Both the Hussain Sagar and the Durgam Cheruvu lakes tell tales of the cost of rapid urbanisation on the environment.

A file photo of Hussain Sagar in HyderabadFile photo: WikimediaCommons/Prawigya
news Environment Saturday, October 16, 2021 - 15:18

This story is part of a TNM series that highlights inundation, flooding and other consequences of heavy rains in Hyderabad. TNM hopes to draw attention to these issues, which have now become perennial in many areas of the city, by talking to experts, officials and more.

For the last few weeks, several residents of Hyderabad have been gathering at the city’s Tank Bund at Hussain Sagar for the Telangana government’s ‘Sunday Funday’ event, at which vehicles are barred from accessing the Necklace Road, where several cultural activities are held. But the very road on which the city’s pride is exhibited and experienced, is an encroachment on what used to be the lake’s Full Tank Level (FTL). Several kilometres away, in the IT sector of the city, Hyderabad’s first ever hanging bridge was inaugurated last year over the Durgam Cheruvu. Just a few decades ago, the lake used to be a hotspot for fishing and later boating. Today, it lies in neglect, as speeding traffic passes by over it. Both the Hussain Sagar and the Durgam Cheruvu tell tales of the cost of rapid urbanisation on the environment.

FTLs ignored, land encroached

The Hussain Sagar was built in 1563, under the rule of Ibrahim Quli Qutub Shah, and was Hyderabad's main source of water for centuries until Osmansagar and Himayatsagar were constructed. It was also used for irrigation needs. Initially spread over 1,600 hectares or 16 sq km, the backwaters would go up to Raj Bhavan Road on one side and the old Begumpet airport on the other. Today, it stands at a pitiful 4.7 sq km, as per official records.

When the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh government built Necklace Road in the 1990s, it was touted as a great infrastructural achievement, but it also had a great ecological consequence. The lake had to flow within its confines. Construction of gardens, food courts and other structures all took place on water that was beyond the road.

Speaking to TNM, Padmanabha Reddy from the Forum for Good Governance said, “There are a lot of encroachments on one side of the Necklace Road, where several hotels have come up. They are also causing further pollution in the lake.”

The latest alleged encroachment that came to light was as recent as January 2020, when activist Lubna Sarwath moved the Telangana High Court armed with satellite images, which showed that around 10 acres of the lake were encroached upon, developed into plots and tar roads were laid within the Full Tank Level (FTL) map provided by the authorities.

The encroachment has consequences. Each year, when heavy rain batters Hyderabad, colonies downstream and upstream of the Hussain Sagar are inundated, with water gushing into homes and sweeping away personal belongings.

Read: The assassination of Hussain Sagar is underway, and Hyderabad needs to stop it

The case of Durgam Cheruvu, which once served as the main source of drinking water for the Golconda fort, is similar as well. Speaking to TNM in 2016, late city-based author and historian Narendra Luther described how the lake used to be a famous picnic spot in the 1970s and even saw fishing by local fishermen until the 1990s.

"When I got charge of AP Tourism (in the late 90s), I decided to develop it as a local tourist spot. The area abutting the lake was allotted to the tourism department and I had a little cottage constructed there for picnic parties...Subsequently, it was overdeveloped and led to a situation I greatly feared and warned against. The municipal corporation did not bother to stop encroachments on the body of the lake,” he had said.

Read: Durgam Cheruvu: A timeline of how Hyderabad destroyed its 'secret lake'

As early as 2001, the High Court had taken note of the issue of encroachments and directed the then Commissioner of the Serilingampally Municipality “not to permit any more residential colonies in the vicinity or catchment area of Durgam Cheruvu to come up and take immediate and necessary measures to prevent the discharge of sewage from the nearby colonies into the lake so as to protect the quality of the water in the lake.”

When TNM had visited the lake during the construction of the hanging bridge in 2018, indiscriminate dumping of mud at the boundaries of the already shrinking lake was clearly seen.

Read: A shrinking lake, damaged rock formations: All for a hanging bridge to ease Hyd traffic

Speaking to TNM, Dr Narasimha Reddy Donthi, a public policy analyst said that the problem of lake encroachment is persisting as revenue officials see everything in terms of land, including the water bodies, which he dubbed a “conceptual error”.

Talking about Durgam Cheruvu, he said that the height of the lake bund was deceitfully reduced by private players, as the FTL depends on bund height. He said, “Reduction of bund height is nothing but a ploy to slowly remove the water body by encroachment.”

Arguing that water bodies should have zone-wise categorisation, he alleged, “The land mafia collude with revenue officials for the paperwork. The officials claim that there are no records pertaining to a specific water body, only to easily erase it completely and facilitate the encroachers. Like there are survey numbers for land, lakes too, should have survey numbers in line with the National Water Policy.”

“Encroachment generally happens with the connivance of the Lakes Department. It depends on each water body. The records that clearly demarcate the area of a water body are sometimes not very clear, and this is used to aid encroachment. If the water body is in the heart of the city and colonies have come up around it, private players slowly dump mud and encroach it. It is collusive corruption. Officials in the government know it and allow it. If many houses come up, they issue a notice, and the matter goes to court and stays there forever. Since it is sub judice, no one can do anything. They (officials) can get these stays vacated but they don't,” Padmanabha Reddy, who is also a retired Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer, said.

Read: From lifeline to a glorified drain: Will Telangana's plan to restore Musi River work?

It is no wonder then that several parts of the city, including those around these two lakes, see flooding each time Hyderabad receives rain. When there is heavy rainfall and surplus water flow, the lake simply expands back to its Full Tank Level, which is now encroached upon by various structures.

With inputs from Charan Teja

Read our earlier story in the series here: Hyd has a plan to fix nalas — but the city flooded, thanks to delay in implementation

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