The central problem

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IT is intriguing to those familiar with the history of water resources in Indore that the city is now being forced to bring in from outside. The wells water and the tanks had been more than adequate once to meet Indore's water needs, Whenever the demand went up, the rulers built a new tank. This was the case even afterthe Indore municipality took overwatersupply in the '20s. The Indore State Gazetteer recorded in 193 1: "As during years of insufficient rainfall, (the government) designed a combined scheme ofwater supply and drainage for the city and Residency areas ... it is proposed to construct a huge reservoir by throwing a masonry dam across the Gambhir river at Badrakha (about 20 krn from Indore) and pump up water."

That was the most extravagant measure until then to bring water to the city elite. But the bulk of about 100,000 residents continued to draw water from the wells and tanks in and around Indore, which could supply as much as 15 million gallons per day (MGD) in a good year. The oldest of the city tanks, Pipalya Pala, regularly yielded an average of about 2.5 MGD water since its takeover by the municipality in 1893. But, within the next hundred years, most tanks had dried up. Even the biggest and the most recent, the Yashwant Sagar, with a capacity of about goo million cubic feet (mcfT), had more or less dried up. However, none of those who joined the public uproar in the wake of the water crisis spoke of the lakes. instead, they were unanimous that fndore should get more water from the Narmada. Logic?

A lost cause K C Dwivedi, superintending engineer in charge of water supply in the city municipal corporation says, "The demand has been rising so steeply that traditional systems can no longer meet them any more. Besides, when you are planning for drinking water supply resources, you have to look for 99 per cent reliability, and tanks do not offer this," argues Dwivedi. This is despite the fact, as Dwivedi says, that tank-based supplies cost just about one-third that of bringing water from the Narmada.

Most people see tanks as "sources too small", says R K Agarwal, chief engineer of the public health engineering department (PRED), Indore. "People have stopped worrying about their maintenance because they do not fit into the popular aspirations of round-dw-ciociti supply," he says.

Bhopal, lacking a big river in the vicinity or Am groundwater, has from the very beginning depen" a lakes. The biggest of them, the upper lake, with a area of 30.7 sq km, is over 700 years old and still canink about 25 MGD out of the 55 MGD that Bhopal n-k EM smaller lakes have just been reduced to sewage ponds.

Till 1989, the upper lake was the only source of woo the city. However, with the population expected to ca million by the turn of the century and the water I assessed to be in the region of 200 MGD, fresh options considered. The lakes clearly cannot keep pace demand and hence, the government has to bring surfimi from outside, says N K Dighe, chief engineer of the Bhopal. A committee set up by the government to identify new sources of drinking water for Bhopal recently reported that water from the Narmada - from 100 km away - alone would be able tomeet requirements. The cost: over Rs 200 crore.

However factors like high cost and uncertainty over the on a a boon for Bhopal's lakes. The government id a manive scheme, called the Bhoj Wetland am the Bow of solid and liquid waste into the hA dwrtL The project, costing Rs 249 crore, is a wagmenting the water potential of the upper t 33 per tent. The main components of the project stan catwive underground sewage network to lWs waste water and divert it to a 50 MGD treatment ment plant on the outskirts of the city. The other plans include desilting and dredging of the upper lake and developing 2,000 ha of plantations around it.

Officials of the municipal corporation and the PHED doubt whether, after all this expenditure, the environmental degradation of Bhopal's lakes can be reversed. Dense settlements have sprung up on the periphery of the upper and the lower lake while the other smaller lakes seem to be overwhelmed by habitation. While there have been some attempts to remove the unauthorised dwellers, it is impossible to remove most of the settlements around the lower lake and other smaller lakes.

Officials also feel that it is not realistic to imagine laying sewers through a city as old as this. And given Bhopal's population growth rate - one of the highest in the country - it would be difficult to ensure that shanty towns did not spring up either around the lakes or in its catchment areas.

The farmers around the tank and city residents have shown no greater wisdom either. The banks of the Sirpur tank in the city had been eroded so much due to removal of soil by people for construction that during the monsoons it was on the brink of breaching and the officials had to hastily put 200 sandbags to abort flooding, The common people in the area have their own arguments. Says Vishnu, a resident of Piplayarao, "We don't use these tanks for water any longer, and where can we go if we need soil?" The grossest example of avarice was the beginning of a breach in a 5.78 hectares (ha) tank near Talawali Chanda, as its banks had been cut into heavily by a rich farmhouse owner last July to make way for a car park.

While mindless measures like breaching and levelling of the tanks may still be preventable, it is pollution which has really sounded the death knell of many an urban lake all over the country.

In Bhopal, for instance, where there are no sewers in most parts of the city, the lakes are the only repository of wastewater, while the nullahs act as drains. According to an estimate made by the Environment and Pollution Control Organisation (EPCO), the lakes of Bhopal receive about 42 mGD of untreated sewage, as the city's sewage treatment facility can only handle 3 MGD waste water. EPCO estimates also show that while the upper lake receives about 42 tonn es of garbage everyday, the lower lake, with an area of j ust over 100 ha, receives a daily burden of over 78 tormes of solid waste. The condition of the other smaller tanks inside the city is, if anything, worse.

Problems caused by agriculture seem to be far more acute in the cue of Indore's tanks, especially the Yashwant Sagar. In fact, there was a scare in Indore in August 1985, that intensive vegetable and seasonal fruit cultivation in and around the lake bed had caused pesticides polluting the water. While subsequent investigations reported that the chemical levels were still iow, it definitely indicates the problem.

unlike in the cases of Bangalore, Hyderabad, Madras or Calcutta, what is sad about the urban wetlands in central India is the absence of a vociferous 'save tanks' movement. And most people seem convinced that their utility are a matter of history.