How iconic Naini lake in Nainital got destroyed

To make place for more tourists, officials tinkered with original system meant to drain Naini lake’s excess water even as hotels took over a natural reservoir that kept it replenished for centuries

How iconic Naini lake in Nainital got destroyed
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Mrinal Pande

Nainital has lately been much in news. A sudden spell of heavy rain caused its greatest attraction, the Naini lake, to overflow and nearly destroyed the town created by the British along what was once a pristine lake. The story of Nainital’s present erosion as a pristine town by a lake is a tale of human selfishness and greed.

In 1842, the then Commissioner Mr Lushington and his friend, one Mr Barron (owner of the Rosa brewery of Shahjehanpur), had a contractor named Lala Motiram Shah of Almora build a dozen bungalows for British officials in a valley occupied on all sides (except the east) by mountains. As soon as they were advertised, they were occupied.

In another three years, a bamboo jungle was cut to create the Mallital bazaar for native servants, cooks and ayahs serving the sahibs. The first church came up in 1846.

The lake of Nainital was nearly destroyed in 1880 by a massive landslide following torrential rains. After the tragedy that killed 151 people and destroyed nearly all the houses, the town was rebuilt between 1881-1895. A number of experts including engineers and geologists were consulted and a committee of engineers ruled that the badly impacted old government houses be dismantled.

The architect who built the new Government House did a massive survey and concluded that regular water outlets were needed to save the town from future deluges. He constructed 6 miles of masonry drains and 3 miles of drains to help drain roads and the interior of hills.

This was when the sluice gates towards the eastern (open) side of the town were constructed which were opened manually whenever rains caused lake levels to rise to discharge excess water.


These sluice gates were operational until the government changed it and created an automatic exit system working through pipes that would let out three inches of water.

Well, the system failed the town miserably when the recent cloudburst happened. Crazed by dreams of luring more tourists and larger car/bus parks, the administration chose to replace them with pipes and cemented the area to extend the Bus Adda.

In Nainital, meanwhile, the Mall road area was overbuilt despite cautionary notes from experts. In 2012, a PIL was filed against encroachments over water drains, the arteries of the fragile town. In 2015, some encrochments were removed. But the drainage system had been compromised by then.

Another ticking problem is at the catchment area for Naini lake, known as Sookhatal. This natural reservoir, made of dolomite and limestone, collects 40 per cent of the subsurface water and kept the lake replenished for centuries.

Of late, that has been surrendered to builders who have cemented most of it to build hotels and resorts. As a result, the lake water in summer time keeps getting diminished alarmingly.

So the lake, with arrested water replenishment in the west and a vastly narrowed water release system at the east end, was a tragedy waiting to happen.

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