Whither Bhuj Heritage Site Hamirsar's Water System, Wonder.....

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Whither Bhuj Heritage Site Hamirsar’s Water System, Wonder Kutch Citizens, Experts

| Updated: May 12, 2023 12:42

Several environmental activists, social workers and academics, most of them belonging to the arid Kutch district of Gujarat, have sought Gujarat authorities’ urgent intervention to “notify, protect, restore and rejuvenate” lakes of the historic Bhuj city, threatening legal action in case they fail to do it.

Those who have signed a letter, which has been shot to local as well as Gujarat government and Government of India officials, are led by Bhuj-based architect and environmentalist Sandeep Virmani, who is closely associated with Ahmedabad-based NGO Centre for Social Justice. 

Supported by top Vadodara-based environmentalist Rohit Prajapati, others signatories include  former Bhuj mayor Arun Vacchrajani, NGO Hunnarshala Foundation executive director Mahavir Acharya, Manishaba Jadeja of the NGO Arid Communities and Technologies, Malshree Gadhvi of the NGO Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, local journalists, social workers, architects, researchers and activists.

Suggesting both local and state officials are “responsible” and “accountable” for the environmental damage caused to Bhuj for sharp depletion of water tables of the city by more than 12 metres in a decade, the letter said, the authorities much remember, the Kutch district receives the least rainfall in the entire Gujarat and this has led to increasing stress on groundwater, causing salinity ingression, even as impacting the health of the people of region.

Backing up with photographs scanned with satellite maps, the authorities have been told that a major and historic achievement of Bhuj has been creation of several water bodies and rivers and connecting them with arterial reservoirs and canals, the letter said, this enabled it become a “desert oasis to grow to a population of over 1.5 lakh and serve as the economic hub of a region of cattle rearers and agriculturalists.”

Historically ruled by Jadeja Rajputs, the letter said, they established the city in the 16th century not only because the hill on which Bhujio Fort was built “was extremely defensible” but also because “the area’s geology includes a cretaceous sandstone belt – one of the only in Kachchh – “that provided a consistent source of groundwater for the young city and surrounding agricultural area.”

It added, the sandstone aquifers, on which the receiver lakes were situated, as well as more than 329 wells that drew water from the aquifer, helped Bhuj’s water requirements to a large extent.

Thus, “The combination of the region’s two river systems with a series of dams and canals constructed over time to feed the artificial lake eventually earned the name Hamirsar. Over 450 years of careful catchment management and development kept the aquifer healthy and continuously recharged, even during the periods of drought.”

Stating that the Hamirsar Lake System primarily included 72 water bodies of various sizes, three primary feeder canals that expand the original catchment; hundreds of small streams, and a series of natural and artificial waste channels and flood control gates”, the letter noted, out of the 72 water bodies, there were five prominent urban receiver lakes (Hamirsar, Chattedi, Dhobhi, Pragsar, and Dehsalsar), and five rural or semi-urban feeder bodies (Dhunaraja reservoir, Hamadrai reservoir, Mundra Road reservoir, Mochirai Tank, and the Bhuj Irrigation reservoir).

Underlining that the Hamirsagar system has had immense cultural and economic importance, the letter said, “The primary lakes draw a regular crowd of migratory birds, including pelicans, flamingos, widgeons, mallards, and pintail ducks during the winter season. The Hamirsar also attracts local and international visitors during the annual Rann Utsav Carnival, and draws city residents to its shores for lakeside walks, prayers, and cultural and religious festivals.”
In fact, “the day the lake overflows during monsoon, there is a celebration and prayer at the outflow site by the City Mayor who distributes Meghladu (sweets) among citizens present at the lake to celebrate the event. The Kutch collector declares a public holiday on that day under the Negotiable Instrument Act of 1881.”

Not without reason, the letter pointed out, “Considering the importance of Hamirsar, the Jal Shakti Ministry has declared it as one of the water heritage sites among 75 sites in India on the eve of 75 years of Independence.”

However, the letter regretted, “With the introduction of deep-well technology and piped water system to Bhuj, the local government and population have, in recent years, forgotten about the importance of the aquifer beneath their feet, and the lake system that recharges it. The system has fallen into disrepair that warrants rapid interventions to protect the fragile ecosystems, conserve the cultural monuments, and restore healthy levels of local, clean, and potable water for the city’s survival.”

The letter continued, “The city of Bhuj once founded on water self-sufficiency, but due to a lack of attention paid to ecosystem conservation and system maintenance, now relies heavily on water pumped from other areas of Gujarat, and has not made the necessary investments to protect, maintain and improve its own water resources as it grows.”

Considering the importance of Hamirsar, Jal Shakti Ministry has declared it one of India’s  75 water heritage sites

Recalling that “there were over 80 water reservoirs/ lakes in the city, and its surroundings were connected with its vast catchment area”, the letter said, “The development, especially after the devastating 2001 earthquake when the city was expanded to decongest the walled city and four relocation sites were developed, the water channels were disturbed and many (fully/ partially) filled with debris, and people started residing over these water channels.”

It underscored, “The Police Parade Ground is one such example which is developed by filling the historic Pragsar lake. Presently, only 38 water reservoirs are visible in the city. Of these, 13 are registered as lake on government records, whereas the rest is shown as Shree Sharkar (Government land).”

The letter rued, “Most of the above-listed lakes are in poor condition facing problems of encroachment, sewage outflow, and dumping garbage and debris, despite multiple orders by the Supreme Court and the Gujarat High Court to protect the lakes, as well as National Green Tribunal and government resolutions (GRs).”

Referring to the these orders, the letter said, “Despite crucial landmark judgments and GRs, both notified and non-notified lakes face several environmental and existential threats and need urgent actions to protect, restore and rejuvenate them for the survival of present and future generations, and rich biodiversity in the city.”

Blaming the officials for “non-compliance with environmental norms such as the discharge of sewage in Desalsar lake” and failure of the lakes to receive rainwater as water channels, which have been “obstructed through encroachments and filled with garbage”, the letter said, “Apart from groundwater recharge, the survival of biodiversity in this area is a question due to the degraded lake ecosystems.”

The letter said, particularly the non-notified lakes have been “easily encroached by people and most of them have already shrunken drastically, such as Dhaberari lake on Khawda Road”, with some lakes like Jeevanrai talav in Vijaynagar disappearing completely, the letter said, “Water inflow and outflow creates flooding during the rainy season in surrounding areas of the lakes such as Panjrapol lake on Railway Station road.”

Further, it said, some areas are “highly polluted and filled with sewage like Rato talav near Ashapura Nagar, Airport Road”, the letter insisted, the water channels should be “cleared immediately to ensure water flow in the lakes”, all “dumped garbage” from the lakes should be immediately removed, sewage flow in the lakes should be stopped, and there should be “survey all non-notified the lakes”, demarcating and notifying in government land records.

Seeking the appoint an expert committee “empowered with an effective, functional, well qualified quasi-governmental/ semi statutory body/ task force that includes subject experts such as ecologists, geologists, hydrologists, botanists, zoologists, wetland specialists, architects etc. “in order to fulfill the above agenda in a proactive, transparent, and accountable manner”, the letter said, a regional plan at catchment level should be devised for the entire eco-region of Bhuj city to address the unique ecological nature of the lake system.”

Editor, Counterview. Click here for the images captured by the concerned citizens, mapped on satellite imagery, showing destruction of the Hamisar system

Rajiv Shah is a senior journalist based out of Gujarat

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