Jones Estate was a 500-hectare estate, occupying the forested micro-watershed between the Bhimtal and Sattal lake systems in the Kumaon Himalayas. In 1951, my father and two partners bought it and the next year, my father had a Forest Working Plan passed for it (see below). This brought it under the purview of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, which forbids any land-use change on such land without Central Government permission.
Over the years, my father's partners sold part of their shares in Jones Estate. And on the evening of November 8, 2000, the day before the state of Uttaranchal (as Uttarakhand was initially named) was created, Jones Estate was de-notified as the Green Belt of Bhimtal to favour a private person’s plan to develop a 100-acre mini-city in the area. This brought forth a wave of public protests, and was the first land-scam of the new state. The government at the time admitted on the floor of the House that all departments agreed that Jones Estate should not be urbanised since it would spell the end of Bhimtal lake, the emergency water supply of the city of Haldwani. This echoed Edwin Atkinson’s 1886 statement that “the hills on the western side of the lake… are of such formation that it is highly improbable that the lake can ever dry up (see below).”
Jungle to concrete jungle?But regardless of laws and national interest, the process of urbanising Jones Estate has been steadily progressing, with more than half a dozen new commercial properties and dozens of cottages on what was forest land. A petition to the chief minister on December 18, 2010, to stop this process and re-notify Jones Estate as the Green Belt of Bhimtal drew a response in the form of a letter (see below) to the Secretary of the Lake Development Authority, Nainital, dated January 19, 2011, demanding an explanation, to which no reply was ever received.
A similar petition to the Central Empowered Commission of the Supreme Court resulted in a letter (below) to the Chief Secretary, Uttarakhand, dated April 20, 2012, demanding an explanation, to which no reply was ever received.
Meanwhile, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests took up the matter and asked the Revenue Department to clarify whether the provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, would apply to the land in question. The Revenue Department claimed that they could not find any reason for the land to come under the purview of the Act.
If there is a Forest Working Plan for Jones Estate, how is this possible?
I remember seeing the Estate maps in childhood and asking the patwari, who had come to measure some land, what the tree symbolised on the maps. He informed me that it meant that the symbol stood for forest. With the Forest Working Plan passed in 1952, it was evident that the Estate would be marked as forest land during the settlement in 1957 on revenue maps. However, today’s revenue maps of the Estate do not have this symbol on them, according to the Revenue Department.
This begs the question, were the maps changed? This thought was expressed in an article in the Haldwani edition of the Dainik Jagaran (see below) but drew no response from the district administration.
The day after the report was published, the reporter was beaten up and knifed. I put this matter of the changed maps on the agenda of the State Wildlife (Advisory) Board meeting on February 6, 2016 – Chief Minister Harish Rawat asked the officers present to look into the matter, but so far nothing has come of it.
Implications for water security
Meanwhile, a sub-registrar of Nainital bought a 20-room hotel in the town upon retirement while a petition-writer – a person who sits outside a government office with a typewriter and types out petitions and other paperwork – built a tourist resort in Shyamkhet, near Bhimtal.
Despite knowing that the commercial properties on the estate are completely illegal, the Uttarakhand Power Corporation has recently laid a kilometre long three-phase power line at public expense to supply a single illegal commercial property in Jones Estate. When I asked the Junior Engineer for an explanation, I was told that soon the entire hillside would be full of houses and then the line would supply them. Does he know something that I do not?
Bhimtal lake is supplied by springs under the lake and a single feeder stream which drains the catchment area. In February 2013, despite normal rains, the feeder stream dried up for the first time in recorded history. It flowed again after the monsoon arrived and dried again the next year.
The only change that has happened in the catchment area is extensive construction. Bhimtal supplies water to Haldwani at the critical time between May 15 and June 15, when other sources are dry. For the first time since the dam was built in the 1880s, Bhimtal supplied water to Haldwani till June 22, 2005, since the rains failed. Again in June 2012, the district administration ordered the supply of water to Haldwani to extend till June 30. Despite knowing the critical role of Bhimtal in supplying water to the growing city of Haldwani, the Lake Development Authority is permitting the catchment area to be built over, and forest lands converted to commercial properties. Every institution, from the Supreme Court downwards, set up to prevent such a situation has been successfully subverted, as is evident from the correspondence above.
It is well known that water security is the single biggest challenge facing our country. International institutions have pointed to the possibility of water wars being waged on the subcontinent in the coming years. Yet, our political parties are in close support of those who are undermining whatever remains of our freshwater resources, essentially supporting those who are waging water wars against us and forthcoming generations. Once a watershed is built over, it will never regain its functions until the construction is removed and pristine jungle permitted to grow there again, a process that will take at least 30 to 50 years. This means that Bhimtal lake will continue to flood in the monsoon and dry in the winter and summer while illegal properties continue to blossom on forest land – who cares whether residents of Haldwani and hundreds of similar towns throughout the country are reduced to a pot of water a day to make do as best they can?
Water trains and linking rivers are not long term solutions to the problem of diminishing water resources. The solution is to secure and rejuvenate failing water sources, to trap in forests, not behind dams, the abundant water that falls on our country. We have laws that ensure that, yet are still hurtling towards disaster at the behest of commercial interests with political contacts and cynical political parties.