Nainital’s choking lake receives some High Court relief, but fingers crossed

On the work site, only a signboard announcing the ‘Sukhatal Lake Recharge Zone Tourist Destination’, JCB machines, and concrete mixers remain. The majority of workers had left by Friday, November 25, except for some who were putting away raw materials, such as cement sacks and electrical wiring rolls.

As a result of a PIL filed by the Uttarakhand High Court against the government’s beautification plan that allegedly involved laying a layer of concrete on the lake bed, work at Nainital’s Sukhatal Lake has been halted after 19 months. In response, construction activities at the lake were suspended until further orders were made.

Located a few kilometers away from Naini Lake, the Sukhatal catchment area covers 23,000 square meters and serves as the most important recharge zone. Due to most of its water being drained into the Naini during the summer, the lake gets its name of “sukha” (dry) for most of the year.

In December last year, the Chief Justice of Uttarakhand High Court took suo motu cognizance of the encroachments at Sukhatal Lake following a letter from local activists and citizens. (Deccan Era Photo)

In May 2012, the government began work on a Rs 25.51-crore beautification plan based on a report prepared by IIT Roorkee. The project involves the installation of a fence with iron railings around the lake area and the construction of a paved walkway. The plan to make the lake impregnable by supposedly lining the lake bed with concrete to keep the water in the lake throughout the year has raised the ire of environmentalists.

On November 22, officials working on the site stated that approximately 80 per cent of the work had been completed.

The project was moving forward quickly, and the plan was to complete it within two months and open it to the public. The court order came just as work was about to begin on the lake bed floor. There have been almost no workers left since then,” said Naveen Agarwal, an engineer at the site.

Following a letter sent by 104 signatories – local activists and citizen groups – to Chief Justice Vipin Sanghi of the Uttarakhand High Court, the court ordered the restoration of Sukhatal Lake. Suo motu cognizance was taken of the matter by the court in March of this year, and Advocate Kartikey Hari Gupta was appointed as amicus curiae.

Among the group’s concerns about the “unscientific and unwanted” development of Sukhatal Lake is that the proposed development plan, which includes concretisation, threatens Naini Lake’s ecology and the livelihoods of residents of Nainital.

However, the government has denied that its plan involves concretizing the lake bed, and said that it intends to use only geosynthetic clay liners – factory-produced hydraulic barriers that enhance water retention, rather than making the surface completely impermeable.

According to Pankaj Kumar Upadhyay, secretary of the District Level Development Authority, despite the initial plan to build a concrete bed within the lake to retain water, after meeting with civil society representatives, it was decided not to build a concrete bed. “Following our meeting with IIT-Roorkee, we contacted them again and they recommended using a geosynthetic clay liner instead of concrete. A letter was sent to the court by some people regarding the clay liner we were planning to install,” he explained.

In the hearing, amicus curiae Gupta emphasized that scientific bodies prohibit the use of impermeable materials on the Sukhatal lake bed.

According to IIT Roorkee, feasibility reports were prepared after a discussion with the sponsoring agency. During the trial, we argued that IIT Roorkee had never applied an independent mind to the report, as the report had been prepared for the agency that funded the project,” Gupta said.

In an interview with The Deccan Era, Nainital-based Charu Chandra Pant, a retired professor of geology at Kumaon University, cautioned against tampering with the area. Since the lake is on higher ground, it serves as a recharge zone for the Naini Lake. Due to its seasonal nature, this lake has become a dumping ground over the past three to four decades. The catchment area was encroached upon by some homeowners who built their houses around it. Three to four pumps are installed here, which pump out approximately three million liters of water per day, which is a significant portion of Nainital’s daily water demand of eight million liters. Water would not be present in the lake if it had a cemented floor. The stagnant water will result in algae bloom regardless of the amount of water available,” he explained.

As Nainital has very fragile geology, any beautification plan must be executed carefully, according to Dr Vishal Singh, Executive Director of the Centre for Ecology Development and Research (CEDAR). Sukhatal was identified as a ‘critical recharge zone’ for Nainital by a research team led by Dr Vishal Singh in 2014.

It is important to consider the importance of the hydro-geological, functional, and social values of Sukhatal, which include maintaining the water balance of Nainital lake, as well as providing drinking water to a large population of the city when considering it from a social and ecological perspective. Intervention should, therefore, only be attempted if necessary. He advised that all attempts should be made to avoid tampering with the lake bed.

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