On the western fringes of Hyderabad, surrounded by fantastic primordial rock formations, modern apartments, factories and a village, is a sprawling and ancient man-made lake. Ameenpur Lake dates back to the time of Ibrahim Qutb Shah, who ruled the kingdom of Golconda between 1550 and 1580. According to one account, the tank was excavated to irrigate a large public garden. The lake is now divided into two parts called Pedda Ameenpur and Chinna Cheruvu.
Today, Ameenpur Lake has the distinction of being the first water body in the country to be declared a Biodiversity Heritage Site. The biodiversity tag was awarded for the Pedda Ameenpur Lake, which is at a higher elevation than Chinna Cheruvu.
The lake brims with life: bar-headed geese, cormorants, ruddy shelducks, and grey herons. The checkered keelback snake snaps up fish and buffaloes wallow in the deep end. Farmers harvest paddy at the shoreline. The teeming birdlife was one of the reasons Ameenpur Lake caught the imagination of the average person; birders and photographers throng the lake to catch sight of flamingos, pelicans and cormorants swallowing fish or—even better—birds swooping down to steal a fish from a water snake.
During the famous annual bird race, Hyderabad’s birdwatchers generally make the lake their first stop. At last count (in 2016), the lake recorded 186 species, up from 171 in 2015.
The biodiversity tag, says G. Sailu, project coordinator of the Telangana State Biodiversity Board, can play an important role in protecting such lakes that are otherwise rapidly disappearing due to the ravages of urbanisation. “We have been able to stop encroachments, garbage dumping and the disturbance to birds that used to occur here. If we can conserve this lake, we can use it as a role model for other lakes across the country,” says Sailu.
Despite this, all is not well with Ameenpur Lake. Spread across 93 acres, the lake is still less than a third of its original size of 300 acres because of rampant encroachment. A new cinderblock brick kiln has come up on one side of the lake. Satellite images show a sewer from a chemical industry complex on its western shore discharging effluents into the lake.
Sitting in the shade of an ancient peepul tree, Narasimha Reddy, the village patel who looks equally ancient, tut-tuts the biodiversity tag. “It has not changed anything. Do you see a change? The water is green. Even 10-15 years ago, we used to drink the water from the lake. If you threw a coin into the water, you could see it clearly deep inside. Now your skin will peel off if you dip your hand into the lake,” he says.
Srikant Bhamidipati of the Birdwatchers Society of Andhra Pradesh also sounds a bit sceptical. “The number of bird species appears to have come down; there are fewer trees now; and a foul smell pervades the lake. Birdwatchers and fishers—they come and go, they don’t disturb the habitat. But the lake continues to be under threat from several other sources, and a single clean-up is not going to help.” .
No more thermocol
On the other hand, many of those who depend on the lake for their livelihood are delighted. The fish catch has gone up, for one. “Earlier, the lake would shrink every summer reducing the catch, but this year the water spread has been consistent and we didn’t have to spread our nets across the whole lake,” says Venkatesh, a fisherman from Ameenpur village, as he picks out the smaller fish still entangled in his fine net. Until two years ago, fishermen used drums and firecrackers to shoo away the birds that competed with them for the catch. But now there is enough fish for everyone.
The cleanliness of the lake has improved too, he says: “We used to get plastic bottles, plastic sheets, pieces of thermocol, and bits of rubber tyres entangled in our nets. Not any more.”
In turn, the fishermen have been forbidden from bringing their vehicles right to the edge of the lake as they used to before. “We have to carry the catch to the road now,” says Venkatesh.
“It was because of the biodiversity tag that the government was granted ₹3.72 crore to improve the weir, open up inlets and clean up the lake,” says Tejdeep Kaur Menon, an IPS officer who has commanded and cajoled the neighbourhood as well as the trainees at Telangana State Special Protection Force to clean up the lake.
“We have helped sensitise 123 housing colonies in the area about sorting garbage and littering. We blocked off the road on the lake bund after we discovered that aluminum cans containing chemicals were being dumped in the lake. “The offending pharmaceutical company agreed to pay up ₹16 lakh as penalty to the Pollution Control Board,” says Menon.
Other companies are being persuaded to set up sewage treatment plants. A number of borewells had been sunk in at the shore, with water siphoned off to nearby colonies. That has also been stopped. A survey for marking the Full Tank Level has been carried out. Once the markers are in place, it will reduce chances of further encroachments.
Meanwhile, other birders are not complaining. They say that the number of birds and their diversity has gone up. Pelicans would not typically visit the lake, but they arrived in large numbers last year. Recently, a few bar-headed geese were spotted for the first time too.
The recently formed Biodiversity Management Committee is obviously still finding its feet. “We have begun in a small way. We are planning to construct a fence around the lake once the funds kick in. Our panchayat has sanctioned ₹5 lakh for the project. Right now, our biggest role is to raise awareness about the lake’s ecological importance,” says village sarpanch Srinivas Goud, who is part of the committee. “Most school children now understand the importance of protecting the lake. That I think is a good beginning.”