Nainital Lake, with a large portion of its water coming from Sukhatal Lake, is one of the most frequently visited districts in the state of Uttarakhand, better known as land of Gods. The lakes of Nainital act as the perfect gateway to Kumaon, known for the prominent Himalayan ranges in the north. . The famous Naini lake in the city of Nainital spread over 49 ha attracts tourists from all over the country. The approximate amount of tourists visits were a stupendous 7, 50,000 in 2019.
The sacred lakes of Bhimtal and Nainital were visited by local pilgrims before being discovered by Barron and his party in 1841. The British discovery was reported nationally in the Calcutta newspaper Englishman in 1841. Earlier, it was visited for the goddess Narayani Devi, or Naina Devi. Many legends abound. It is said that Lord Shiva created it, for his thirsty devotees – Atri, Pulastsya, and Ulaha or that they had dug it themselves. It is regarded as a Shakthi Peeth. Other versions of the origin of the lake relate to when Lord Shiva carried the corpse of Sati after she took agni samadhi at Daksha Prajapati’s yagya, and it is where her eye blessed the land and Naini Tal means Lake of the Eye.
The lakes of Nainital district have been studied by multiple development projects, study reports, internationally sanctioned projects as well as government recommended studies. Nainital city development plan includes, in its environmental management, spaces for parks, green belts, plantation of trees; forest land, water body, comprehensive lake water balance, water quality modelling studies for controlling Eutrophication in the lake etc. The Nainital region is facing challenges because of felling of trees, storm water drainage channels, construction of hotels and other buildings, concretisation of the catchment area and destruction of natural springs. Civic agencies, lawyers, and academicians are stressing the need to maintain the region sustainably, and stop rampant concretisation and construction.
In the vicinity of Naini lake is Sukhatal lake which is smaller than the famous Nainital Lake. It falls in Nainital district and is north-west by one km from Nainital Mall road. The name Sukhatal loosely translated ‘dry pool’ and is not the original name of the water body. It was earlier known as ‘Khudariya’ lake. It is surrounded by dense pine and oak forests and is 150 m long with a depth of 10 m. It is one of more than hundred lakes of Nainital and is important as it feeds the Nainital lake accounting for 40% of the subsurface flow into the Naini lake. The lake suffers from rampant construction and unplanned urbanisation as highlighted by a study done by CEDAR, with University of Cambridge. It acts as an ideal catchment area for rainwater. The study done in association of University of Cambridge, under the lead researcher Prof. Bhaskar Vira, has suggested measures to secure nature ecosystem for securing water supplies, funds for research, create public awareness, and educational resources.
There is a concerned citizens movement against concretisation in a landslide prone and geologically seismic zone, and the importance of following the guidelines recommended by scientific studies that stress the importance of maintaining Sukhatal Lake because of its role as a feeder lake for Nainital. A petition was filed in 2012 by Mr. Ajay Singh Rawat. The High court mandated spot inspection, evacuating people from illegal construction, and scaling/demolition of such illegal constructions under the directed the city authorities to avoid pumping water out from the Sukhatal Lake, as per the Master plan of 2011.
More recently, a letter signed by over 100 concerned citizens caused the Honourable Chief Justice to take suo motu cognisance and appoint an amicus curiae and convert the matter into a PIL.
Acute water shortages and drying up of natural springs, deforestation, concretisation, tourism beyond carrying capacity are some of the many challenges in the Upper Nainital region. Citizen activism, media attention, study reports, academic findings are increasingly crucial to save the ecology of the region, particularly now that Climate Change is having devastating impact.