Sukhna Lake is a man-made lake that was created by building a stone-cum-earthen embankment to block the flow of water of the Sukhna Choe that originates in the Shivalik Hills to the north of Chandigarh. The 42 feet high rockfill earth dam was completed in 1958 to create a kidney-shaped lake, 1.52 KM long and 1.49 KM wide. The initial storage capacity of the lake was about 11 million cubic metres of water. The water spread area was 1.88 sq. km. The average depth of the lake was about 15 feet with the deepest point being 33 feet deep.
The lake’s northern boundary with the Shivalik foothills is natural and irregular. The arc-shaped embankment with a beautiful tree-lined promenade on the top, forms the south-western boundary. The Sukhna Choe was dammed to the south of the point of confluence of its tributaries the Suketri nadi and the Kansal nadi. The Kansal nadi was in fact diverted from its original course by the Punjab Irrigation Department in 1972-73, by building a diversion channel, to supplement the natural flow of the Suketri choe. The Suketri choe in turn has the Ghareri, Nepali and Nathewala nadis as its tributaries. These nadis and choes together drain the Chandigarh Shivalik Hills that lie to the north of the lake and which comprise over 75% of the 42 sq.km catchment area of the lake. The balance 25% of the catchment area comprises of the agricultural fields, stream beds and forest area that falls between the lake and the hills. 70 % of this catchment area falls in Chandigarh, 25 % in Haryana and the balance 5% in Punjab. The control of this entire area was, however, vested with UT Chandigarh after the creation of Haryana in 1966 to enable a composite approach for soil conservation.
The Chandigarh Shivalik Hills have a rugged terrain characterized by steep slopes (average slope being 30 degrees) and deep gulleys. The soils are alluvial –sandy embedded with clay and boulders. This fragile ‘badland’ topography is highly susceptible to erosion. Over 50% of the total rainfall in the Shivaliks ends up as run-off into the nadis and the choes that bring large amounts of silt which gets deposited along the stream beds and eventually the lake bed.
The erosion rates in the Shivaliks were increased further by the mass deforestation of the slopes in the 50s and the 60s. This in turn led to heavy siltation of the lake with its water storage capacity being reduced to nearly one-third of the original within three decades from the creation of the lake. The water spread declined to about two-third of the original. The lake was thus rendered shallower and smaller.
The late 70s saw attention being focused on water-shed management and soil-conservation measures. The famous ‘Sukhomajri’ Project was started as a pilot project for an integrated approach to water-shed management. The Sukhomajri Village of the 70s lay at the head of the Kansal choe and had all the problems that were typical of the villages in the Shivalik foothills. The water-table was low and availability of water was poor during the dry season. The yields from agriculture were expectedly low. There was insufficient fodder to allow rearing of milch-cattle. The villagers thus reared goats and grazed them on the hill slopes. They also lopped trees for fodder. The over-grazing and excessive lopping ruined the natural forest ecology thereby exposing the slopes to heavy erosion by run-off leading to gulley formation and landslips. As part of the Water-Shed Project, water-harvesting dams were built across choes and streams to create perennial reservoirs. The increased availability of water in turn increased the viability of crop and dairy farming. Afforestation drives and contour-planting of local trees was undertaken to stabilize the denuded slopes. The seasonal lease to private contractors for collection of fodder grass (bhabar) from the hills was discontinued. The management of dams and the collection of fodder grass and firewood was entrusted to the Hill Management Societies of local villagers to make them stake holders in sustainable use of local resources. The ecology was now sought to be protected through ‘Social Fencing’. The experiment yielded results and was widely replicated all over the Shivaliks. A drastic reduction in siltation rates was achieved for sometime but the mid-80s saw a relapse.
The 80s saw increasing people-involvement and widespread concern over the future of this ‘dying’ lake. Jaspal Bhatti’s ‘cricket match’ on the dried up bed of the lake in the summer of 1988 drew attention to the catastrophic decline of the lake. The Administration was spurred by the media and the Courts to step-in and save the Jewel-in-the-Crown of City Beautiful before it disappeared completely. A slew of measures were adopted including the afforestation drives in the catchment area of the lake. Check dams were built all along the nadis in the hills to arrest the flow of silt at the source. The silted up portion of the lake was developed into a reserve forest with plantations of Eucalyptus and other local species like Kikar.
The silt near the Spillway Regulator at the eastern end of the lake was removed and used for building an embankment to create a basin at the point of inflow from the Sukhna Choe to contain the spread of silt. 1988 saw the start of the annual ‘Shramdan’. Save-the-Sukhna fever swept the city and tens of thousands participated every year in the effort to desilt the lake through free voluntary labour. Eventually, manual efforts were augmented with the far more effective mechanical desilting. Five years of Shramdan from 1988 to 1993 saw the removal of 1 million cubic metre of silt from the lake bed by manual and mechanical processes (equivalent to a cube of 100 m X 100 m X 100 m). The Tramp had also volunteered as a student in these well-intentioned but ill-conceived efforts under the blazing summer sun that eventually failed to make any major impact on the silt situation. The Save-the-Sukhna Movement, however, did demonstrate that the citizens of Chandigarh could be mobilized in such large numbers over a sustained period of five years for the cause of environment.
The Ministry of Environment and Forest, Government of India recognized the Sukhna Lake in 1988 as one of the ‘National Wetlands’ that required priority for conservation. A 2.17 KM long, 62.5 m wide and 3 m deep rowing channel (the longest in the country) was built in 1989 for the 3rd Asian Rowing Championship and it also contributed in containing the flow of silt.
The afforestation and soil conservation measures in the Chandigarh Shivalik Hills resulted in the gradual regeneration of the forest cover over an area of 26 sq. km. With the recovery of the habitat the natural fauna of the region has made a re-entry and the area has been notified as the Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary is now home to the Sambar deer, the Chital, the barking deer, the Nilgai, the Sloth-Bear, the Leopard, the Golden Jackal, Civets, Mongoose, Wild Cats and a large variety of Avian fauna and reptiles.
The Tramp reproduces the account of a nature lover’s encounter with a Golden Jackal on the outskirts of the sanctuary area.
“The Day of the Jackal”
Was out birding in the afternoon at Saketri just behind Sukhna Lake. Went to one of my regular spots which has a road right adjacent to it and parked waiting to catch a few migrant bird species in the vegetation and then I spotted this guy, initially I assumed it was a dog but the way it moved through the undergrowth got me thinking it maybe something else, so I stayed put and waited for 15-20 minutes before he stepped out for a couple of seconds. Confirmed with the experts it was indeed a jackal and although they are common they are not easily seen and photographed!
The Sanctuary can be accessed through the Gates at Kansal and at Saketri (Nepali Gate). The Forest Department has created interesting nature trails for trekking. There are 12 ‘Watch Towers’ and 3 Forest Rest Houses inside the Sanctuary- the Inspection ‘Huts’ at Kansal and Nepali and the beautiful Log Hut at Kansal.
The Sanctuary has numerous ponds and lakes created by the earthen Check Dams built across the choes and streams for soil and water conservation. The Sanctuary is visited annually by about 10,000 avian visitors.
Sukhna Lake serves as a sanctuary for a large number of resident and migratory birds. Some 30 species of residents and 120 species of winter migrants have been spotted at the Sukhna Wetland Bird Sanctuary. The migratory water-birds generally begin arriving in October beginning. They fly in from the Siberian tundra and Central Asia over the mountain chain formed by the Pamirs, the Hindu-Kush, the Kun-Lun, the Karakorams and the Himalayas. The migration peaks around mid-January when the migrants- the grebes, geese, shelducks, marsh ducks, diving ducks, rails, coots, stilts and sandpipers join the ranks of the residents- the grebes, cormorants, darters, herons, egrets, plovers, harriers and terns. The most commonly sighted species include the Crested Grebe, the Little Grebe, the Mallard, the Common Pochard, the Spot-billed duck, the Drake, the Tufted duck, the Shoveler, the Purple Moorhen, the Common Coot, the Grey Heron, the Purple Heron, the Large Egret, the Little Egrets, the Greylag Geese, the Sandpiper, the Brahminy duck, the Black-winged Stilt, the Great Cormorant, the Indian River Tern, the Common Shelduck, the Indian Darter and the Marsh Harrier.
Most water-birds prefer the eastern-end of the lake near the regulator gates that is shallower and has numerous mud-bars and mud-deposits that are convenient spots for resting, sunning and preening for most species. The water-birds feed on fish, crustacean, mud-dwelling invertebrates, water plants and tiny plankton. It is now understood that the siltation of the lake has been a blessing in disguise. It has resulted in the creation of a wetland ecosystem that has over the years become an attractive destination for a large number of migratory species. The Sukhna Wetland is today widely recognized as a birder’s paradise despite its small size.
Apart from the Sukhna Lake there are around 150 small and large water bodies in the Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary that forms its catchment area. These water bodies also attract winter migratory birds and have a rich population of resident bird species. The Avian Habitat and Wetland Society (AWHS) and UT Forest and Wildlife Department have recently joined hands to conduct a birds’ survey in Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary to ascertain the number of bird species found in the Sanctuary during different seasons. Some 200 birds’ species have been identified.
1. Siltation Problems in Sukhna Lake; ENVIS Bulletin Vol 10(2): Himalayan Ecology; Yadvinder Singh
2. A temporary home for migratory birds, Baljit Singh, The Tribune, March 17, 2002