Mir Alam was primarily designed as a source of drinking water for Hyderabad but lies in utter neglect today

After the Chennai deluge a cautionary tale for Hyderbads urban lakesThe Mir Alam tank (All Images: Tushar Dhara)
news Environment Thursday, November 26, 2015 - 10:18

By Tushar Dhara

Hyderabad is the “other” city of lakes in the Deccan plateau, a geographical area that covers large parts of Telangana, Karnataka and Maharashtra. The history and culture of the region is intimately connected with the extensive network of natural lakes and man-made tanks that dot the landscape. 

The names of certain localities – Masab Tank, Secret Lake, Errakunta – indicate that their origins are tied to the presence of a water body.

The roots of Hyderabad’s water bodies go back to its ruling dynasties. The Qutub Shahi and Asaf Jahi rulers developed an extensive system of tanks for public purpose. A study of the history of the tanks would yield a valuable social history of the Deccan, its dynasties, rivalries and economic systems.

Hyderabad’s extensive system of tanks served multiple purposes: flood control, irrigation and for providing drinking water. The tanks were hydrologically designed, with smaller tanks in the catchment area collecting water runoff and feeding it to the larger tanks downstream via natural drainage channels. Unchecked construction in recent decades has disrupted this eco-system and, as the unfolding deluge in Chennai shows, that’s a recipe for urban disaster.

The Historical Mir Alam Tank

Take the Mir Alam tank. It was built in 1806 with the money that the British gave the Nizam of Hyderabad for contributing troops to help defeat Tipu Sultan in the fourth Anglo-Mysore war. “Gratitude” or “Blood” money? Depends on your point of view! However, it complicates simplistic narratives: a Nizam helping the British to defeat a Sultan cannot be viewed just in terms of “them” Vs. “us”, historically speaking.

Mir Alam was primarily designed as a source of drinking water for Hyderabad. One of the larger tanks, 347 hectares according to a 1987 toposheet, it is located next to the zoo and has a network of twelve smaller lakes in its basin. Some of these water bodies have vanished and some exist, but all of them are affected by encroachments and pollution.

Save Our Urban Lakes (SOUL) an organization has documenting the existence of water bodies in and around Hyderabad and spearheading efforts at conserving them. I visited Mir Alam with Masood, an activist with SOUL. The water is clogged with water hyacinth, a sign that the water is polluted. There is construction almost till the edge of the water and a walkway skirts the southern end of the lake. Drainage pipes from the slums around the tank empty their waste into the waters.

“I used to come here to swim in these waters with my friends when I was a kid,” 32-year old Masood said. “Now it’s difficult to even bear the stench from the waters because of the pollution.” 

Encroachments and Pollution: The Common Factor

SOUL has documented around 3,000 water bodies in the Hyderabad metropolitan area and identified the factors responsible for depleting them. The biggest issue is that the waters are no longer clean. 

Industrial and human waste from the colonies that have sprung up around the lakes have fouled the waters. Many of the water bodies are used as rubbish dumps, with heaps of garbage floating on the surface.

Another factor contributing to the shrinking and disappearance of lakes is encroachment. The pressure of population and the resulting urban sprawl have led to intrusion into and around water bodies. Slums, gated communities, water parks, lawns, food courts and bikeways have been built on the banks of Hyderabad’s urban lakes. 

The legality of a lot of these constructions is unclear. A related problem is the use of the lakes as dumping grounds. Even solid waste and construction debris is dumped into lakes, their storm drains and banks. This serves two purposes: as a convenient disposal mechanism for the waste generated by urbanization and as a means of surreptitiously reclaiming land for…further development!

Administrative Hurdles 

The slums that have come up around Mir Alam tank would never be possible without the connivance of local politicians and officials. What has complicated conservation efforts till date is a lack of clarity about who has jurisdiction over water bodies. SOUL has written scores of letters to the Collector of Ranga Reddy District with copies marked to officials at the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA) and Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC). 

Masood says that each organization passes the buck onto the other. However, a notification by the HMDA dated November 2015 states that the authorities responsibilities include “listing of lakes in HMDA area, Full Tank Level demarcation, and protection of FTL areas from encroachment”. 

It also states that the lakes are important for ecological reasons, recharging ground water and for developing the foreshore areas as recreational zones. However a visit to Mir Alam Tank and Hussain Sagar, a large lake in the middle of the city, shows numerous instances of construction inside the Full Tank Level areas. In fact, construction of roadways and bikeways by the government inside the FTL area serves as defacto legalization for private encroachment.

A Hard Conservation Approach 

Urban conservation groups like SOUL approach the issue from a purely conservation perspective. They view all encroachments on a lake as bad, whether by middle class interests, property developers or slums. Their demand is to remove all discharge pipes that lead into lakes, whether from big industries, small scale units or slums. 

They want the FTL limit, that designates the maximum extent of a water body, to be legally demarcated and be made sacrosanct. 

Lubna Sarwath, an activist with SOUL said, “We need to view encroachments by the literate urbanites and lower economic strata people in the same way because when urban lakes shrink the city is the biggest loser.

Situating Lakes in a Broader Urban Perspective

However, what is happening to lakes also needs to be looked at in the context of a broader urbanization process. Encroachments on water bodies and river fronts happen because initially the land values are low. It is the only “dwelling” land available for poor people. As urbanization proceeds these areas are notified as slums and enter formal property markets.

These lands now start to rise in value as the government and private agencies start “beautification” projects on river fronts and lake foreshores. “A focus on only fixing lake boundaries is a limited approach because a lot of those lands are already being turned into apartments,” Anant Maringanti, the Director of Hyderabad Urban Lab said. 

The HUL is a urban studies and research organization that has studied the linkages between urbanization and water bodies. “The bigger issue is that waterscapes have changed and the key to all this is the notion of property.”

Looking at water bodies from a real-estate perspective rather than a conservation perspective undermines the very notion of what the purpose of a lake is. For instance, a strong ecological perspective would look at lakes as being critical for maintaining the ecological and hydrological balance. 

A commercial approach on the other hand would treat a water body merely as an appendage for increasing real estate values by making the lake physically attractive. “Beautification” in this case means developing recreation zones rather than restoring the ecological balance. 

Once the lake is suitably developed as per middle class notions – boating, tourism, promenades, foodcourts – it is ready to be gentrified. Slums are cleared out and people resettled. In their place come malls, apartment complexes and engineering colleges. In the process ecological sustainability and social justice become subservient to commercial interests.

Mir Alam tank is just one instance of the pressures that urban water bodies in Hyderabad are facing. The urban environment is under severe strain from the pressures of development and lakes are no exception. Reconciling the different imperatives may be the only chance to save whatever is left.