Lake Sukhatal is already being choked, and the residents of Naini Tal fear that the lake that gives the town its name may not hold out for long either.
There was a time, before the British Raj discovered Naini Tal, when the town and lake were considered revered enough for people to take their shoes off before entering. Matters have come a long way since, from reverence to desecration.
In 1880, the lake town experienced a major landslide that killed 151 people. After this, a network of nearly 79 km of stormwater drains were developed to ensure that water would reach the lake in the future. In the time since, the boatmen, businesspeople and hoteliers of Naini Tal have plied their trade at ease – until recently.
Today, the town faces burgeoning tourism, leading to hours-long traffic hams; rampant illegal constructions; and a drastic encroachment of Sukhatal. The drainage system has also become dysfunctional, while cemented pavements and the unrestricted use of water by large hotels and multi-storey apartments have made it harder for surface runoffs to recharge basins.
Several years of activism, including a public interest litigation in 2012 to revive Sukhatal, have helped drive awareness of the problem and arrest the situation to some extent. However, experts continue to be wary: the lake’s levels have fallen by over four metres below the normal – more than double that typically witnessed during summers.
These issues are exacerbated by natural disasters like forest fires, which affect the local microclimate. In all, it is evident that if the lake goes, so will the people’s livelihoods.
The residents of Naini Tal have made several suggestions to help abet the situation. For example, short-term proposals include declaring Naini Tal a living entity – like the Ganga has been – and so accord it legal rights that would make it easier to protect it. Long-term proposals include projects to revive perennial springs and fix the drainage system.
However, while there is no open dissatisfaction with the local administration, there is also growing frustration that not enough is being done to protect the people’s livelihoods soon enough. In an effort to move things alone, the residents of Naini Tal organised a silent, barefoot march on June 3.