Chandpole at the heart of Udaipur has a dizzying array of houses and colourful bazaars, bursting with unique local handicrafts like marble items, paintings, silver articles and terracotta all crammed within its narrow streets. We are taken to the past when we walk through its artistic lanes and gullies and catch a glimpse of Udaipur’s skilled artisans at work.
Chandpole, one of the seven gates built by the erstwhile king of Mewar, Udai Singh 2 in the 16th century protects the area within the walls and gates and continues to be referred to as the old city or the walled city. Tej Shanker Paliwal, the president of Chandpole Nagrik Samiti, a citizens’ group working on lake restoration tells me about the city’s history, its palaces, majestic forts and most notably its sophisticated system of artificial lakes constructed on local rainfed streams, which gave it the name ‘city of lakes’.
“All the five major lakes in the city – Fatehsagar, Pichola, Swaroopsagar, Rangsagar and Doodh Talai, have been taken up for restoration under the national lake conservation programme,” he says. As we approach the sprawling city palace, which stands on a ridge overlooking lake Pichola, the view of the fort looming above is spectacular and I can see cupolas crown the palace’s octagonal towers. Paliwal, who has been working on the issue of lake protection for several decades points to the finest hotels in the much-sought-after tourist destination on the way. We then tread back to Gangaur Ghat, on the waterfront of lake Pichola and pass by prominent places like Bagore-ki-Haveli museum and the old Jagdish temple. On our way back, while crossing the Brahmpole bridge, one can see raw sewage being directly let out into the lakes by the hotels that mushroom along.
As we sit down at a cheery restaurant, the owner joins us and explains how the tourism industry wants strong protection for the lake. The restaurant overlooks the Swaroopsagar lake and has been turning into a dump yard of late. He puts the blame squarely on bathing and washing of clothes in a lake. “The Rajasthan High Court’s ban of 2015 on all this is not being followed. City conservationists should take up the case, as it means loss of tourists and business for us. The problem of water hyacinth and contamination is very high,” he says. “A large number of people, mainly migrant labourers and the poor, use these surface water sources for many things like bathing and cleaning, where will they go?” Paliwal overlooks him and enquires about the waste management system deployed in his hotel. He explains a little hastily, with an averted face, and goes away.
Not much interest is forthcoming from them to restore polluted lakes and rivers. Citizens’ groups like Chandpole Nagrik Samiti have been conducting street corner meetings with local citizens and clearing the lake of its muck.
I joined a Sunday clean-up at lake Pichola to find dozens of people clearing the lake of water hyacinth and polythene from the riverbed. In fact, some people arrive in a boat that appears to have some sort of small engine and is strewn with debris that they collected from the lake.
“The lakes of Udaipur have been reduced to being a garbage can by the houses around them and the numerous hotels catering to the tourism industry,” says Paliwal. The pitiful state of the city’s lakes, coupled with the sheer apathy of the government, has forced some well-meaning citizens to come out of their comfort zones and make a difference. Paliwal has been leading the efforts of the citizens to desilt, clean and restore some of the lakes to improve their water quality. Some of these efforts, like the Udaisagar lake that is now overflowing with clean water, have been successful, while others are ongoing.
The Jheel Sanrakshan Samiti, another lake conservation group has been pressuring the government agencies since 1992 when the organisation was formed to work on lake restoration and resist lake encroachment. “The group was formed shortly after the drought in the late eighties when the Pichola and Fatehsagar lakes dried up and the people faced huge water shortages,” says Dr Tej Rajdan, who heads the Jheel Sanrakshan Samiti. Rajdan got involved in the lake restoration work in the late eighties while he was studying medicine in the city.
“The city is squarely dependent on the system of interconnected lakes for its domestic and drinking water supply requirements. More recently, it has been getting much of its water by pumping through massive pipelines from the Jaisamand lake that is 50 km away as well as the Mansi Wakal scheme. Groundwater is being pumped indiscriminately through bore wells in the dry lake beds,” says Rajdan.
“The Fatehsagar lake, constructed in the late 1600s by ruler Maharana Jai Singh, is now the second major source of drinking water in the city. The lake is highly polluted and its storage capacity is getting reduced,” Paliwal notes. “People demand support and swift action from the government,” he says.
“The lake poses a risk to public health, now that urbanisation has degraded its water quality,” says Nand Kishore Sharma, secretary of a local environmental conservation organisation, Mohan Singh Mehta Memorial Trust. He says that citizens come together almost every weekend to put in voluntary labour for cleaning the lakes, removing water hyacinth and sorting out junk.
“Some of the more recent efforts of the government, like removing water hyacinth through bio-control and introducing new varieties of fish are not finding favour with the people. As a part of the government’s national lake conservation plan, five of the lakes are supposed to be desilted, sewage treatment plant installed and the area adjacent to the lake beautified,” says Haji Sardar Muhammad of Jheel Hiteshi Nagrik Manch, a social group dedicated to keeping the lakes clean. “Many of these plans are too expensive and fail in the absence of a proper institutional mechanism,” says Paliwal.
The Ahar river, that feeds the massive Udaisagar lake, flows right through the city. “The rivers’ degradation had turned it into a sewer carrying toxic pollutants and garbage,” says Sharma. As per estimates of the Central Pollution Control Board, the sewage generated in the city is of the order of 68 million litres per day while the Udaipur municipality puts the figure at 40 million litres per day. The city’s sewage management system, with its frail infrastructure, which to this day does not include a sewage treatment plant is completely inadequate to deal with the burden of urbanisation.
The citizen’s efforts have from time to time, received positive support from the court when it hauled up officials on the lacunae and asked the government to prepare a time-bound plan to clean up Udaipur’s lakes. Yet, the lakes Pichola, Swaroop Sagar, Fateh Sagar and Badi, which are the city’s lifelines, have deteriorated in quality over the years. “A lake development body too has been constituted in 1999 focusing on the problem of the lake, yet the indifference continues,” says Sharma.
“To salvage the lakes from the clutches of pollution, citizens have moved the court several times, notable being the one filed by Balwant Singh Mehta in 1982,” says Sharma. Following this, the court directed the city’s administration to chart a plan to protect the lakes. “Jheel Sanrakshan Samiti has, from 1997 onwards sought intervention of the Rajasthan high court as well as the supreme court through Public Interest Litigations to restore the lakes and appeal against encroachments on the lake,” says Rajdan, who heads the group.
“In spite of the courts’ directives, nothing moves on the ground except in 2000, when a lake development body was constituted. It lacked the teeth, so we began lobbying for a lake development authority, with more powers,” says Rajdan. The efforts paid and in March 2017, a district level lake development authority has been constituted with the Collector as Chairman and Commissioner of Nagar Nigam as Secretary. This local authority is to plan and implement all projects and activities related to management and conservation of the lakes of Udaipur.
“What we need is a forward-looking urban renewal project in which the lake is reclaimed, its ecology rejuvenated by involving citizens in raising awareness on stopping all forms of pollution from entering the river,” says Rajdan, hoping that things move on the ground.