Urbanisation along Sukhna Lake’s periphery needs check: S S Virdi

In the interview, former UT Chief Engineer S S Virdi lists suggestions to save this heritage piece and distinct identity of the city.

Written by Jaskiran Kapoor | Chanidgarh | Updated: November 2, 2015 12:25:24 pm
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How did the Save Sukhna Forum come into existence?

From the desperate and urgent need to save it, from drying up, from excessive construction around it, from deforestation, etc. B B Mahajan, IAS, was the first president of the forum and I have been heading it for the past three-four years. The primary concern of this forum that was formed around 10 years back, was to advise the administration on maintaining the water levels and activity at the lake. Unfortunately, there is little attention paid to these issues. The suggestions given are hardly adhered to. Artificially created in 1958 with a depth of 18 feet, the lake today stands at hardly eight-and-a half feet. The Save Sukhna Forum comprising engineers, soil and water conservation experts have prepared a report to salve the lake while agreeing with the Punjab and Haryana High Court’s hearing on a writ petition filed in 2012 relating to Sukhna Lake crisis, that if Sukhna Lake dies, Chandigarh goes.

What are your memories of the lake?

Le Corbusier had remarked once, “I want to see the dancing of stars in the placid waters of Sukhna Lake”. The lake is the soul of this city, and the residents are mighty proud of it. People come from as far as Pinjore, Panchkula, Mohali, etc daily to enjoy it, and the moment it starts drying up, there is a lot of hue and cry from the public.

My strongest memory of the lake is of 1987, when I was the UT Chief Engineer, the year the lake had dried up completely. That’s the year Shramdan began and not only did we retrieve the lake, but within a span of two months, we also organised the first International Asian Rowing Championship here with great success. A postal stamp with the lake tower printed on it was issued that year, too, and the lake area was declared a wetland. I remember trying many methods and getting innovative and creative with saving the lake, like laying down bamboos to roll over machines. Thankfully, we witnessed heavy rains and the lake was filled. A documentary called Sukhna was also made and aired on Doordarshan.

A dry year and avian flu later, what does the forum have to suggest?

A detailed report prepared by us was submitted to the UT Administrator two ago, the response to which is still awaited. Our main recommendation is to form an independent body, viz, Sukhna Lake Development Authority, and a monitoring committee for the same. We feel CITCO should be roped in as the project director. If artificial lakes like Osman Sagar (Hyderabad), Pichola Lake (Udaipur) and Nainital Lake can function effectively with the help of Lake Development Agencies, why not Sukhna?

What does the Forum’s Project Report encompass?

We have suggested a permanent solution to prolonging the life of lake that it drying up fast, inch by inch. This is a lake that is rain-fed. But this year, rains were 35 per cent less than normal, hence the crisis, as had happened in 2012 and 1987. Retaining the lake on a permanent basis involves the coming together of various disciplines including administrative, engineering, water shed management, soil conservation, urban planning, forestry, fisheries, tourism, sports, hydrology, bio-engineering, watching of migratory birds, etc.

Can you elucidate more on the suggestions?

The first and foremost is to feed the lake. Of the 150 water bodies/dams constructed in the catchment area of the lake, 40 remain filled with run-off water throughout the year, which is enough to augment the water requirement of the lake during dry spells. But the way is through underground pipes as on Perch Dam near PGI to minimise seepage, evaporation and misuse during distribution. We had approached the high court five years back to permit release of water from these dams, and it was allowed, but due to lack of proper channels and infrastructure, it was a futile exercise.

One can also recycle water back into the lake by installing a shallow tubewell. This has been established by a study conducted by the UT Forest Department in 2009, which revealed hard pan layers underneath the bed of the lake at a depth of three to four feet, and nine to ten trial bores can help in setting up these tubewells. The most effective way is also linking Patiala ki Rao to the lake and bringing water from Ghaggar dam to the lake. To compensate the Haryana government, proportionate increase in supply of drinking water to Panchkula can be done.

The Sukhna Lake has also been a victim of silt for many years.

Yes, but with afforestation and soil conservation measures, the silt flow was reduced from 150 tons/ha/hr to 5 tons/ha/hr since 1968. Dedicated Shramdan by the residents also benefitted the lake.

Now that the movement of the silt load from the catchment has considerably declined, what we suggest is increasing the lake depth by wet dredging, which will ensure the lake’s survival for long. Of course one needs to understand the engineering and equipment behind it, but this is possible.

Also, to manage evaporation, the surface area of the lake can be reduced by constructing an embankment towards the regulator side. The embankment will also arrest the silt inflow at this end, and then can be removed easily too in summers.

Does the lake face any immediate threats apart from decreasing depth?

Yes, it is to not allow the Tata Camelot Housing Project right behind the lake. The project’s proposed 19 towers and around 92,000 flats will be disastrous for this thriving eco-system. Also, incessant urbanisation along the lake’s periphery has marred its spectacular landscape and will eventually disturb the chemical properties of the water if not checked in time.

How will an increase in the depth of the lake benefit its environment?

Once the depth increases, it not only eliminates the nagging problem of aquatic weeds which are being removed manually at high costs at present, but it also goes on to extend boating for a longer period, generating more income. Better quality of fish will boost revenue for the fisheries department. Sports like rowing throughout the year will also increase the lake’s income and secure maintenance.

Are there any laws or orders to protect the lake?

In 1968, the Ministry of Environment and Forests Government of India declared Sukhna as one of the national wetlands, but unfortunately, the declaration was never duly notified. The administration has to ask for funds from the Centre for the maintenance of the lake. A buffer zone, of at least a kilometer, around the lake and wildlife sanctuary to preserve and protect the biodiversity of the lake, is also needed. The UT Administration has to also approach the Ministry of Environment and Forests Government of India for the same.

Although not a law or order but, in 1988, the idea of laying the foundation of a National Rowing Academy in the city was mooted. This was a brilliant proposal, one that would assure inflow of funds and upkeep of the lake. We feel this needs to be taken up again.

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