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.

nainital map 2
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.

water collection
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.

sukhatal debris.jpg
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.  

n-car park
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



2 thoughts on “One himalayan town goes from riches to environmental ruin. And back again?

  1. Dear Ma’am,
    I was very pleased with your article, but all things said a very obvious solution that should have been stressed and strongly suggested is the promotion and exposure of tourists to the surrounding lesser popular but equally beautiful places like Bhimtal, Bhowali, Naukuchiatal etc.. I feel if we distribute the tourist footfall to these hill beauties much pressure on the Nainital (proper) town will be reduced..I hope in your follow up article you will elaborate on this


    1. Thank you so much for your engaging reply. I completely agree that tourism development should be promoted in other nearby places. But it is crucial that any new tourist businesses in nearby places are developed in a sustainable manor, staying within the places carrying capacity and applying the principle of eco-tourism that tourists should leave no trace and take only photographs.


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