It’s noon on a Friday in February, and a small group of Kodaikanal residents are crowded outside the municipality office, located by the entrance to the town’s commercial centre, which flanks Kodaikanal Lake. We are examining a sample of fibre-reinforced plastic made to look like a picket fence, set up by the town’s municipal engineer, Muthukumar, to show us ahead of our meeting with the commissioner (till last month), T Narayanan. It will replace what appears to be serviceable metal fencing, around the lake. The design for the fence is being shared with residents following questions raised regarding what exactly the planned improvements for the lake mean, and for whom.
Last July, a Rs 24-crore project was begun around Kodai Lake to develop a new municipality boathouse, fix and obtain boats, renovate parks, refurbish the pavement and plant 4,000 flowering plants around the lake. This project went ahead without the establishment of a committee of experts—aside from those consulted by the government at Anna University, at their discretion. This is a requirement in this eco-sensitive hill station and area.
The lake offers revenue to those who conduct businesses around it, particularly those benefiting from the floating population of eight lakh tourists a month and counting (the figures are as reported by the town’s tourism office). For a long time, the lake has been known to contain untreated sewage, yet these improvements are chiefly cosmetic (as we reported last July in an in-depth examination of water quality and other concerns around the lake).
The residents, who make up an informal group called Save Kodai Lake, asked for a detailed project report, which was presented as a video last October, by the Anna University specialists. The video showed a 3D-modelled, 3-metre-wide pavement (which would encroach into both the road and the lake, residents noted) and a boathouse with an indoor sports facility. The latter seems like a wild fantasy in a town whose roads are often pitted with potholes, and which struggles to provide even basic amenities such as drinking water and medical facilities to all residents. ‘This might work for Singapore, but in Kodai unique natural beauty is what is appreciated,’ Sunayana Choudhry, convenor of INTACH Kodai, told the commissioner, after viewing these plans, echoing the concerns of many.
What has also emerged as a major concern is the classification of the lake, which is listed on page 4 of the Tamil Nadu State Wetlands Authority directory. This establishes that the lake is part of a valuable ecosystem, critical to the larger Kodaikanal region. However, it has not been officially notified as such. Notification is a separate and necessary process, bureaucrats in Chennai remind us.
Still, along with 28 water bodies in Tamil Nadu, Kodai Lake is protected. Last March, the Union government reiterated a 2017 ruling that made it one of 200,000 wetlands across India that are protected from encroachment and development. There is a district-level wetlands management committee under the Tamil Nadu State Wetland Authority which requires an NGO to be a committee member. It is believed that this committee is dormant, the Palni Hills Conservation Council (PHCC) told The Kodai Chronicle.
All of this is why these meetings between the citizens of the Save Kodai Lake group and the municipality are taking place. We are a colourful bunch, sporting hats, umbrellas and jholas, ready to voice various citizens’ groups’ concerns in Kodai. Around 30 of us communicate via a group on WhatsApp. Some of us meet every few months, with the authorities and/or on our own, for updates and/ or an understanding of how to use citizen engagement to make progress on environmental and civic issues—more often, if circumstances call for them. A variety of concerns are voiced.
The commissioner tells us, ‘Everything I do is for you. Tell us how we can work together.’ He conducts long meetings with the group, sometimes running up to two hours, and is eager to share details when the group meets. At the time of writing this piece, he was not available for comment in response to more detailed questions.
At one meeting, Mark Antrobus, president of the PHCC, is emphasising that organic methods for cleaning the lake can please all parties. At another, Banu Hameed, a member of the long-standing umbrella group of organisations called the United Citizens Council of Kodaikanal (UCCK), enquires about rumours around plans to build a statue at the centre of the lake—later, it is clarified that it is a fountain that is in the works (it is now in operation). When a reporter from The Hindu comes to town, A Ravikumar, head of the lake’s shopkeepers’ union, joins the press meeting we organise.
Some of the more privileged residents are sometimes speaking for those who may never attend a meeting with the commissioner. ‘There is no place to drive, with so much of the road taken up by the pavement. First, they put tiles on the pavement. Now, they have built it higher. Every month, there is a new project with new funding,’ Anthonydasan, a local taxi driver, told TKC. (The new pavement has, in fact, been built so high that even a visitor who is over 6 feet tall struggled to ascend and descend it, recently.)
Resident Lathika George was one of those who walked regularly around the lake for around 22 years till she tripped and fell, which led to a serious injury. This is not unusual. The pavement is constantly in a state of construction or disrepair, and there are many others who have had similar accidents in one of the few recreational and community spaces available to citizens from all walks of life— shopkeepers, contractors, business people, retired folks. ‘To be fair,’ she says, ‘there is an intention to do the right thing on the part of the authorities. However, there seems to be a lack of planning and regard for safety whenever new projects are undertaken. Instead, the focus is more on short-term and short-sighted projects.’
I represent the local press (there is no other publication with a base in Kodai, in Tamil or English). I have been keeping notes along with G Bala, PHCC secretary, a steady presence who often facilitates communication with the authorities in Tamil.
Attending these meetings over the last two years has been part of an education in local reportage, civic processes in small-town India and the vagueness of rural record-keeping. Fact checks are gruelling exercises in collective memory. It is, ironically, easier to find out what is happening in Chennai or New Delhi than it is in our own town. And it takes time to puzzle together the pieces, with so many different perspectives to consider.
The Lake, on Paper
The alternative to dialogue—an extension of the privilege of this group but also the right of any citizen—is legal action, of course. This February, the Supreme Court directed the state to respond to an application filed by the UCCK regarding the alleged violation of wetland norms around Kodai Lake. It was requested that developments around the lake—which are not permitted within 200 metres of this water body—be stayed till experts have been consulted and informed plans have been made transparent, available to the public and reworked as necessary. At the time of writing this, the municipality has not filed a response.
Shalini Biswajit, an artist who lives in Chennai and has a house by the lake, alerted local acquaintances last July when she saw a boathouse coming up fast by her family’s property. The construction was labelled a temporary construction; as of this April, it still stands. And, a new floating pavement has been observed near the side of the lake by the telephone exchange, with no railings around it. Such projects frequently rear their heads in this hill station, and some attract more attention than others.
The star-shaped lake, with a perimeter of 5 kilometres and an area of 64 hectares, is a particular magnet for these initiatives. It is also a rallying point for residents of all socioeconomic backgrounds, who live near it and have a personal stake in its upkeep. Many walk around it daily and see it as the heart of this little town. Like other central water bodies in small settlements, the lake occupies a place in the public imagination that is outsized.
Still, what is yet to be understood is how to classify this water body. Today, it is chiefly a tourist site, intended to generate revenue. It is also a source of water for the lower Palani Hills and surrounding areas. And, it is the tip of the iceberg—the more visible part of a wetland, connected to larger ecosystems that need to be protected. How, then, should it be managed? This is a question people have been trying to answer for decades.
The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court ruled last year: ‘One goes to Kodaikanal to enjoy the beauty of nature. Before it becomes an eyesore, the situation has to be remedied. Otherwise, Kodaikanal will cease to be what it is. It is time to recognise and adopt the best practices followed by other nations… The District Administration will have to come out with innovative measures and creative solutions.’ These solutions may take many forms.
While developments around Kodai Lake may be only the most prominent of the town’s more pressing environmental concerns, they could help us focus on our most urgent needs and offer a model for citizen engagement with local and state-level governance.
The Way Forward
‘We need to request a carrying capacity of the town as well as the lake in particular,’ says environmentalist and resident Madhu Ramnath. He questions why there are no rules regarding vehicles and noise restrictions around the lake, and why we do not know of any studies that the municipality has conducted.
‘What is lacking is the discussion about inlets of water into the lake. We should trace these well beyond the lake, into the surrounding shola forests and their management. This is where we need to push the idea that the lake is not an isolated phenomenon, and that forest management and the dumping of debris in the shola, for example, are part of the concern,’ says Ramnath. Among his concerns for the lake are: the misguided planting of trees on the fringe of the lake, which environmentalists say will only enhance siltation; the ineffective management of blocked silt-traps, which are not mentioned as a focus of future improvements for the lake; and dredging, which can release existing pollutants from the silt lakebed—if untreated, these can be dangerous ‘as, with regards to Kodaikanal, they could also contain mercury’.
These are informed opinions on Kodaikanal by a resident expert who is part of a well-established environmental organisation (the PHCC) which is still not allowed an official say. The local Center for Environment and Humanity (CEH) is helping train municipal outreach coordinators in areas like waste management (as outlined in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, also in this issue); this could be extended to matters pertaining to the lake. There are others with relevant expertise, and with an eye on the bigger picture.
‘We need to put our minds together, to come up with a long-term, well-thought-out Master Plan to save the lake, working with people living in the lake watershed and the government to rehabilitate our dying lake watershed,’ says C Jeyakaran, a resident organic farmer and PHCC member. He is referring to the land area that channels rainwater to a common outlet—in this case, the lake.
Additionally, expert advice has been called upon, from further afield. Residents have solicited experts like Mumbai-based Debi Goenka, executive trustee of the Conservation Action Trust, who has successfully protected mangroves, coastal areas of Murud-Janjira and the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, and helped with the notification of many Indian sanctuaries. And, municipal officials have expressed their willingness to work with residents to plan his visit, for a potential consultation on a comprehensive plan.
This is the direction in which state-level plans are headed, says Deepak Srivastava, Tamil Nadu member of the Wetland Authority. Last year, Srivastava told TKC of his plans to implement a scheme in which citizens and NGOs adopt their local wetlands and work with government officials and committees to preserve them.
Most stakeholders emphasise the need for dialogue and the need to adapt. ‘If the municipality takes a more holistic approach to development and devises a task force of resident experts who can advise them on projects, they share the accountability,’ says one resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ‘Pressure from Chennai and the legal system may be making the authorities more cooperative. But ultimately, environmental challenges here are not only the municipality’s problem—they are ours too.’