One himalayan town goes from riches to environmental ruin. And back again?

We have forgotten how to be good guests, how to walk lightly on the earth as its other creatures do”

-Barbara Ward

A winding road takes you from the dusty heat of Haldwani through a cooling oak forest, past the Gaula River and finally over a mountain lip to the Nainital. Nainital is a town built at 1937m in the Kumaon hills of India. A friend who visited Nainital in the 1980s described it as a beautiful town surrounded by greenery and distant snow-capped mountains, where one can take a boat ride on the lake and see helicopters landing in the playgrounds of boarding schools. This description amongst others started to build the town into a fantastical place that I could not wait to see.  There is no doubt that my first views of Nainital lived up to the stories. The emerald kidney-bean shaped lake, surrounded by seven forests covered hills and multi-coloured houses were stunning. But as I walked around the town this impression began to fade. The more I looked the more I saw the rubbish in the streets, drains and even in the lake, the traffic churning up dust and the evidence of landslips. This beautiful and deeply spiritual place had become deeply degraded and as I stared around at all the shops, hotels and recreational boats I realised that as a tourist I was very much part of the problem.

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Figure 1. A location map of Nainital. Source: CEDAR.

Nainital has long held significance in Hindu scripture, however, it was only after a British sugar trader, Mr P. Baron built the first house in 1839 that Nainital developed into a summer capital, where British colonialists could escape the summer heat for the cool tranquillity of Nainital. Ever since Nainital has been a popular place to visit. My family friend told me that in the 1980s Nainital was “a touristy place filled kind-hearted people who were polite to speak to and respected tourists.” However, Dr Vishal Singh (Deputy Executive Director for Centre Ecology Development and Research (CEDAR)), who grew up in Nainital explained how the nature of tourism has changed in recent decades, “it used to be that people would come for weeks or months and contribute to the community but now tourists come for just a night or a weekend. They have a large impact on the environment and contribute little to the community”. Furthermore, the number of tourists has escalated.  Between 1991 and 2014 the tourist influx increased from 203,000 to 758,000. Vishal Singh argues that this change in tourism has had a profound impact on the nature of Nainital, “Nainital used to be a family of close-knit people, there was a sense of belonging and tourism was decent. But now it has become a picnic spot for tourist.” Another important factor was the moving of the High Court to Nainital, “the place stopped belonging to the people and started belonging to the high court” (Anonymous). While tourism and the high court are major contributors to Nainital’s economy many local experts, including Professor S. P. Singh, former Vice-Chancellor of HNB Garhwal University and a renowned ecologist, believes that “Nainital is trying to maintain too many kingdoms, it simply cannot sustain all its residential schools, its tourist industry and the high court in one ecologically fragile space.”

Figure 2. A photograph of Nainital. Source: Beth Barker.

One of the parameters mass tourism has pushed well beyond the town’s carrying capacity is the water supply. “The situation has become so bad that there is a trade-off between water for locals and water for tourists”, said Professor S.P. Singh. Nainital receives above average rainfall which is channelled into Naini Lake. Approximately 18 million litres of water per day (MLD) (95% of the water supply) was pumped from tube wells, filled by the lake, to meet the demands of the 42,775 residents and approximately 0.75 million tourists. This demand is unsustainable as shown by the alarming decline of Naini Lake. For example, in the summer of 2017, the lake level dropped 18 feet below the zero-level mark. Tourists consume far more water than the average local, through the hotels in which they stay, the activities they enjoy and the food they eat. However, it is not the tourist who experiences the impacts of water stress, it is the residents. “The not so affluent residents complain about hotels making merry while they suffer water shortages” explains Chitra Iyer, a local resident and environmental activist. This contemporary inequality echoes that faced by Indian residents during the British Colonial time, where the visiting wealthy British people discriminated between themselves and the locals. Just like the colonialists, today’s visitors enjoy Nainital without facing the challenges beyond the beautiful facade.

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Figure 3. A photograph of some Nainital residents collecting water from a public source. The photo was taken as part of CEDAR research into urban water insecurity. Source: CEDAR.

However, tourism does not simply increase the water demand, the construction encouraged by the growth in the tourist industry is interrupting the hydrological system. One key problem is that urban encroachment is taking place in Naini lake’s strategic recharge zones. For example, the encroachment of Sukhatal infill lake has been identified as a key reason for the drop in Naini Lake (Figure 3). Sukhatal basin fills during the rainy season and then gradually releases its water over the year so that it flows through the geology and into Naini lake. The laying of concrete on Sukhatal interrupts this process and so, contributes to water insecurity.

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Figure 4. A photograph of the urban encroach of Sukhatal. Source: CEDAR.


However, water degradation is just one example of the environmental abuse taking place in Nainital. “The traffic is beyond control. It causes so much noise and air pollution” said retired Justice Jain who was posted to Nainital for many years. Anil Garia, a popular sports person and resident of Nainital emphasised that “there are now so many tourist cars that they have to park on the town’s recreation area, so now the people have nowhere to play games.” However, the greatest concern is the huge pressure the visitors put on Nainital’s fragile geology. Nainital’s geomorphology was tectonically formed. Sher ka Danda hill is particularly unstable because it is made from marls, limestone and slate which is highly vulnerable to mass movements and this has been exacerbated by human pressure. In 1880 there was a disaster where the whole hillside slipped due to heavy rain. The 1880 landslide destroyed many buildings and claimed hundreds of lives. Only this summer (2018) there was a landslip on the Lower Mall Road caused by the increased instability of the hillside and a drop in the lake level, both a result of human pressure. Experts are extremely concerned that another major mass movement could take place. Vishal Singh explained that the British time drainage system of storm drains, built to stabilise the slopes, are now filled with rubbish and concrete which leaves the slopes around Nainital highly vulnerable. Furthermore, the hillside is covered with more multi-story buildings than ever before and the traffic flow is far heavier. These pressures considered alongside the prediction that anthropogenic climate change will bring less frequent more intense rainfall in this region set up the prerequisites to a mass movement disaster.  

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Figure 5. A photograph of Nainital’s recreation area being used as a carpark for tourist cars. Source: CEDAR

Nainital is operating well beyond its carrying capacity and has become highly degraded. “I feel disgusted. I belonged to the place and it belonged to me and now I do not even recognise the town” (Vishal Singh). The evidence is there even for a visitor like me to see and it is certainly catching the attention of the local people. Driven by stakeholder demands and personal interest CEDAR has carried out extensive research into water insecurity, landscape stability and general environmental degradation. CEDAR applied the principles of citizen science throughout their research, engaging local stakeholders in the collection of data and through continuous consultation. The results were shared and discussed on multiple platforms including social media. One particularly successful initiative was the setting up of the ‘Citizens for Nainital’ group which has a WhatsApp group containing local residents, experts, politicians and the District Magistrate. “This group remains extremely active and has become a powerful space for discussion” (Vishal Singh). One of the most impressive events produced by this campaign was the silent barefoot march undertaken by nearly 1000 people to raise awareness of the critical condition of the lake in 2017. This public display of protest caught a large amount of attention and sparked the large-scale 2017 stakeholder’s consultation on the rejuvenation of Naini lake.


Figure 6. Photographs from a stakeholders meeting in Nainital. Source: CEDAR.

The Naini lake rejuvenation consultation was facilitated by the United Nations Development Program India and CEDAR and, attended by the Governor of Uttarakhand, Dr K. Paul. “Driven by the citizens this consultation was turned into real change on the ground” (Vishal Singh). The recommendations implemented include the stoppage of construction in Nainital, the clearing of the heritage drains, the setting up of the Hillside safety committee and the volume of water removed from Naini lake was reduced from 18MLD to 8MLD. This was heralded as a breakthrough moment for Nainital, a decisive step towards creating a sustainable town. Indeed on my visit to Nainital, I spoke to a long-term resident who told me about the success of all the consultations and how he felt very positive about Nainital’s future. This demonstrates the ongoing progress and positivity a year on. This was echoed by the petition for further action which took off following the small landslip on the Lower Mall Road during 2018. Dr Vishal Said “I feel very optimistic and this is a fantastic example of citizen-driven change. I honestly believe this campaign has been so successful because of CEDAR’s citizen-focused research approach and because it was the citizens who took the research forward to the decision makers.” This was echoed by Chitra Iyer “this would have been an almost impossible task without enlightened and vigorous citizen participation.”

Figure 7. A photograph which shows that the construction debris has been removed from Sukhatal lake. Photographed 20/09/18.

However, during my walk around the town, the impacts of tourism were still clear in the traffic, litter and remnants of the 2018 landslip. My concern was echoed by Dr Vishal Singh “although I am very positive, a long-term effort from CEDAR, the decision makers and the citizens are required. Humans have short memories and Nainital requires long-term behaviour change.” Therefore, Nainital has taken strong steps toward sustainable development; however, there are still changes to be made. Most importantly real change is needed in the tourist industry. “It is the hotel owners who have the biggest impact on the environment through the water they use and waste they produce” commented Rohini Suri, a local resident and conservation expert. Currently, the tourist industry is self-destructing, “irresponsible tourism is destroying the very beauty which tourists wish to experience” (Chitra Iyer). Therefore, a move towards sustainable tourism is not just environmentally and socially important, it is economically essential.  Vishal Singh suggests that as the tourist industry relies on the lake, there should be a compulsory contribution from the industry to the beautification of the lake. Second, tourists should have a limited water consumption quota and beyond that, they should have to pay a fee. Third, there should be a policy put in place to restrict the number of tourists or the promotion of tourism in Nainital. Finally, the industry should work to educate tourists about the ecological fragility of Nainital and invite them to engage in environmentally friendly behaviour during their visit, in particular leaving vehicles outside of the town. Currently, “there is a tendency to try to make a ‘quick buck’ with no thought to the environmental consequences. This needs to change and the industry has the power to influence policy change in Nainital” (Vishal Singh). In answer to my question on how can one persuade the industry to change, Vishal Singh answered “CEDAR must continue to campaign with the citizens and policymakers and persuade the tourist industry that sustainable tourism is the only way forward for Nainital. If beauty is lost it is hard to mend”.

Figure 8. Photos of beautiful Nainital. Source: Beth Barker.

Furthermore, my conversations with Chitra Iyer and Rohini Suri suggested that the tourist industry may be taking back control of Nainital and leading the town back down an exploitative path. I was shocked to learn from Rohini Suri that the celebrated ban on construction had been rescinded and construction started again. Rohini suggested this may have been due to a strong lobby from the hotel owners. Both Rohini Suri and Chitra Iyer left me in no doubt that “a complete change in outlook and expectations is still required amongst many of the residents and decision makers as well as the tourist industry. As both significantly commented it might take a disaster like a landslide before substantial action is taken. These conversations painted quite a bleak picture where despite the action of engaged citizens and CEDAR the status quo of environment harassment continued. I was left questioning whether Nainital is a success story for citizen-led sustainable development or an example of the continued environmental exploitation despite the widely publicised evidence that it is unsustainable? On reflection, I believe that Nainital is both. It is a powerful example that the road to sustainable development is complex and difficult but that does not mean it is not worth pursuing even when things seem bleak.

The story of Nainital demonstrates the power of citizens and the need for environmental activism if our planet is to be preserved. Every day, there are new shocking revelations about just how far humans have pushed the Earth, no more alarming than the IPCC predictions for global climate change.  Although engagement in the environment may be increasing, we continue to abuse it and politicians fail to take action. Perhaps the environment needs a campaign akin to the #metoo movement which has empowered people all over the world to speak up about sexual harassment. The everyday assault has been made more visible than ever before. Just like sexual abuse, environmental abuse needs to be made visible and faced. Naini Lake was violated for well over 100 years, along with her surrounding hills and forests. Then some of the local people realised enough was enough and called for a halt to the molestation in Nainital. Perhaps the story of Nainital can inspire other towns to recognise the environmental destruction on their doorstep and to do something about it. Maybe the campaign could be called #heretoo. However, just like the #metoo campaign must now be back up with with public and private policy change which denies sexual harassment a place in our world, #heretoo needs to be backed up by substantial policy change, sustained campaigning and a recognition that long term change will be hard but is essential for the well-being of all life on this planet. As Leo Tolstoy said, “One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken”, humans have broken that link and now it is time to fix it.

-Beth Barker



CEDAR takes to the Radio Waves

As the physician associates the patient with his own cure, so must the planner appeal to the citizen

Patrick Geddes, 1915

CEDAR and Radio Khushi 90.4 FM have embarked on a four-month radio-series on natural resource management with special emphasis on water security in Uttarakhand. The aim is simple, communicate with local people, give them a platform to voice their concerns and together find locally appropriate solutions.


A photograph of Dr Vishal Singh recording live at Radio Khushi.


As CEDAR’s Executive Director Dr Rajesh Thadani once said: “Knowledge limited to academic publication is of limited relevance”. Therefore, CEDAR is striving to find new ways to communicate their research on ecosystem services to the people who use them. Local radio presents an exciting new opportunity for CEDAR to reach out to people who may not use social media. As Dr Singh said “radio will allow us to reach the last corner of the village. These people are at the core of the community and need to have their questions and voices heard”. Furthermore, Dr Singh made the important point that those who are most vulnerable to environmental degradation and climate change are often those who are least connected through modern technology and least able to get their voices heard.

Radio Khushi is a community radio station which uses interactive media to connect, educate and inspire people. A partnership with CEDAR will allow the station to explore socio-environmental issues using CEDAR’s expertise, hear listener’s views and galvanise action. This partnership is being facilitated by Ideosync Media Combine (IMC). IMC aims to use media to accelerate communication and behavioural change for the social, economic and environmental development of communities. This harmonises with CEDAR’s belief in the importance of citizen science in socio-environmental research, only through stakeholder participation can issue be understood and appropriate solutions are found. It is the ‘tyranny of the expert’ which frequently hinders development because when local knowledge is excluded the proposed solutions are unlikely to be locally sustainable.

Together CEDAR, Radio Khushi and ICM have developed a radio-series strategy. An overarching theme of ‘natural resource management’ was settled and issues of water security in small and medium towns in the Himalayan region to be of prime focus. One important point agreed by all partners was the importance of female participation. While women can be some of the strongest activists on social and environmental issues, they are too often left out of decision making.  It was agreed that the radio-series would cover the geographical area of Uttarakhand but focus on the regions where CEDAR has the expertise, case study examples and success stories. These include CEDAR’s work climate change adaptation, urbanization and water security.


A photograph of Mussoorie, ‘Queen of the hill towns’. This shows the urban environment expanding over the hillside, removing the trees as it spreads.


The first live show was aired Thursday 11th October 2018 and was a great success with Dr Vishal Singh (CEDAR’s Deputy Executive Director) being interviewed by RJ Ashish (Radio Khushi’s Jockey). The programme started by introducing CEDAR as an organisation which focuses on research and research use. CEDAR was founded on the realisation that there is a gap between academics, grassroots workers and planning practitioners, CEDAR aims to bridge this gap through their multi-disciplinary approach. Dr Singh pointed out that many of the NGOs working in the region on socio-environmental issues work in isolation and there is an urgent need for more cross-disciplinary research and collective action. He asserted that citizens play a crucial part in the process, local knowledge is rich and often untapped by ‘scientific experts’. Dr Singh gave a very good example of the importance of traditional knowledge and loss if it is ignored. He explained that there is only one person left in the Kumaon region who knows how to make Naulas, a traditional surface-water harvesting method typical to the hill areas of Uttarakhand. He lamented how good traditional methods have been forgotten and how the adoption of new technology has often led to environmental degradation.

The show also discussed CEDAR specific work. Dr Singh described how CEDAR focuses on the themes of forestry, urbanisation and water biodiversity and wildlife. Regarding water security Cedar is examining how population rise, unplanned development, climate change and tourism are contributing to water insecurity in towns of Himalaya alongside environmental degradation and climate change. RJ Ashish picked up on the climate change theme and described how residents in Mussoorie were noticing the early flowering of the Rhododendrons, delayed monsoon and declining winter rainfall. This is a key example of citizens being able to observe and record change over time. Dr Singh confirmed these observations and asserted that they are a serious concern.


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A photograph of Dhobighat stream (Mussoorie). The spring is a source of water for Mussoorie, a place for laundry businesses and a space for recreation.


A key point leading on from this discussion was that the rapid drying up of springs and depleting lake levels are a serious problem. Dr Singh said, “springs and lakes are shared resources shared resource to reap the benefits from, but nobody wants to conserve it”. This is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. Collective conservation and sustainable use are needed urgently. However, it is easy to use buzzwords like ‘sustainability’ and ‘collective active’ but the real questions are how is this achieved and by whom? Perhaps this radio series can be a step towards finding answers to these questions as researchers collaborate with listeners.

It was at this point that a listener phoned in with an excellent question, “if there are so many NGOs working in this area why is there no output?” This question exemplifies the gap between research and the local people. Dr Singh explained that it is not that the work is not being done but that the output is not in the public domain or even when it is, it is not accessible. The accessibility of knowledge is as important as producing that knowledge in the first place.

This led onto a second good question from a listener, they said “to achieve anything citizen support is needed. But Bringing people of different opinions together becomes a challenge. How do you manage it?” Dr Singh explained how this is always a big challenge for CEDAR, for sustainable solutions to be found and successfully implemented policymakers, experts, activists and other stakeholders must all be brought together. However, even when a platform is provided it can be difficult to encourage stakeholders to come. Therefore, research NGOs must strive to make their research accessible. But equally, stakeholders must engage and share their ideas.

Dr Vishal Singh offered a great example of mass stakeholder engagement. In Nainital, the lake is being degraded and a meeting was held with the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand and the people of Nainital. CEDAR laid out their out their research on how the encroachment of Sukhatal lake is disturbing Naini lake level and a decision was made to rectify the problem. “It started with people, it was taken forward by people and then the people helped in the decision-making process of the government” (Dr Singh). The most iconic symbol of this success story was the over 1000 people who undertook a bare-foot silent march around the lake to raise awareness for its degradation and the need for conservation. This is a powerful example of how many people with different opinions can be brought together to create change.

Overall the radio show emphasised that technocratic solutions will only go so far and citizen participation is crucial. This initiative aims to disseminate CEDAR’s research in an accessible form, reach all corners of the community and bring everyone into the discussion. If you want to hear CEDAR researchers talk more about their research and address interesting questions from listeners across Uttarakhand, tune in every Thursday at 90.4FM.

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

I am a recent geography graduate and UK resident. I am currently working as an intern for the Centre for Ecology Development and Research (CEDAR), Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India. CEDAR is an NGO working on environmental development in North India, primarily the Himalayan region.

I have been assigned to their Climate Adaptive Water Management Project, funded by the International Research Development Centre. The aim of this project was to investigate water insecurity in two cities (Mussoorie and Haldwani). Based on their research CEDAR has developed climate adaptive and equitable water management solutions, for example, citywide rainwater harvesting and springshed revival. My internship coincided with the reporting phase of the project and therefore, I have assisted in writing several papers associated with this project. Furthermore, I have attended water forum meetings with stakeholders, CEDAR’s first live radio show on water security and field site visits.


A photograph of Nainital (Uttarakhand) which is a key field site for CEDAR’s urbanisation and water security research. I visited Nainital with another colleague 21st September 2018 and saw for myself the water challenges in this town. 


The key recurring themes for environmental development research in this region are the importance of stakeholder participation, good communication of research and a multidisciplinary approach.

So far this has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and an invaluable internship in the environmental development sector.