis­si­ble limit.The re­duced amount of wa­ter in the lake has taken away its self-cleans­ing power, says Sharma, adding that the lake is ma­jorly eu­troph­i­cated.The pol­luted wa­ter is highly acidic and af­fects the ground­wa­ter of the neigh­bour­ing vil­lages in a di­am­e­ter of 21 km.For in­stance, the wa­ter in the wells of Bichari vil­lage is not potable at all and can’t even be used for ir­ri­ga­tion.

But re­vival of the lake seems seem­ingly dis­tant. There is an is­land in the mid­dle of

Udais­agar where ram­pant con­struc­tion is hap­pen­ing and even the Supreme Court has given the go-ahead. Con­ser­va­tion­ists say the is­land is an im­por­tant catch­ment area for the lake and con­crete struc­tures on it would per­ma­nently af­fect the lake’s ecol­ogy.

An ugly con­crete struc­ture

Till a few years ago, farm­ers lived on the is­land and farmed on it. In 2008,Vard­han En­ter­prises, a Mumbai-based de­vel­oper pur­chased most of its land and started to con­struct a five-star ho­tel on it.In 2010, Ra­jen­dra Raz­dan, lawyer for jss, moved the Ra­jasthan High Court against the con­struc­tion. Since 1999 Raz­dan has filed sev­eral pe­ti­tions in the high court to save Udaipur’s lakes. In 2012, the court fined the de­vel­oper ` 1 crore and asked city au­thor­i­ties to de­mol­ish the il­le­gal con­struc­tion.The de­vel­op­ers moved the Supreme Court in 2014.

The de­vel­op­ers were des­per­ate. They told the apex court that the con­struc­tion site was not a “true is­land”.It was “an is­land-like area” formed by sil­ta­tion, ex­plains Raz­dan. “They jus­ti­fied that they had in no way fid­dled with the ecol­ogy of the lake.The Supreme Court has agreed. The de­vel­op­ers have restarted con­struc­tion and we can see many struc­tures on the is­land, ”he says.

Ac­cord­ing to en­vi­ron­men­tal lawyer San­jay Upad­hyay, the tooth­less Wet­land Rules 2010 is re­spon­si­ble for such a fate of the coun­try’s lakes and wet­lands. Un­der the Rules, a wet­land and its drainage or catch­ment area need to be no­ti­fied by the Cen­tre. Since wa­ter is a state sub­ject, the first step of this no­ti­fi­ca­tion starts with the state gov­ern­ment iden­ti­fy­ing them. Upad­hyay says this is where the law is miss­ing its ef­fi­cacy. If the state fails to iden­tify the wet­land or its catch­ment then the wet­land might be eas­ily killed.

This is ex­actly what has hap­pened in the case of Udais­agar, says Ram Ni­was Mehta, sec­re­tary, Ur­ban Im­prove­ment Trust (uit) , the body re­spon­si­ble for the over­all devel­op­ment of Udaipur. As the laws failed to save the lake through catch­ment pro­tec­tion, it has had to be dragged to court more than once in the last two years, adds Mehta.

jss be­lieves that the uit had given per­mis­sion to con­struct the ho­tel due to pres­sure from in­flu­en­tial peo­ple. In 2009, uit changed the land use of the is­land from agri­cul­ture to com­mer­cial un­der the Ra­jasthan Vid­hiya San­shod­han Ad­hiniyam, 1999. In 1999, the uit had pro­hib­ited con­ver­sion, reg­u­lar­i­sa­tion or al­lot­ment of land which came un­der the wa­ter flow area or the sub­mer­gence area of the lake.

jss is hope­ful, though. In Novem­ber 2014, the apex court passed an or­der say­ing that no con­struc­tion could be done in vi­o­la­tion of the 2013 Udaipur Build­ing By-law in the city’s mu­nic­i­pal area. Since the by-law pro­hibits con­struc­tion on the sub­mer­gence area of is­lands lo­cated in lakes, jss ac­tivists say that all con­struc­tion ac­tiv­i­ties on the Udais­agar is­land should be stopped im­me­di­ately. Un­for­tu­nately, Udais­agar is lo­cated out­side the mu­nic­i­pal area and the or­der may not be ap­pli­ca­ble to it.Tej Raz­dan says they need sup­port from em­i­nent en­vi­ron­ment lawyers.Or else,an­other lake would be killed. In Jan­uary, jss ap­pealed to the apex court to re­view its or­der and ex­tend its scope to pro­hibit constructions on Udais­agar lake.


Vard­han En­ter­prises is build­ing a ho­tel on the is­land in the mid­dle of Udais­agar lake


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