- Udaipur is known for its tourism and the hospitality industry employs over ten thousand people fuelling the economy of the city.
- The city’s lakes and the Aravalli hills are the lifelines of Udaipur but they are at risk because of poor development practices and deforestation.
- Changing the narrative of the tourism that Udaipur is known for – from a focus on royal heritage to an ecotourism destination – could save the city.
Udaipur, in the state of Rajasthan, has allured a variety of people for centuries, right from the British imperialists in India to Hollywood celebrities. But its popularity reached a new high in the last decade. Experts credit this to three main reasons – a growing trend of destination weddings and pre-wedding shoots, opening up of new properties to suit every budget and the stupendous growth of online booking portals. “Today, the Udaipur hospitality industry is a thousand crore industry, employing over ten thousand people with over one thousand hotels, resorts, guest houses and homestays,” Rakesh Choudhary, Secretary, Hotel Sansthan Dakshini Rajasthan, a hoteliers’ body, told Mongabay-India.
While tourism fuels economic growth and provides employment to thousands, the industry is also weighing heavy on the health of the lakes and hills of Udaipur. But there are indications that tourism itself, if practiced sustainably, can reduce the negative impact on the environment while keeping the associated economy thriving.
Fringed by several lakes, Udaipur gets its moniker, the ‘City of Lakes’ because of the sophisticated, interconnected lake system that was developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. Not only do these lakes enhance the beauty of the city, but they also are the source of drinking water for its residents.
And lakes are not the only reason Udaipur is loved. The saucer-shaped fertile valley is surrounded by the Aravalli range, which separates it from the Thar Desert and presents a unique geographical area, rife with green hills, dense forests, elevated highlands and alluvial plains almost opposite to the sandy, arid landscape of the Marwar region of Rajasthan. This rare combination of lakes, hills and historic palaces and architecture, has made Udaipur a major tourist magnet.
According to Choudhary, the city has a population of 5.8 lakh (580,000) people but attracts double the number of tourists every year. As per the Rajasthan Tourism Board official records, 11,85,606 tourists visited Udaipur in 2019, before the spread of COVID-19. Several Indian and global hotel chains are present in Udaipur and despite the pandemic, new hotel properties have come up in the city.
Shrinking lakes and disappearing Aravallis
Tourism in Udaipur has created employment opportunities for thousands of locals and is the primary contributor to the city’s economy. But this growth has come at a high price. The lakes are not in the best shape now. “People come to Udaipur to see its heritage beauty, which comprises not only man-made monuments but natural heritage too, like the lakes, hills, gardens, and bird sanctuaries. Because of rampant development and illegal encroachment, lakes have shrunk to 30-40% in size in the last ten years. Lake Pichola that had an area of 6.5 sq km is now just 4.5 sq km and Fateh Sagar has reduced from 4.5 sq km to 2.7 sq km. The reduced size of the lakes has also hurt the entire ecosystem – migratory birds and aquatic life is endangered,” says Anil Mehta, Joint Secretary Jheel Sanrakshan Samiti, a citizens’ group working on lake restoration. Mehta, who is also the principal of Vidya Bhawan Polytechnic and a leading researcher on Udaipur lakes and Ayad river, has been leading the efforts of the citizens to clean and restore some lakes to improve their water quality.
Sharing the sorry state of the lakes in Udaipur, Kushal Rawal, a 30-year-old administrator and principal of Abhinav School, told Mongabay-India, “All kinds of garbage, such as household waste, left-over food items, polythene bags, medical waste, puja items, a huge amount of meat after Eid, and industrial waste, is thrown in lakes. All these combined have led to the degradation of the lakes.”
The pollution of the lakes has not only affected water quality and the health of its people. It has also nearly wiped out several species of fish. The lakes, that once brimmed with fishes such as mahseer, known to inhabit only in pollution-free waters, are now filled with diesel fumes and tourists. The bigger carps are fast disappearing, leaving only minor carps, minnows and puntius.
In addition, tourism activities have become a bane for the lake ecosystem. “Now almost every big and small lake in Udaipur has motorboats and water scooters plying throughout the day to attract visitors. But, they are unintentionally destroying the ecosystem of the lakes. Earlier Udaipur lakes used to get a lot of regional and migratory birds. Now the birds don’t visit lakes as they no more get the quiet environs of the lakes. Fewer birds mean less aquatic life as they depend on each other for nutrients and food,” says R.K. Jain, the Regional Conservator of Forests in Udaipur Region in Rajasthan.
It’s not just the lakes that are bearing the side-effects of tourism-led growth. The Aravalli range that has played a crucial role in preventing the desertification of the state is being bulldozed to build swanky hotels and buildings. Kalpana Sharma, a Delhi-based model who moved to Udaipur four years ago, narrates her personal experience, “When I first visited Udaipur in 2012, the place looked very different from what it has become today. It was greener and less commercialised. Today, hills are cleared to build hotels and buildings.”
The deforestation and chopping of hills are not limited to Udaipur. Sharma talks about Rayta Hills, which is 40 km from Udaipur and was once an untouched land. Ten years ago, there weren’t any buildings except for some local homes here and there. Today, many hotels and guest houses have mushroomed all over Rayta Hills, she says.
Geographical and climate impact
The shrinking lakes and disappearing Aravallis have a strong impact on the biodiversity and climate of Udaipur. Aravalli range was once a unique amphitheatre of biological diversity – a refuge for wildlife, for hundreds of species of trees, shrubs, and herbs. In time, hillock after hillock was covered by bamboo trees. Today, bamboo clusters survive only in forest outposts or near temples.
During monsoons, the Aravalli range helps in the formation of clouds over the desert plains and lightly guides them eastwards. In winters, it protects the fertile alluvial river valleys from the assault of chilly winds from Central Asia. The Aravallis also help in the groundwater retention, thus saving the region from turning into a desert. Many rivers originate from the Aravalli hills and feed the plains. Indiscriminate deforestation in the hills surrounding Udaipur and in the adjoining forests of the Mewar region has meant that every year’s monsoon washes down tonnes of silt into the lakes.
Thanks to the Aravalli range, Udaipur witnesses pleasant weather throughout the year. But even that is changing with time. “The temperature that Dubai used to have 20-30 years back, Udaipur, has now. The temperature rise is because of rampant deforestation and cutting of hills,” says Bhuvnesh, an environmentalist who has been working since 2013 to save the biodiversity of Udaipur by planting native trees. The monsoon period has also reduced, which Bhuvnesh explains is a result of changes in the Aravalli hills. This in turn results in uneven distribution of water and depletion of soil condition.
Bhuvnesh, who works with local tribal villages on forestation projects, explains the intricacies of topographical, climate and societal changes. “Clearing of hills has led to less rainfall, which further pushed people away from agriculture. Tribal people, mostly from the Bhil tribe, inhabit the small hillocks of the Aravalli range and grow only one crop per year, maize, that gives them an annual income. With climate change and fewer rains, agriculture has become difficult to pursue, and they are forced to take up labour jobs,” Bhuvnesh told Mongabay-India.
Can tourism be done right?
Experts say that tourism can play a pivotal role in restoring the tenuous balance between development and the environment. Mehta of Jheel Sanrakshan Samiti says that the need of the hour is to change the tourism narrative from just focussing on the human-made heritage tourism to promoting Udaipur as an ecotourism destination, built on the pillars of biodiversity, wildlife, natural wealth, ghats, and authentic Marwari cuisine.
Government and locals should collaborate to conserve the lakes and Aravalli hills. Mehta sheds light on the ongoing conservation work, “Under the centre-sponsored National Lake Conservation Project, the condition of Lake Pichola and Fateh Sagar has improved. However, the administration has focussed more on the beautification part (widening of the parallel road, constructing fountains, etc.) than conserving the biodiversity of the lake.”
Although many citizen groups are working to improve the condition of the lakes, simple steps like banning single-use plastic bottles, penalising garbage throwing in lakes, introducing electric vehicles, opting for traditional wooden boats over motorboats and water scooters in the lake, can bring back serenity to the lakes.
Rahul Bhatnagar, a veteran with 37 years of forest conservation and wildlife management experience, recommends developing new eco-tourism products to reduce the pressure on overstretched resources of the city – a solution that finds a mention in the new Rajasthan Tourism Policy 2020. The Rajasthan Tourism Department is working towards using eco-tourism and wildlife as focus areas to develop the ‘experiential tourism’ sector. The desert state of Rajasthan, famous for its royal heritage, will now be promoted as an adventure and monsoon destination, confirmed by the Rajasthan Tourism officials. Steps have been taken to create awareness about up-and-coming eco-tourism destinations such as Banswara, Rajsamand lake, and many lesser-known destinations.
Both Bhatnagar and Jain suggest emulating and scaling up the blueprint of successful ecotourism projects like Sajjangarh Biological Park, Badi Lake and Purohiton ka Talab. Jain shares his experience of restoring a forest land into an eco-site, ‘Phoolon Ki Ghati’ (Valley of Flowers) in Chirwa, Udaipur. “Until 2017, this 3.4 km forest land was degrading and lay unutilised. Despite being close to Udaipur, people were scared to visit it. Then, in 2017, under the urban forestry scheme (Nagar Van Udyan), we developed this area into an ecotourism circuit with the Mewar Biodiversity Park and Purohiton ka Talaab in the vicinity. Basic infrastructure was developed like benches, walking trails, zipline, tree walks, and planting indigenous trees. Most importantly, we made the local community in-charge of this project. We hired 31 local youth, gave them basic training, and today they handle this park all by themselves. A basic entry fee is collected to run and maintain the park. Today, not only has this community-led project turned profitable, but we could also restore the forest from getting further degraded.”
Bhatnagar added, “Udaipur has a lot of areas in its vicinity which can be developed into ecotourism and adventure sites. These places are naturally gifted and have incredible wildlife and birds.” Places such as Baghdarrah, Dudhleshwar, Baghri, Bhil Berry, Goram Ghat, Bassi Sanctuary, Sita Mata Sanctuary, Aarampura, and Pullwari Ki Naal are excellent ecotourism contenders for future ecotourism projects. There is still a lot of natural beauty left in and around Udaipur. What is required is a strong will from the administration, locals and tourists to save that beauty.
Banner image: Udaipur by night. Photo by Archana Singh.