Tank tourism can help build water resilience in Indian cities; being local, outdoors and socially-distanced make it timely

Mridula Ramesh
·8 min read

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on the critical role of tanks in India's water management system. It draws from Mridula Ramesh's upcoming book on water, to be published in 2021.

Read part one here €" Tanks are silver bullet for India's water woes; why they're disappearing, leaving us more vulnerable to a warming climate.

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My sister fell off the boat in Kodaikanal, or Kodi as I know it, and they took off my clothes to change her. I had no say in the matter because I was less than a year old at that time. As you can see, the Kodaikanal Lake has been a part of my life for a very, very long time. The corn seller, many of the older boatmen and the horse keepers next to the boat club were friends. Over the years, I have spent countless hours and days around and in the lake, blithely ignorant, until we began to investigate it €" the size of the economy supported by the lake.

The community of Kodi Lake

The Kodaikanal Lake is a manmade lake, created by Vere Henry Levinge, by damming three streams. All images courtesy the author, unless indicated otherwise.
The Kodaikanal Lake is a manmade lake, created by Vere Henry Levinge, by damming three streams. All images courtesy the author, unless indicated otherwise.

The Kodaikanal Lake is a manmade lake, created by Vere Henry Levinge, by damming three streams. All images courtesy the author, unless indicated otherwise.

The Kodaikanal Lake is a manmade lake, created by Vere Henry Levinge, by damming three streams. This star-shaped 20+ hectare lake, from the very beginning, had a community at its heart. It kept groundwater levels up, to be sure. But the walking path (and later cycling and motorable road) was a place for one's morning and evening walk, to meet and chat with friends. Trees around the lake provided beauty, improved infiltration, while the smaller, fallen branches created little nooks for water bird to build their nests.

Trees around the lake provided beauty, improved infiltration, while the smaller, fallen branches created little nooks for water bird to build their nests.
Trees around the lake provided beauty, improved infiltration, while the smaller, fallen branches created little nooks for water bird to build their nests.

Trees around the lake provided beauty, improved infiltration, while the smaller, fallen branches created little nooks for water bird to build their nests.

The Kodaikanal Boat and Rowing Club was set up in 1891, with a very popular Regatta in May, drawing thousands to witness the races. Yes, I have competed once, and placed second. The more interesting story involves a duck, a friend, and poorly drawn-in oar. Today, the lake is surrounded by three hotels, multiple bungalows, two spiritual retreats, and hundreds of commercial establishments.

The Kodi Lank as a Sustainable Business

Throughout the year, crowds flock to Kodi during the weekends, drawn by the weather, the beauty and, of course, the lake. Business is seasonal, with four phases: peak season (Apr/May), second season (Aug-Dec), off season (Jan-Mar) and monsoon (Jun/Jul). In February 2020, an off season month, we counted 885 commercial establishments around the lake, 70 percent of which were closed at the time of our visit. Many of these stalls would come alive during 'Season' time (a colonial moniker), when the roads around the lake would become practically impassable. Of the open establishments, we observed that almost half sold stuff of some sort €" sweaters, toys, shells €" this translates to additional indirect employment, of course.

More than a third sold food €" delicious roasted corn generously slathered with lime, chilli powder and salt being a local speciality. Entertainment €" boat riding, horse riding, balloon shooting and cycling €" were all on offer. And finally there was hospitality €" we counted three large hotels around the lake, including The Carlton, one of the oldest hotels in the town; Sterling Resorts, which courted controversy when it was built on the marshlands that nourished and cleaned the lake waters; and the Green Lake View Resort that was built by demolishing the once delightfully-overgrown house called Sleepy Hollow.

Together, these establishments provided, in a quiet February, 600 lake-side jobs. This is a fairly robust number, with a high degree of confidence, because these were either actually counted or based on interviews with the general managers running the same or similar establishments. The number of lakeside jobs swells to 1,285 in full season (April/May), as rooms are filled and all stalls are running, and then varies between 640-900 jobs for the rest of the year. Only during the monsoon, June/July, are the number of jobs estimated to fall to about 350, as most places shut shop. Taking a weighted average, the lake provides more than 700 direct jobs throughout the year. There are more jobs created in making the stuff sold by the lake, in the factories and in the farms that grow the vegetables and milk made into cheese.

What about additions to the economy?

Because many stalls were informal in nature, their owners were more circumspect in sharing revenue details. Based on data collected from 80 establishments, our model suggested the non-hotel economy of the lake was worth about Rs 46 crore per year. This transforms the lake from being the tableau of memories to a robust economic engine, an SME providing over 700 direct jobs, while replenishing groundwater levels, improving real estate values, improving fitness levels (the walker, rowers and cyclists!) and providing mental bliss (after all, there were two spiritual retreats at the lake side). It makes for one heck of a sustainable business.

Replicating the success

Can we make it even more sustainable? Most of the stalls around the Kodi lake had a municipal power connection. And in shady paths, solar may not work well, and would, moreover require storage as part of the offering, which would make the economics unappealing. Plastic packaging is already banned in Kodaikanal. But ensuring clean power, sustainable packaging choices, and permeable surfaces are things to keep in mind while replicating the Kodi lake's success in other places. After all, the Kodaikanal lake is 26.5 hectares and there are many lakes this size scattered around our cities. My own Madurai has at least 16 lakes bigger than this in and around the city. Chennai has several. As does Bengaluru, including its infamous flaming and foaming Bellandur lake. Almost every Indian city has at least one or two large lakes that could do with a bit of TLC, an image makeover. However, in their current state, even thinking of these lakes as tourist destinations seems far-fetched. They are like the before-makeover heroine of a coming-of-age movie, waiting for a fairy godmother to wave her wand.

Which brings us to some of the basics for developing 'Tank Tourism' in India: First, a water body must, in fact, have water. This is a non-trivial ask as many water bodies tend to be seasonal. However, we do have a great perennial and local water resource €" sewage and grey water €" which can be treated to feed the lakes. Singapore does, as does Israel. Closer to home, so does Jakkur lake in Bengaluru. In fact, the treated sewage that feeds Jakkur lake is being fought over by the lake and a power plant! Another lake in Bengaluru that has leveraged its sewages is the 26-acre Mahadevapura lake. Here, a consortium of corporates pooled together their CSR funds to invest in a sewage treatment plant that treats a million litres a day of sewage to replenish the lake. The Consortium of DEWATS Dissemination designed the project, and members of civil society came together with this group to bring it to fruition in 2019.

Second, the water cannot smell, and the surroundings must be clean. Offering boating on a flaming lake is unlikely to have a large addressable market. Delhi has a wonderful clutch of baolis, or stepwells, and in a better world, they would be centres of community. Today, many of them are non-trivial to access. When my friends and I went on a detective mission to locate the oldest baoli in Delhi, the Anangtal Baoli dating back to the 10th century A.D., we had to pick our way through a landfill to get there.

The historical Baoli ceases to be a tourist attraction. These are the basics €" water and cleanliness. Next, tourists need infrastructure €" lighting, dustbins, a walking or cycling track, signage. Ideally, these should recharge the mind, and not be monstrosities of concrete. Thus can we unlock the tank tourism economy, where catering to their needs creates local jobs. In this age of COVID, we all need a little bit of socially distanced outdoor recreation. In this age of climate change, our cities need all the water storage we can muster. In this age of water crisis, we need to treat and reuse every drop of sewage. In the midst of this economic carnage, we need more local jobs. Spurring local tourism around our tanks may be just what the doctor ordered.

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The writer is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, cleantech angel investor and author of The Climate Solution €" India's Climate Crisis and What We Can Do About It published by Hachette. Follow her work on her website; on Twitter; or write to her at cc@climaction.net.

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