Development Issues

Vanishing lakes of Hyderabad

Print edition : April 03, 2015

Durgam Cheruvu, as it appears today from the west side. Pipes meant for a sewer line can be seen on the lakebed. In the distance is a modern building housing IT companies, which have mushroomed around this area in the past 15 years. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Employees of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation filling water into tankers at Durgam Cheruvu for public gardening purposes. Photo: Kunal Shankar

On the banks of the Hussain Sagar Lake. It is part of the city's identity, and the open space around it is a major tourist draw. Much of the promenade space, parks and roads are on what was once the lakebed. Photo: Kunal Shankar

The Jeedimetla canal. It is an open drain carrying effluents from the Jeedimetla Industrial Area, one of India's largest small-scale industrial hubs, which is dotted with pharmaceutical, electroplating, and chemical drum washing companies. The canal joins the Kukatpally canal and together they carry 250 million litres of toxic effluents a day to the Hussain Sagar Lake. Photo: Kunal Shankar

The Kukatpally canal as it joins the Hussain Sagar Lake. It is the largest, and the most toxic, of the five canals carrying the city's waste into the lake. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Rapid and unplanned urbanisation has shrunk and polluted Hyderabad’s waterbodies, main among them the Hussain Sagar Lake.

Nectar Gardens is a posh six-block, five-storey apartment complex complete with a swimming pool, gymnasium, and basketball and badminton courts in the heart of Hyderabad’s HITEC City. It is situated in an area that was once part of the Durgam Cheruvu lake.

Raj Kishore, a semi-retired truck driver, is one of Nectar Gardens’ poor neighbours. Hailing from Lucknow, he lives in a 300-square-foot tin shed and runs a tea shop near his dwelling. Kishore remembers a time when the place was part of the lake and how residents of nearby Madhapur village would come to catch fish and film crews would shoot dance sequences against the backdrop of the rock formations around the lake. Madhapur is now part of HITEC City.

Several other structures, of the rich and the poor, dot the surroundings of the man-made lake which served as the water source for the Qutub Shahi dynasty that ruled the region from Golconda Fort 500 years ago. The lake has shrunk to an area of 83 acres (an acre is 0.4 hectares) today from almost double that area in the beginning of the 1980s.

On the west-central side of Durgam Cheruvu, close to a mall called Inorbit, is a two-storey restaurant and bar—now divided between the tourism departments of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The menu begins with the proud mention of fish “from the lake”, Apollo being the main variety. In the distance one could hear the sound of heavy construction activity by the Hyderabad Metro Water, Sanitation and Sewerage Board (HMWSSB). It was laying a sewage line that will take all the waste from the apartment complexes to a treatment plant away from the lake where it is dumped now.

The urban sprawl in Hyderabad began over a decade ago with Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu’s emphasis on the information technology sector. The development pushed the city northwards into rocky hills and waterbodies and was unmindful of the environmental degradation it was causing.

A report in The Hindu in December 2003 announced plans to develop Durgam Cheruvu for tourism, complete with an amphitheatre, a restaurant and boating facilities within what is called the full tank level (FTL), or the point at which the waterbody reaches its maximum capacity. Three years later, a report in the newspaper spoke about the government’s plan to build a sewage treatment plant close to the lake.

Encroachment on Hyderabad’s water resources has been rampant in the past 15 years. Until about the 1980s, most of the lakes in and around the city were sources of drinking water, and a “buffer zone” around them used to be seasonal farmland. Farmers owned “Ek/Do Fasla Patta”, that is, single- or multi-crop harvest plots, in the buffer zone on the condition that they would use it only for cultivation—a practice that began during the time of the Nizam and continues even today.

Rapid and unplanned urbanisation blocked the feeder channels to the lakes, which dried up gradually. The exposed lakebeds and unusable farmland became a lucrative real estate opportunity for unauthorised construction. Several residential and commercial establishments sprouted on these lands and sewage from them found their way into what remained of the waterbodies. Intermittent regularisation drives by the government eventually legalised these buildings.

On paper, the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA) lists 2,857 waterbodies in its jurisdiction. Several of them do not exist today. For instance, the Mir Jumla lake, which was located within walking distance of Charminar in Old City, is now a densely populated locality known as Talab Katta with about four lakh people, mostly from Bihar, Rajasthan and Karnataka.

In early 2014, a network of activists called Save Our Urban Lakes (SOUL) filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh against the constructions within the FTL of Khapra lake in Secunderabad and alleged the complicity of State officials. A status report filed by the Telangana government in this connection reveals rampant encroachment in Hyderabad and adjoining Ranga Reddy district. The report identifies 25 encroachments within the FTL of Khapra, including a temple, badminton courts and concrete houses of varying sizes, but does not mention a tennis academy that is named in the petition.

“SOUL and several government officials jointly conducted a survey of Khapra lake in February 2014 and it was concluded that the tennis academy had indeed encroached on the lake. Why is that missing from the report while the names of six other encroachers find mention?” asks Lubna Sarwath of SOUL.

Jurisdictional overlaps

Government departments with overlapping jurisdiction over the lakes have added to the neglect of the waterbodies. The irrigation department has oversight of all the waterbodies with the exception of a handful, and is effectively the nodal agency in charge of flood control and prevention of encroachment. While the HMDA deals with “planning and coordination of construction activities”, the HMWSSB takes care of sewage disposal and water supply. The Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation takes water in tankers from several of the lakes for public gardening purposes. Each department blames the other for anything that goes wrong. SOUL wants the lakes to be removed from the irrigation department’s purview on the grounds that its oversight has become redundant.

A senior State official told Frontline that what was needed was a “comprehensive policy on encroachment of urban waterbodies, their clean-up, revival and conservation through people’s participation so as to create ownership of public spaces in the city”.

An anti-encroachment drive by the Telangana government in June last year acquired political overtones. It was widely perceived as a plan to drive out “settlers” from Andhra Pradesh. One of the targets was N Convention Centre, a 10-acre state-of-the-art conference facility owned by N3 Enterprises, a private company co-owned by the Telugu film star Akkineni Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna’s family is originally from Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh.

An official survey on June 28 concluded that the convention centre had extended into both the buffer zone and the FTL of Tammidi Kunta, a small lake in HITEC City. Nagarjuna approached the High Court, which directed the government to do a resurvey of the land after giving him due notice. The status report filed in the High Court in connection with the SOUL petition does not have this building in its list of encroachments. The official reason given was that “only encroachment of lakebeds has been mentioned in the report”. Nagarjuna was not available for comment.

Industrial pollution

The shrinking lakes of Hyderabad face another major problem: industrial pollution. The Hussain Sagar Lake (HSL) is to the city what Lodhi Gardens is to Delhi. It is part of the city’s identity, and the open space around it is a major tourist draw. A 450-year-old water reservoir over an area of 1,200 acres, it generates an average revenue of Rs.17 crore annually for the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation. But it is also Hyderabad’s main sewage and industrial effluent discharge point, with five inlets bringing in 1,070 million litres a day (MLD) of waste at its peak during the dry season. Only two sewage treatment plants with a combined capacity of 50 MLD operate currently. The stench is hard to miss in any part of the lake.

Some 250 MLD of waste, or almost one-fourth of the total waste that flows in to the HSL, comes from the Jeedimetla Industrial Development Area, the largest and one of the oldest small-scale industrial hubs in India. It is home to small manufacturing units, pharmaceutical companies and electroplating industries spread over an area of about 30 square kilometres. Before the advent of the IT companies, the generic drug manufacturing companies in the area had earned for Hyderabad the sobriquet “the bulk drugs capital of India”.

An internal status report prepared by the Telangana State Pollution Control Board (PCB) and accessed by Frontline says owing to “inadequate maintenance of the pipeline [drain], leaks and overflows reach HSL through Jeedimetla nala [canal] which has dark brown colour”.

The report further notes: “The Kukatpally nala carries industrial effluents of 128 electroplating industries that generate small quantities of highly acidic effluents of about 50 to 100 litres a day. The effluents contain heavy metals and toxic compounds like chromium, lead and cadmium.” Jeedimetla and Kukatpally canals are open drains that carry the industrial and sewage waste from these two areas into the HSL.

About three years ago, the electroplating units, categorised as “tiny” industrial units, were issued closure notice for not treating their waste. Some of them joined hands to transport the waste to a common effluents treatment plant, the Jeedimetla Effluent Treatment Limited (JETL). Others simply continued dumping them illegally into the lake at night using tankers.

The PCB’s internal report also notes that it paid over Rs.22 lakh for the treatment of effluents from electroplating units. Critics say this amounts to subsidising waste disposal that by law must be borne by the industry. A request made by the PCB two years ago to the former Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation to relocate the industry outside the area did not make much headway.

JETL was established in 1989 after a movement following the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy. Its stakeholders are the companies located in the area. JETL has an installed capacity of 5.4 MLD for sewage and industrial waste combined. This is only a fraction of the 250 MLD waste that flows into the HSL from Jeedimetla and Kukatpally.

While activists call JETL an apology at best, industry describes the facility as a first of its kind in the country. K. Purushotham Reddy, a member of SOUL and an environmentalist for the past three decades, says, “The reason given by industry in 1989 to have a common plant was lack of funds and their [small] scale of operations. They are today multinational corporations and their operations have dramatically increased.” Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, Aurobindo Pharma and Mylan Laboratories are some of them.

Dr. Reddy’s expressed its inability to comment, saying its “senior management is travelling”. Its website says 17 of its 19 production facilities worldwide have effluent treatment plants (ETPs), but does not spell out which ones do not. Mylan replied to Frontline’s queries saying it has a “full-fledged” in-house ETP that processes all the waste it generates with a state-of-the-art “zero liquid discharge plant”. Aurobindo Pharma was unreachable for comment.

B.V. Subba Rao, a former Central Ground Water Department employee-turned-activist, says, “When you wash you don’t mix your clothes with your doormat, do you? It’s the same with effluents. How can you give the same treatment for heavy metallic discharge and for pharmaceutical waste?”

JETL on its website, though, mentions three different treatment methods—one that treats low dissolved solids, another for high dissolved solids, and a third to treat sewage. All of them are woefully short of what is needed to treat even the effluents that reach JETL from upstream flows, which the internal report of the PCB mentions to be 23 MLD. The report also shows that JETL currently functions at less than half its total installed capacity.

Chandrashekar Reddy, Member Secretary, Environment, of the HMDA, said water at the HSL was not as poisonous as activists claimed it was. “We know this from regular testing,” he said. “The problem is with the Kukatpally nala, one of the oldest sewage lines that has actually sunk into the ground,” he said. The HMWSSB, he added, was not even aware of that.

The Telangana Rashtra Samiti government’s plan to “restore” HSL has run into rough weather. The plan is to drain the lake into the Musi, a tributary of the Krishna that supplies water to the HSL, remove the accumulated silt, toxic waste and plaster of Paris (from the Ganesh idol immersions) and then fill it with fresh water. The government says this will immediately improve water quality, increase percolation and speed up groundwater replenishment. Critics call the plan unviable and dangerous for people downstream who depend on the Musi for cultivation.

Chandrashekar Reddy said “99 per cent” of the work in diverting the flows from the four canals other than Kukatpally had been done. Work is apace on the construction of a pipeline around the lake—a distance of 14 kilometres. The plan is to “dewater” the lake by using pumps for about 40 days. The silt would be gathered into mounds, creating islands within the lake “totalling an area of about 50 acres”, said Chandrashekar Reddy. The due process for removing the silt was still in the consultative stage, he added. The government was earlier of the view that all the silt could be transported to the city’s outskirts, which alone would cost an estimated Rs.20 crore, one-fifth of the total outlay for the project.

Environmentalists want the pollution in the catchment area to be addressed first. They propose state-of-the-art effluent treatment facilities, to be paid for by industries, at Jeedimetla and Kukatpally industrial development areas. Subba Rao says, “How will you prevent further pollution if you don’t sanitise the areas that drain into the feeder channels? The city also does not have separate effluent and stormwater drains. So during the rains all of the city’s catchments get polluted.”

“Shifting” contaminated earth to an unpolluted area is another concern. After the inlets are diverted and the catchments area is sanitised, Subba Rao proposes leaving the lake as it is, allowing it to regenerate at its own pace.

Chandrashekar Reddy says, “Yes, the lake is a living system. It can take care of itself, but how long will this take? The government is not irresponsible. They [activists] raise valid points, but we need to think of solutions.”

Chandrasekhar Reddy fears that work cannot be completed before the monsoon and proposes that the draining of the lake be done in November to minimise the pollution levels downstream, as “five to six days of stormwater inflows” can reduce contamination.

‘Water-stressed’ city

Nature Conservancy, a United States-based environmental group that works on the conservation of waterbodies globally, categorises Hyderabad as a “water-stressed” city. Its study titled “Urban Water Blueprint” says 67 of the world’s 500 largest cities are located in India and gives five broad strategies to conserve urban water resources. In written replies to Frontline, Giulio Boccaletti, the organisation’s head on water resources, broadly agrees with the government’s approach on the HSL, saying “the solutions now being considered most urgently appear to favour very large built infrastructure fixes.”

Boccaletti, however, cautioned that the factors contributing to the pollution need to be addressed first and added that “Hyderabad would benefit from natural infrastructure investment as part of a comprehensive approach to water security”. This is more in line with what activists suggest. Whatever the approach, all stakeholders agree that it is time something was done to restore the rapidly deteriorating waterbodies of Hyderabad.

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