OPINION: Science vs greed—the struggle for Sukhatal

Sukhatal is a seasonal lake in the hill above Nainital and mostly remains dry


I have been visiting Nainital district in Uttarakhand for more than 30 years now and have been living here permanently for the past six years, this is my home. During this time, I have witnessed the lights on the mountain across my house grow from a hundred to more than thousands. Sometimes while sitting outside in the cool fresh evening breeze, looking at the hill across me, I get the feeling that we humans are spreading like termites across the face of the earth hollowing it from within.

Around two years ago I heard that the authorities in Nainital were planning on “developing” Sukhatal. It is a seasonal lake in the hill above Nainital and remains dry through most of the year and might seem like an eyesore during this period to some. During the monsoons though this depression fills up with water and comes to life; it holds this water for 3-4 months allowing it to trickle down to an underground aquifer that provides 2 million litres of drinking water per day and rejuvenates springs in the area that dry up in the summer. Studies show that Sukhatal is responsible for replenishing 20 per cent of the total volume of Naini lake, making it one of the most hydrologically significant areas in the entire region. It is not just a lifeless depression; it is the lifeline of Nainital!

Since it is a flattish area in mountainous terrain, over the years some opportunistic citizens have encroached on the lakebed and built 44 structures, including private residences and government buildings. It has also been used as a dumping ground for construction debris. This activity has played a major role in impacting the lake from performing its natural function as nature intended. It is also known that between 2002 and 2016, Naini lake had reached zero level 10 times; the mistreatment of Sukhatal is acknowledged as a major factor. It was evident that Sukhatal needed attention and the importance of its scientific understanding was recognised.

Committees of experts were formed to advise on how to proceed with its development. The scientific community’s consistent advice has been to restore Sukhatal to its original state. In 2017, thousands of concerned citizens did a barefoot march to raise awareness of the depleting Naini lake. Despite an overwhelming concern from citizens and the scientific community, in 2021, the authorities decided to muscle their way with a plan that would completely seal the lake bed and promote tourism in an already overburdened tourist destination. This decision had environmentalists, scientist, activists and citizens alike scratching their heads in utter disbelief trying to understand why the authorities that were responsible for the protection of Nainital would want to destroy it themselves.

In December 2021, with no other option in sight, 104 citizens of Nainital drafted a letter and submitted it to the Chief Justice of the honourable High Court of Nainital, praying that the court would intervene in the unscientific development. What was most heartening to see was that the letter was well received and the matter was taken up by the court suo moto. When the case was finally heard on November 22, 2022, in a 4-hour long session, an important precedent was set ‘that an area, no matter how small, must be judged based on the extent of its environmental reach rather than its obvious boundaries’. The court order reads: “Prima facie, it appears to us that the said area development project could not have been initiated without obtaining clearance from SEIAA. Admittedly, there is no clearance, whatsoever, obtained from the SEIAA.”

The court also recognised that Sukhatal qualifies as a wetland and no approval was taken from the wetland authority to execute this project. The court ordered all development activities be suspended with immediate effect and ordered the removal of encroachments from the lakebed without delay. For some of us who were lucky enough to have witnessed this marathon session, our faith in the judiciary was reinforced. I remember how the hair on my arms were standing at attention and tears were welling up in my eyes at the deep concern the court had demonstrated towards this seemingly lifeless depression.

What is most heartening is that the citizens who were moved by a problem and decided to do something about it by putting aside their egos, managed to stop a giant authoritative machinery from executing a braindead scheme. Even though construction has halted, the restoration of Sukhatal is yet to begin and the court proceedings continue with much push back from the encroachers. The encroachers who call Nainital home are destroying the resources that Nainital needs to survive. Driven by greed and negating science, acting like termites, happily destroying that which sustains them.

Budhraja is the co-founder of the Sattal Conservation Club and Save Kumaon—both volunteer-based organisations that work for the environment.

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