The death of a lake

The water level of the Nainital lake this year fell to an alarming 18 feet below 'zero level'. Zero level is when the lake is full to the brim, and beyond which water has to be let out of the lake through sluice gates.? Photograph:( Others )

WION Nainital, Uttarakhand, India Jun 23, 2017, 11.41 AM (IST) Parakram Rautela

The Nainital lake is dying, or at least there is something very wrong with it.

Since the year 2000, the water level in the lake has fallen below “zero level” 10 times. (Zero level is when the lake is full to the brim, and beyond which water has to be let out of the lake via sluice gates.)

This year, the water in the lake fell to an alarming 18 feet below zero level. A sort of “beach” appeared – dirty, grey, and scraggly – causing disquiet amongst the townspeople, and giving rise to wild suppositions.

One was that the lake had developed a leak, which was proved incorrect. Another that global warming was to blame, which is at least partially correct. Climate change has led to the depletion of winter rains in the Nainital region.

The real reason for the fall in the water level is less imaginative – the Nainital lake is being killed by human greed.

To the northwest of the lake lies a wetland called Sukhatal which fills up in the monsoon. The water percolates into the ground and via subterranean channels, reaches and recharges Naini lake.

A 1998 study by Roorkee's National Institute of Hydrology says the Nainital lake gets 39 per cent of its water from “sub-surface inflows”, of which Sukhatal contributes as much as 40 to 50 per cent. 

In the monsoon then, the lake fills up with rainwater. In the winter, it is recharged by water from Sukhatal. 

Over the last few years, houses have been built around and on the bed of Sukhatal. During the monsoon, when the wetland fills up, some of the houses get submerged.

This leads to widespread panic, and motors are deployed to pump the water out.

Which in turn means the lake forfeits its annual winter recharge.

Sukhatal, in 2006 (left) and in 2014. (Others)

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The happiest days of our lives
I went to school in Nainital and for a very long time after that I continued to believe it was a pretty place. Nostalgia, I have been told, can play tricks with the mind.

In my senior year I acted in the delightfully funny play The Happiest Days of our Lives. The play was set in a boarding school similar to mine and like the title of the play proclaimed, mine were.

About 10 years ago I wrote a wistful piece about the town, towards the end of which I described an early December visit to the Nainital zoo. It was a clear blue day, unlike the smog-laden Delhi I had left behind.

At the zoo, I had stopped in front of an eagle's cage.

The bird was majestic, and terrified. And now that I think about it, it looked anxious, continuously hopping from one end of its gilded cage to the other.

Using the bird as a metaphor for the town, I wrote then: “The cage was obviously too small — but what a strange thing to say, any cage would be — perhaps a little larger than his wingspan.

“Just like Nainital, a mighty heart beaten into submission over time.”

But I had also wanted to be kind and so I added a coda to that story, some sappy nonsense about the Boat House Club putting up a board at its entrance insisting that patrons not enter in shorts.

My wishful reading of that message had been that Nainital was fighting back, finally insisting that its guests and residents behave.

I now believe that twinge of hope was false. The town is after all killing its golden goose.

Nainital has 41,000 residents and gets 500,000 tourists every year. Without the lake, it is uncertain how many of them will come.

The town also gets its drinking water supply from the lake.

Nainital as she should be. (Others)

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When duty calls

But, over the years, “when duty calls” – the words are taken from my school song – I have tried to answer. 

It was the same this year. I had promised myself I would not go up this summer but a schoolmate called, saying, “The lake is dying. We are organising a barefoot walk to (draw attention to the fact,) save it. Won’t you come up and write about it?”

The lake is dying. Help save it. How do you turn down an appeal like that?

The veins and arteries of the town

Vishal Singh, a colleague of his, and I walked from one end of the town to the other. Vishal is an urban ecologist with the not-for-profit Cedar (Centre for Ecology Development and Research), which works at “sustaining mountain ecosystems”.

I had asked Vishal to “show me” what was really going on in the town.

We traversed the length of the Mall Road, the town’s promenade which rings one side of the lake; the gravel playing field called The Flats; Bada Bazaar; the high court of Uttarakhand; St John's Church in the Wilderness; getting finally to Sukhatal.

Nainital had its first recorded landslide in 1867 but no lives were lost and damage to property was minimal. Thirteen years later the town had what is called the “diabolical landslide of 1880” in which a 153 people were killed.

Over the next five years, between 1880 and 1885, the British built 79 kilometres of drains in the town. There are 26 of them, running from the lake to the tops of its catchment area. 

“They are why Nainital survives today,” Professor Ajay Rawat, who used to head the Department of History at Nainital’s Kumaon University, and has been spearheading the movement to save the Nainital lake since the late 1980s, said to me. 

“They are the veins and arteries of the town,” he added. 

Funny, I had been in school at Nainital for 11 years and I had never really “seen” the drains, never understood how important they were to the town’s survival.

The people of Nainital have assumed the same attitude to them.

They have built homes, guest houses, and hotels over them. (Sitting with the secretary of the Lake Development Authority, a local journalist told me the town had as many as 1,200 unlicensed hotels!)

And they have dumped the debris left over from their construction in the drains, clogging them.

The drains do the simple but vital job of channelling rainwater down from the hills ringing the town to the lake. Take them away – or build over them and clog them like the people of Nainital have – and the rainwater will come crashing straight down the mountainsides. And it will take homes, hotels, and people with it. 

But the people of Nainital already know that.

In July 2015, on a petition from Rawat, the high court ordered the immediate inspection of the drains, the removal of all illegal construction from over them, as also any obstructions in them. 

Only a few weeks later, after a cloudburst, the town awoke one morning to find giant mounds of debris on the Mall.

Slowly, realisation dawned that had the drains not been cleared, the rainwater – which had flushed out the leftover construction debris – would have found another way down. And it would have been homes and hotels on the Mall, not debris. 

Rawat tells the hilarious story of how the same hotel owners who had begun to turn their noses up at him – because they had had to break down what they had built over the drains – now began to offer him chai when he passed them.

But the most frightening thing of all that Vishal showed me on our walk, the one that really sent a chill down my spine, was Sher ka Daanda.

This is the mountain that came down in 1880; today it is the most populated part of town.

Asking for trouble

Is the town asking for trouble? I asked Professor Rajeev Upadhyay of Kumaon Univesity's Department of Geology; one of his specialisations is Himalayan geology.

“Yes,” he said. “It is.”

A geological fault line runs right through the town, splitting the lakebed in two. And Nainital lies in a “seismic gap”. There hasn’t been a major earthquake in the region between Kathmandu and Dharamshala – Nainital lies somewhere between them – in the last 50-odd years.

But it will come. “And earthquakes lead to landslides,” said Upadhyay.

Anything goes

Vishal had wanted to meet a local gentleman at Sukhatal. He and Vikram – the schoolmate who had called me – had wanted to invite him to the barefoot walk, and ask him to bring his people to it.

It is only when the common man – the boatman, the ghodawallah – understands what is happening to his lake, his very lifeblood, that change will come about, Vikram had said to me.

In time, at Sukhatal, we are introduced to a builder by the local gentleman.

The builder tells us how one of his buildings was sealed, right after it had been constructed.

So he goes to the secretary of the Lake Development Authority, who tells him his building is too big. He’s built one storey too many, and that now it’s difficult to look the other way from.

The builder replies that his building has been under construction for some time; it wasn't built overnight.

Why are you waking up now?

And what do we do now? 

The builder says the secretary asks for “10 petis”.

Is a peti a lakh? I ask the builder.

Yes, he says.

And? I ask.

The builder says he tells the secretary 10 petis is too much.

How much will you give? The secretary asks him.

“Eight,” says the builder. “Five now and three when you come back from your foreign trip but I want all my clearances right away.”

His building is unsealed the same evening.

The builder is warming up. He tells us about another building of his that was sealed.

He says he breaks the locks, then goes to the police and files an FIR saying the building had been broken into.

Then he begins to use the building.

“Legally I was safe,” he says. “I had filed the FIR.” 

Does anything go here, I ask the builder, so long as you pay money?

Yes, he says.

The local gentleman gets in on the act.

He says that when his home was sealed, “they sealed the door but not the windows.”

So he built stairs up to a window, and walked in. (He really did say that.) His home was unsealed four years later – he took the legal route rather than offering pecuniary inducement – but in all that time, he continued to live in what was his sealed home.

I knew other builders too, from school.

“Every young person in Nainital is a builder,” Vishal had said to me earlier. (Nainital is thought of as prime property.)

At the club, I asked a junior of mine from school who is now a builder whether he would corroborate the allegations of corruption.

Yes, he said, they’re true. The authorities will pass anything if you offer money.

Nainital is divided into four zones, with zones 1 and 2 labelled “hyper-sensitive” and where nothing should be built.

“At least we build on zones 3 and 4,” he (the junior) said. “The poor go to zones 1 and 2 – in places like Sher ka Daanda – and build there. And even there the authorities take money from them.”

What is the going rate? I asked.

“It depends on what you can afford,” he said.

Is Nainital more corrupt than other places? I asked another resident at the barefoot walk. I knew him, his son too had been at school with me, and I remembered him as being outspoken.

Yes, he said.

Why?

Because after the creation of Uttarakhand in 2000, he said, everybody in the town knows somebody in a position of authority. And so everybody gets permission to build what they want. Uttar Pradesh was a bigger place, with the seat of power far away, and out of reach, in Lucknow.

Apparently the same thing is happening in Mussoorie which, said Vishal, is even worse off than Nainital. 

“There, everything is brown,” he said.

“At least there’s green here,” said his colleague.

Since the creation of Uttarakhand, Vishal said, the hill state has lost some 12,000 natural springs – a result of frenetic, unplanned building. Today that would be called “development”. 

Rawat told me the Nainital region used to have 60 wetlands, of which 30 have been lost. Near the town of Bhimtal, about 20 kilometres from Nainital, an entire university has been built over one. 

The left hand does not know what the right is doing

I asked Mr Sirish Kumar, the secretary of the Lake Development Authority, about the allegations of corruption.

Kumar would not be drawn into the conversation, saying he was happy to talk about “specific cases” but that he could not answer general allegations of corruption. (Note: The LDA secretary mentioned earlier in this piece was a different one from Kumar.)

But he did say something else that was revealing.

Kumar told me the largest number of complaints he got were from Ward No. 7 on Sher ka Daanda, of people complaining that their neighbours were able to peek into their homes. That somebody's kitchen looked out into a neighbour's bedroom, somebody else's living room looked out into a neighbour's toilet, and so on.

The image that conjured was one of haphazard planning.

The trouble is, clearance for the planning came from the LDA.

“Not a leaf moves in this town without the say-so of the LDA,” one resident told me.

Nor does the LDA seem in a hurry to carry out the high court's order, again on the 2012 petition filed by Rawat, that the homes built on and around Sukhatal be razed. Land to build replacement houses for the people who lose their homes has been found outside of town in a place called Russi gaon but, said Kumar, they cannot build there because the high court has also ordered, this was in November 2016, that there be no further construction within two kilometres of any of the region's major lakes.

And Russi gaon falls within a two-kilometre radius of Khurpatal lake.

I didn’t laugh – Indian bureaucrats are not known for their sense of humour – but I thought the irony was hilarious.

I remember Upadhyay's words. “There has been no planning in Nainital, the left hand does not known what the right is doing.”

I think of Vishal showing me the area between The Flats and the lake. It used to be gravelled, but has now been paved over with concrete. 

The LDA's office told me that was because between 15 to 20 truckloads of gravel would be dropped there each year, and every year all that gravel would end up (presumably because of the wind and the rain) at the bottom of the lake.

But concrete prevents water from percolating into the ground; gravel aids it. 

Vishal, on our walk, had also pointed out nullahs that suddenly disappeared halfway down a street. Hotels and restaurants in the town had either encroached on them or they had been paved over by the authorities.

The result, when it rains, is instant flooding.

As for the debris that is dumped in the British-era drains, like alluded to earlier, when the rains come, that too is flushed into the lake.

That was the first thing, because of the low water level, we noticed on our walk – construction debris on the lakebed near the banks.

The LDA's office told me the British-built drains had steps cut into them. Then the PWD paved them over and did away with the steps, so now rainwater and debris come hurtling down them at greater speeds. That they say is dangerous.

It goes on and on and on, and everybody blames everybody else.

Everything is for sale

To get to the barefoot walk, I had taken a boat ride across town. “It will be fun,” I had told the gentleman who had driven and followed me uncomplainingly over two days as I hotfooted it back and forth across town. 

But I didn’t enjoy it. The lake’s now-exposed banks made me feel like something unclean was going on in the town. That Nainital’s dirty little secrets, so long swept under the carpet, were coming back to haunt us.

It was a feeling I had been getting for some time.

I think it struck me first a few years ago when, walking down to The Flats, I smelt diesel fumes. I looked up and there was an endless ring of cars going all the way around the town. Nainital has traffic jams now.

To my right, a dirty medley of water, fuel, and gunk snaked its way down.

I had thought of Tevershall then, the ugly mining town where Lady Chatterley’s Lover is based. I had been thinking then about writing a version of Lawrence’s classic and I’m certain now that should I ever write the book, I will set it in Nainital – another ugly town.

The boatman hadn’t helped my mood. Trying to hire a ride to get to the barefoot walk, I had been told at the payment counter that I would not be able to. That I could hire half a round around the lake, or a full round, but my start and end points would have to be the same.

“Just charge me for a full round but take me across,” I had said.

“I’ll do it,” the boatman had said. “Just pay me double.”

There is a certain mercenary quality about Nainital which reminds me of Thailand. “10 bhat for 10 minutes with medium tiger (in his enclosure), 20 bhat for 10 minutes with big tiger, 30 bhat for 10 minutes with small tiger,” I remember a brochure in Phuket stating. Everything is for sale.

I am told Nainital’s hotel owners auction their rooms to the highest bidder in the high season. And that they are not satisfied till they have people paying to stay on their verandahs.

“F*** it,” I had said. “Just take me across.”

In a sense, I was saying it to the town of my childhood too.

Nainital is a mess. The news emanating from my alma mater in recent years has not been comforting. And between that and the people from Nainital that I have wronged, I think I have had enough of the town. 

The barefoot walk. (Others)

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A second coda

On my last morning in Nainital, I had arranged to play a game of golf with some of my old schoolmates. 

As I entered the town, I had stopped for chai and cigarettes. 

“Daju,” I had said to the chaiwallah. “Daju.” 

But he hadn’t heard me because there was a crowd around him. 

Hearing me, the gentleman in front of me, holding a chai in one hand and a rusk in the other, had made way, turned to me, and graciously said, “Aiye, aiye.” 

It was the last thing I needed, somebody from this town – the one that I was washing my hands of – being nice to me. 

We played at Golf Links, the course on the Raj Bhawan grounds. 

Towards the end of our 18 holes, we heard a barking deer. He called repeatedly and Rudy, one of my fellow golfers, said, “He’s seen a leopard.” 

We used to come here for our Easter Monday picnics, but I had forgotten how pretty the place was. 

It is difficult to find the words to describe it. 

Even Golf Links is under threat. Part of the cliff just behind the hole number five tee has given way – Nainital’s mountains are made of a substance called limestone dolomite which crumbles easily. An attempt has been made to stop further deterioration of the cliff side by inserting iron rods into it, to try and hold it together, and by throwing metal nets over it. 

I don’t know whether it will work but I do remember thinking that this is a place of such natural beauty, it must be worth saving. 

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