This year's World Environment Day, a day through which awareness for our natural environment is raised, was celebrated with much gusto as the previous years. This year's theme was 'Connecting People to Nature'. Across the world, people took part in plantation drives and awareness walks, in a true gesture of cooperative action to mitigate damage towards our collective shared resources.
However, two days prior to this, another event in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand, took place that sought to do something similar. The scale and reach of this event was made succseful by the outpouring of support by its residents. The frequent decline in Nainital lake levels over the last 10 years has been a matter of great concern amongst the people of Nainital. Concerned residents of the town led by a group of youngsters (petition drafted by Mr. Vikram Arya, Almuni of the Sherwood School) started a petition to save Nainital lake through an online campaign which received huge attention. Not only residents, but including celebrities such as Subha Mudgal, Mohammad Kaif, Pushpesh Pant, Neelesh Misra and Namita Ghokhle showed their support.
This was followed by a WhatsApp group named “Citizens for Nainital”, created by Nita Pawaar Rana (Almuni St Mary’s Convent, Nainital and a NID graduate) to encourage discussion on the problem and get a wider perspective on the issue. Within the first 3 days of the petition being posted, more than 1400 people had signed it. While it was gaining huge momentum in the social media the group felt the need to show some physical presence to sensitise the people of Nainital.
A campaign was started for a barefoot march, people were informed through press, local television and even SMSs were disseminated. The group roped in Dr. Vishal Singh (Coordinator of CEDAR), strategic partner with the HI-AWARE initiative, and also a resident of Nainital with extensive research experience on impacts of urbanisation on the lake and its critical water zones.
Dr. Singh, who has been regularly interacting with the local people was invited by the “Citizens for Nainital” for a talk on the declining lake level and possible solutions to deal with the problem. A simplistic jargon free talk derived from CEDAR research in collaboration with University of Cambridge under the ESPA funded study was given largely in Hindi to explain the situation on the 20th of May 2017. This created a holistic understanding of the issue and clarity on possible solutions. It was during the meeting that June 3rd, 2017 was finalised as the day when people would march to save the lake as it was a Saturday and convenient for participants located outside the city to join the march. The idea to walk barefoot was not to seek attention but to seek apology as the residents felt that the condition of the life giving lake which is revered as the mother of the town is a result of their own ill treatment in the past.
The walk was scheduled between 6:15 to 7:15 pm. The march saw participants from all walks of life, where designers from National Institute of Design, marketing professionals, bloggers, legal experts, poets and musicians who had even the slightest of connection with the town contributed. The recommendations which were to be handed over to the district magistrate were drafted by CEDAR in consultation with the people and subject area experts, with a ‘no harm policy’ in mind. A walk which initially had received enormous support from people and some amount of criticism as well (considered to be elitist and hypocritical) was eventually led by the common people of the town from different religions, caste and class. The first steps were taken by women walkers, who have been at the forefront of conservation in the state of Uttarakhand. A brief speech was given by a noted historian Dr. Ajay Rawat followed by a vote of thanks by Dr. Vishal Singh who represented the citizens group. The 3rd of June was declared as the “Lake Day” by Dr. Singh. On the 9th of June 2017, the chief Minister allocated the first grant of Rs 3 crores to initiate work to towards revamping the lake.