Praduman Choubey | Feb 6 | 6 min read
As a tourist attraction, the lake promoted allied employment and helped people earn enough in the past. However, reduced water levels and lack of upkeep hurt its prospects
Dhanbad, Jharkhand: Life was not so tough until two decades ago for Dilip Mahto (35), a chai pakora seller in Dhanbad district’s Topchanchi. That was a time when tourists flocked to the picturesque Topchanchi Lake in hordes, helping his father Naresh Prasad Mahto earn decently from his lakeside eatery.
Fast forward to 2023, Dilip is struggling hard due to dwindling footfalls to the historic lake built under the British Raj in 1924. “Monthly income has dropped to Rs 3,000 in the off-season. How can I manage household expenses and educate my three children with such meagre earnings? That is why I also work as a daily wage labourer these days.”
According to Dwarika Mahto (70), another tea stall owner who joins Dilip at work, the lake’s heyday was from the 1960s to the 80s. The situation started deteriorating in the early 90s due to non-maintenance.
The latest peak-season (December 15 to January 31) tourist arrivals were around 500 per day against almost 1,000 up until the 90s. Nowadays, during the off-season, and particularly in summer, the count drops to less than 100. Compare this with the days when people used to drive in for picnics and New Year revelries from other parts of the country, especially West Bengal!
“For me, the more the number of vehicles, the better the chances of earning well. Therefore, it was not difficult to manage the food and educational expenses of my six children. Two of them are graduates and one is an intermediate (Plus Two) pass. The rest have studied up to Class 10. In contrast, my married sons now find it difficult to make ends meet," says Md Shamshuddin (55), a puncture repair mechanic who had to shift his shop close to the National Highway 2 in need of more customers.
Vikash Mahto, a young mukhiya from Dumdumi panchayat in Topchanchi block, says migration for work was also on the rise due to the lake’s poor condition.
Dilip Mahto at his lakeside eatery (Photo: Shabbir Hussain)
Rejuvenate & restore
A man-made reservoir, Topchanchi Lake was constructed by tapping 10 water streams flowing down the adjoining Parasnath, the highest mountain peak in Jharkhand at 1,365 m, located in Giridih district. While most of the streams dried up over the years, two of them — Dholkatta and Nalki — continued to be the lake’s major water sources. However, diversions made by farmers for irrigation and silt deposition have greatly affected their flows.
Simultaneously, silt deposition in Topchanchi Lake also hit its holding capacity. The lake’s normal water level is 50 ft, but it recedes to 30 ft in summers. Taking note of the need to bring back both supply channels and the lake to good health, besides diverting other water streams in Giridih district into Topchanchi Lake, Chandrashekhar Agarwal initiated a drive in 2016 in his capacity as the then Dhanbad mayor.
“We restored the lake’s major supply channels to their full glory and made plans to ensure supply from Maheshduba canal in Giridih. However, that did not materialise as an expert team from the urban development department informed us after a survey that it was not technically feasible as the canal was located at a lower altitude. For it to be integrated with Nalki, water should be diverted to a much higher altitude,” Agarwal tells 101Reporters.
Further, the silt removal from the lake in 2018-19 by utilising Rs 13.50 crore provided by the minor irrigation department replenished the lake, which touched above 60 ft. Over 100 labourers were employed for the clean-up and six tipper trucks arranged by Dhanbad Municipal Corporation were used to transport the collected mud. As a result, the water level increased to 78 ft in November 2020 and led to a breach for the first time after 2011.
However, a plan to build a tourism circuit connecting Topchanchi and Maithon Dam on River Barakar did not materialise due to lack of funds with the JMADA and the involvement of several departments in the proposed plan.
(Clockwise from left) A dense 8.7 sq ft forest surrounds Topchanchi Lake; Migratory birds fly over the lake; A new library near the lake, created by youth organisation Topchanchi Helping Hands Foundation (Photos: Shabbir Hussain)
Tourism push needed
Despite its improved health, Topchanchi Lake has not been able to draw as many tourists as it did before. “You know, it is not just about the scenic beauty of the lake spread over 21 acres. Several hillocks surround it. Due to the serene atmosphere, more Siberian birds arrive here when compared with Maithon Dam, located 48 km from Dhanbad,” informs Gokul Mukherjee (36), a private tutor.
The 8.7-sq km Topchanchi Wildlife Sanctuary is a dense forest with leopard, jungle cat, chital, barking deer, wild boar, mongoose, langur, jackal and fox roaming it. Apart from locally found bronze-winged jacana, pond heron, egret and swamp partridge, migratory birds such as black cormorant, black-winged stilt, common teal, gadwall, brown-headed gull, spoonbill, red-crested pochard and common coot flock to the lake in winters.
By organising youth in the locality, Mukherjee founded Topchanchi Helping Hands Foundation, which has been calling for concretisation of the lake embankment, renovation of guest houses, tree plantation in nearby areas, repair of a connected bridge and better security as the nearby Giridih has Maoist presence. Also, robbery and street harassment have been reported by tourists recently.
“On our part, we organise cleanliness drives in the lake and nearby spots. As part of our social work, we have established Swami Vivekanand Nishulk Pustakalay, a no-cost library to raise awareness among local children and youth,” Mukherjee adds.
Meanwhile, foundation member Advocate Panchanchan Singh draws attention towards the guest houses of the Jharkhand Mineral Area Development Authority (JMADA) in Topchanchi. “Four decades ago, both guest houses offered a comfortable stay for visitors. They are in ruins now.”
In its position as the custodian of Topchanchi Lake, the JMADA claims that decreasing revenue since the 1980s is the primary reason for the non-maintenance of existing infrastructure. Right now, the water supply tax is the only source of revenue left with it as the Jharkhand government has handed over collections under tonnage cess, royalty cess and stamp duty to other departments.
Pankaj Kumar Jha, the executive engineer (in-charge) of JMADA, tells 101Reporters that they were working simultaneously on two plans. “For the repair of bridges and culverts in bad shape, a cost estimate is under preparation. The JMADA itself will carry out the repairs. A comprehensive beautification plan for the lake and surroundings is also in the works. This will include the revival of guest houses and building of park benches around the lake.”
Jha says they have written to the technical team of the state’s urban development department to launch a survey to prepare a detailed plan and estimate before April. “We now have sufficient funds to carry out a comprehensive beautification,” he adds.
Cover Photo by Shabbir Hussain
Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli
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