The Durgam Cheruvu in Hyderabad is a stinking mess. Once one of the largest lakes in the Cyberabad area, the lake now has stagnating garbage, and is covered with water hyacinth.
When the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) recently went on its demolition spree following the heavy rains that lashed the city, many activists hoped that it would take action against the encroachments on the lake.
Instead, the municipal body stuck to demolishing encroachments on 'nalas', or drains, and left the residential and commercial encroachments on lakes, untouched.
According to reports, the GHMC only managed to remove one encroachment from the lake, compared to the hundreds that are constructed in violation of the lake's Full Tank Level (FTL).
However, the lake wasn't always like this.
The lake is also known as the 'secret lake', as it was naturally hidden between rocks, with Jubilee Hills on one side and Madhapur on the other.
"The lake is geographically situated on a higher level than the Golconda fort area, and could serve the water needs of the fort. It was so reliable that even when the Mughals besieged Golconda for eight months, the entire water needs were met from this lake," says historian Mohammed Safiullah.
City-based author and historian Narendra Luther, who is also a former civil servant says, "I came to Hyderabad in late 1958. At that time, Banjara Hills was virtually uninhabited. There were hardly a dozen houses which dotted the thick foliage and there were no roads."
To put it in perspective, he adds, "People who used to go outside were warned to be careful against wild animals."
In the 1970s, the historian added that many people would visit the lake for picnics, and to admire the natural rock formations around the water body.
Till the late 1990s, many residents of 'villages' nearby like Madhapur, would visit the lake to catch fish or to while away time.
Today, Madhapur is at the core of HITEC City, and home to hundreds of IT companies and skyscrapers.
The lake which was blue and scenic then, is now algae-ridden and emits a foul smell caused by effluents discharged into it.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons/KALX999)
"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. There used to be a little mosque at the far end of the bund," Luther adds.
2000: In the early 2000s, if one were to visit the lake, they would be greeted with the sight of families and friends in boats, rowing in the water, while some people would sit on the rocks along the lake and fish.
This was because the AP government did an active job in promoting it.
2001: As of December 2001, the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (APTDC) was planning to introduce five more boats in the lake, to keep up with the demand of tourists and visitors.
However, there were signs of what was going to happen to the lake.
The state, while responding to a PIL filed by environmentalist K Purushottam Reddy, had noted that "A number of residential colonies are coming up on the upstream side of the lake in addition to the already existing colonies."
In its final order, the Andhra Pradesh High court had said that the state must prevent the flow of raw domestic effluents into the Durgam Cheruvu and also directed the Serilingampally municipality "not to permit any more residential colonies and to take necessary steps and measures to prevent the discharge of sewerage from the nearby colonies...in order to protect the quality of the water."
2002: Despite this, in 2002, the lake faced a "choking" threat, when the Tourism Department cut off an important channel that fed the lake, by building a bund.
At the time, reports suggested that a number of houses continued to come up, right on the lake bed within the FTL area.
2003: The state took a step in the right direction and gave the lake and its surroundings a face lift.
The lake was illuminated, a rock garden, a floating fountain, a 2km walkway, and many other attractions were constructed to promote tourism in the lake, besides also strengthening the boating facility.
The Andhra Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation set up an amphitheatre called “The Crescent”.
"The rocks here are 2500 million years old...We have not interfered with the ambience. We only enhanced it," an official had said at the time.
However, even that did not stop the deterioration of the lake.
"Subsequently, it was overdeveloped and lead to the a situation I greatly feared and warned against," Luther says.
2004: In September 2004, two researchers with the Centre for Economic and Social studies (CESS) submitted a paper titled 'Impact of Urban Growth on Water Bodies, The Case of Hyderabad'.
In it, the researchers noted that the biological oxygen demand (BOD) was 29.25 mg/litre in the lake.
For aquatic life to grow, this should be less than 1 mg/litre, it added.
While the chemical oxygen demand (COD) should be less than 5 mg/litre, it was 42 in the lake.
2005: By 2005, a proposal to build a sewage treatment plant (STP) for the "highly polluted" Durgam Cheruvu was announced.
Addressing the media, the Hyderabad Urban Development Authority (HUDA) Chairman, D Sudheer Reddy, admitted that sewage generated from the colonies in Madhapur and Jubilee Hills had flowed into the lake for years, and made it one of the highly polluted lakes in the city.
2006: In 2006, water started entering the parking lots and ground floors of nearby residential areas, during the rain, with a layer of stagnant sewage on the lake, which became a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
By this time, the lake started showing symptoms similar to that of other vanishing water bodies in urban cities, that were a result of encroachments and blatant violation of environmental norms.
2007: Then chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy formally inaugurated the five Mega Litre per Day (MLD) sewage treatment plant at Durgam Cheruvu in 2007.
The same year, a national seminar on water, that addressed the need to conserve urban lakes, had said that while Durgam Cheruvu among other lakes, were polluted, they could still be "protected, rehabilitated and conserved as a resource."
2008: In 2008, the Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation (APIIC) was alleged to be guilty, after it built a road that intruded the buffer zone and the FTL mark of the lake.
(A photo from 2008, showing construction activity in the background. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Cephas 405)
2009: By 2009, the area around Durgam Cheruvu had towering skyscrapers and many ambitious construction projects in the making, with each new construction trying to outdo the previous ones in terms of architecture and grandeur.
Residents at the time, alleged that IT companies hired private contractors, who in turn engaged hundreds of lorries that visited the lake in the night to dump construction rubble on the lake shore.
By this time there was no doubt that the lake was shrinking.
2010: In 2010, the HMDA stepped in to try and protect the lake and announced that bio-remediation measures would be taken up.
Captain J Rama Rao, another one of the city's environmentalists had written in his blog in 2010:
From a visit to the lake site, it is observed that huge quantities of waste material and boulders are dumped at the site in the lake area behind Nectar Gardens and opposite to INORBIT building and at the site between open drain and STP of HMDA. A new building is under construction between STP and Collecting Tank of STP, which itself is in the lake area.
He also noted that "the water spread area has been shrinking over the years" and that "the benefits of the 5 MLD STP of HMDA operating in the lake area are more than nullified by huge quantities of raw domestic sewage and waste waters flowing directly into the lake through the open drain."
2011: By 2011, the aquatic life had almost disappeared. The massive discharge of sewage, saw the water level of the lake remain high throughout the year, instead of receding in summer. This in turn caused flooding, when the rainy seasons arrived, as the same treated sewage would enter homes lying close to the lakes
At the time, reports stated that the lake was "threatened by the fast and uncontrolled urbanization."
2012: In 2012,following orders of the High Court and AP Lok Ayukta, the government stated that the lake would be cleaned up and made pollution free.
(A photo from 2012, showing the Inorbit mall in the background. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Aditya Madhav)
A massive clean-up work was also done later that year as part of a community initiative.
2013: By 2013, nearly 100 million litres of sewerage was flowing into the Durgam Cheruvu every day, with residents struggling to breathe due to the foul smell emanating from the lake.
2014: In 2014, a survey revealed that 20 multi-stories buildings had come up in violation of the rules, between 2010 and 2014 and that the lake had shrunk to 80 to 90 acres.
(A google map image from 2014, marking the lake's FTL in green and buffer zone in yellow. Image: SOUL)
That same year, the HMWSSB announced that it would lay a sewerage pipeline around the lake, from Inorbit Mall, up to the old bund of the lake. This would result in many rocks being blasted to make space for the pipe, which was in the lake's buffer zone.
"The Society to Save Rocks had protested against the laying of pipes through the body of the lake but to no avail," Luther adds.
2015: In August 2015, a committee found that 60 acres were reported to be encroached, with the value of the encroached land worth almost Rs.1,500 crore.
In December last year, the Telangana State Tourism Development Corporation (TSTDC), which had suspended boating for three months, removed the boats from the stinking lake and officially stopped operations.
2016: Areas around the lake, are a realty hotspot as it is now considered one of the 'poshest' areas in the city to live in.
"You need public protest. Only that can awaken the deaf government and the sleeping judiciary. The power that the real estate mafia holds over the state is too strong. We have to personally pinpoint and hold the people in charge responsible," Jasveen Jairath, convenor of Save Our Urban Lake (SOUL), says.
In October, the Telangana government gave its final nod to construct a 'hanging bridge' across the lake for an amount of Rs 184 crore.
Aiming to ease traffic congestion, the bridge will be constructed from Road No 45 Jubilee Hills to Inorbit Mall.
"At present, the catchment area of the lake and the surrounding area has been totally encroached upon, which will eventually suffocate and destroy the lake," Safiullah adds.
"We are now witnessing the death of another lake. That is the cruel irony of our urban development," says Luther.