In 1992, when Swiss Envoy Willy P. Blazer, Vice-Counsellor and Head of Chancery of Switzerland in India, drove to Khajjiar – one of the most mesmerising, world famed tourists destination in Chamba --- he was moved by its beauty, tranquillity and serenity.
Drawn by its topographical resemblance to Switzerland, he declared the hill station "Mini Switzerland" of India. He also got signage put out there, bringing this quaint destination on the international map.
Dating back to the 12th century, Khajjiar originates from Khajji Nag, a temple located at the lake dedicated to a serpent God. Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary near Khajjiar is home to animals including deer and bears.
Since then, Khajjiar, well known for its tall whispering deodars, majestic cedars and sprawling saucer-shaped green meadows with a marshy natural lake in the middle, has witnessed an endless struggle to live up to its glory.
Today, Pawan Kumar, a professional photographer says, “Khajjiar is dying an unnatural death. The lake is full of weeds, mud, slush and garbage. It’s shrinking due to encroachments. The water has turned dark black, is highly polluted and emits a foul smell. You can’t touch it. It’s totally dirty. The trees around the lake are also dying or few are left to die”.
Pawan, who is also a local stakeholder, however, claims that due to an approximate footfall of 8 to 10 lakhs every year, he earns his liveihood due to the popularity of the lake that drives foreigners and domestic visitors around the year.
Khajjiar is located next to the famous hill station of Dalhousie, the finest hill station in the Dhauladhar ranges, named after Lord Dalhousie, and is a sanctuary area. Thus, environmentalists and wildlife enthusiasts have also been raising concerns about the place dying slowly.
Ashok Mahajan, an old native of Chamba, points out that one of the biggest problems is the growing pollution and environmental degradation. The sewage discharge from the dhabas and eateries flows down to the lake. The lake has got filled up with multi-layers of slush and mud. Indiscriminate grazing and soil erosion are also a menace resulting in the flowing down of cow-dung into the stagnant water.
“As children, we used to see only 10 to 12 cattle grazing at Khajjiar. Now, there is no count as to how many cows are taken for grazing every day as locals assert their right to feed their milking cattle, sheep and goats, a means of traditional livelihood mean," Mahajan adds.
Some years back, the state government made another blunder. It ordered the Irrigation and Public Health (IPH) department and a few other agencies to mobilise machinery to start de-siltation drive and flushing. The machines were also deployed for the de-weeding of the lake.
This proved to be an ecological disaster for the existence of the lake as per a report compiled by experts from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). The mechanised digging and dragging caused greater damage than helped its revival. They were of the opinion that only manual operations can save the lake, or help in extending its lifespan.
There are similar inputs also from the Council for Science, Environment and Technology, which sometime back had approved a plan of Rs 48 lakh.
“There is some hope seen in the steps we have taken after the visit of the WII team. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) and High Court have also started monitoring our efforts, which involve manual dredging and removal of wild weeds. Check dams have also been built in the catchment areas and tree lines to stop the flow of the solid waste and foreign matters into the lake” Rajeev Kumar, Divisional Forest Officer (Wildlife), Chamba tells Outlook.
He admits that though there is no big hope for the lake to turn back to its glory yet some correct steps will definitely make some value addition in the next three to four years, but if the efforts are consistent.
“Actually the entire lake ecosystem is threatened due to rapid changes and some unwanted interferences, alternations and unscientific interventions. Its catchment area has also shrunk and lake depth has also got reduced significantly. One can hope that our efforts will pay off, a bit if not to pre-1990s or 80s.” says D C Rana, Deputy Commissioner Chamba.