Nainital's future is threatened by gradual killing off of its main water source

Local people feel there is no appreciation for the slow life of the hills

42-Balia-Nala Lost cause: Balia Nala, an area near the entry point to Nainital, which was hit by a major landslide a few years ago | Arvind Jain

Around an emerald lake (tal), believed to be the left eye (nain) of Goddess Parvati, is the once charming town of Nainital.

It is a small town of many legends. The foremost being that it was perhaps one of the earliest known sites of land grab by the British in India. When an entrepreneur called Peter Barron set his eyes upon Nainital’s soothing beauty, he decided that it needed to be commercialised. And thus was constructed the first English lodge after the local people were suitably threatened into handing over their lands. The lodge still stands.

As many as 3.2 lakh tourists made it to the lake town in 2021. Nainital's own population is less than 50,000.

But the lake around which this town of wondrous beauty is built is threatened by a gradual killing off of its main water source―Sukhatal, a natural depression which fills up with water during the monsoons. Almost half of Naini lake’s water comes from Sukhatal, which during the non-monsoon months is a dry lake, on which cricket and football matches are played, and circus shows mounted.

As Nainital’s popularity as a tourist destination grew, authorities decided that the edge of the Sukhatal could be used for construction. Surprisingly, a study produced by IIT Roorkee suggested a ‘beautification’ plan for Sukhatal. It included turning it into a permanent artificial water body complete with restaurants and other facilities to attract more tourists.

According to data from the Uttarakhand department of tourism, 3.2 lakh tourists made it to the lake town in 2021. Nainital’s own population is less than 50,000. Aneel Bisht, a Nainital resident and retired professor of English literature at Kumaun University, said, “We are already overburdened. Why add to the pressure by allowing more construction? The sad part is that local people have no say or do not want to have a say, till their own pockets are hurt.”

Yet, in December 2021, some hundred concerned citizens, alarmed at the construction debris accumulating on the Sukhatal bed, wrote a letter to the Uttarakhand High Court. Science backed their concern. From 2000 onwards, the water level of Nainital fell below the sub-zero level 10 times, courtesy the tampering with the Sukhatal lake bed. Before 2000, such a fall had been witnessed only in 1923 and 1980. A 2018 report by the NITI Aayog noted that the drying up of springs was a ‘nationally pertinent problem’ that had to be addressed ‘immediately’.

That letter which the citizens signed was drafted by Vishal Singh, executive director of the Dehradun-based Centre for Ecology Development and Research. “Sukhatal was where I was born and lived for three decades. As a child, I had seen the lake brimming with water for at least four months during the monsoons. When the water receded, Sukhatal turned into a lush green playground, which produced cricketers, footballers and hockey players of national and international repute. Over the last two decades, rampant development reduced Sukhatal lake to a parking lot and a dump for construction debris,” said Singh.

The court took cognisance of the letter and listed the matter as a public interest litigation. On March 2, 2022, it ordered that a copy of the petition be sent to secretaries of all departments concerned for their feedback. Seven months later, the concerned citizens raised their voice again; for despite the matter’s court-recognised urgency, not a single hearing had taken place.

It was finally heard on November 22, 2022, after which the court ordered an immediate ban on all construction and ordered the removal of encroachments. It observed that had those encroachments been of the poor, they would have been swiftly removed. What was left unsaid was that even many prominent lawyers (among other noted professionals) had constructed their homes on and around the lake bed.

Kartikey Hari Gupta, the amicus curiae for the matter, said that while the positive result was that construction was stopped, encroachments could not be removed. “It is a human problem. It is not that easy to just go one day and demolish people’s houses. It is a long-standing problem on the administration’s part. People were allowed to settle there. There has to be some mechanism…it is a welfare state…bulldozer activities will not work,” he said.

Gita Pande and her daughter Devika run one of Nainital’s oldest hotels. It is a 150-year-old property of old charm called the Grand Hotel which overlooks the Naini lake. Both despair at the changing nature of tourism. “They want to bring Delhi to Nainital, not absorb what this town has to offer,” said Gita. Nainital, which is just 300km from Delhi, is a favourite weekend getaway. Tourists drive in their cars, causing enormous traffic jams. Yet, when the administration refused to allow entry to private vehicles without pre-booked parking permits in 2018, hotel, taxi and restaurant owners threatened a strike.

“There is little appreciation for the slow life of the hills. Visitors want the same kind of food they are used to, want to shop the same brands they find in their hometowns, want similar loud, live music playing at restaurants. The clean mountain air is perhaps the only thing they want from here,” said Devika.

They are also worried about the growing breed of holiday home owners―those who build “big, ugly structures in gated communities”, just to visit for a month in a year. The resultant concretisation and urbanisation burden the already fragile ecology.

It is in an antiseptic sameness of jacuzzis and butter chicken that tourists find comfort. The incidental emerald be damned.