IL&FS helps reverse an ecological disaster and restore a 300-year old water palace in Rajasthan

Four hundred years ago

When a deadly famine struck Rajasthan in 1596, the ruler of Amer built an earth and quartzite dam across the Darbhawati river to meet the concomitant water shortage. The dam directed water into a natural basin in the lap of the Aravalli hills, creating the 300-acre Mansagar lake. At its centre was built the majestic Jal Mahal or ‘water palace’ — a summer resort where the royal family would host duck-hunting parties.

Maharaja Jai Singh II of Amer is said to have made the last of a series of restorations to the lake, the dam and the palace in the 18th century. Built in red sandstone in the Rajput and Mughal styles of architecture, Jal Mahal is an exquisite five-storied building of which four floors remain under water when the lake is full.

Ugly disintegration

In recent times, the palace had been reduced to a ruin — some even called it haunted — and the lake a dump for Jaipur’s sewage. The lake had shrunk with heavy siltation, and effluents from the city’s drains had contaminated the surrounding groundwater. Historically, it had been home to 150 species of migratory birds, including the Greater Flamingo and the Kestrel, but their numbers dwindled as its quality plummeted. 

Past attempts at restoration had failed because of paucity of funds and a non-incentivised approach, and lacked long-term sustainability

Mansagar lake and Jal Mahal had certainly become haunted by neglect, with the lack of any legal framework for heritage conservation, and the ugly disintegration that followed. Several attempts at restoration by the Government of Rajasthan had failed because of paucity of funds and a non-incentivised approach towards the restoration; nor were the efforts directed towards sustainable maintenance of the lake and palace in the long term.

Located bang on the Jaipur–Amer tourist corridor that receives 800,000 tourists a year — a quarter of them international tourists — what could have been a popular destination of natural and architectural beauty was instead a smelly, toxic wasteland.

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The lake had become a sewage dump and the palace a ruin

IL&FS designs a collaborative solution

In 2003, through its joint-venture company with Government of Rajasthan, PDCOR Limited, IL&FS institutionalized a careful process of project development and structuring to bring the lake and monument back to life. It was able to design a restoration initiative, source the resources for project implementation and innovatively involve the private sector in sustainable development of the project area.

While government funds were leveraged to clean the Mansagar lake, private sector expertise and management were harnessed to develop the palace, the lake and its surrounding areas into an integrated eco-tourism destination, thus ensuring the cash flows required to maintain the lake’s ecological components. 

Two million tonnes of silt were dredged from the lake, later used for building purposes ... sewage treatment plants were set up and nesting islands created

PDCOR undertook the complex responsibility of stakeholder management through a steering committee that represented Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC), Jaipur Development Authority (JDA), Jaipur Municipal Corporation, Pollution Control Board, Irrigation Department, Fisheries Department and PWD. With the JDA as nodal agency for the project, PDCOR comprehensively managed an international competitive bidding process to identify a suitable private sector developer for the project. It also undertook a review of the proposed master plan through a panel of eminent architects.

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An international competitive bidding process was used to identify a private sector developer for the project

Turning the tide

Two million tonnes of silt were dredged from the lake bottom, increasing its depth by over a metre. The silt was used to build a lakefront promenade and a check dam to reduce future siltation. The two major drains of Jaipur leading into the lake were diverted into a newly created sewage treatment plant and tertiary treatment facility away from the lake. The wastewater would further flow into artificial wetlands created to further upgrade its quality. The treated and effluent-free water from these facilities would be redirected into the Mansagar lake to maintain a constant water level through the year.

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Mansagar lake was desilted and its ecology scientifically revived

In situ bioremediation was employed in the lake to improve water quality. Local vegetation and fish were scientifically reintroduced. The surrounding wetlands were regenerated and five nesting islands were created to attract migratory birds and augment wildlife population. A Lake Monitoring Committee was set up to monitor the periodic maintenance of the lake, with representatives from the Government of Rajasthan, the private sector developer and the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) of the Central Government.

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The project has succeeded in transforming the ecology of the lake and its surrounds

Private investment to restore common heritage

100 acres of the land along the southern periphery of the lake were leased out to the private developer to develop various tourist attractions, thereby generating income and employment opportunities for the local communities. 

In keeping with the overall focus on ecological sustainability, construction was permitted only on a fraction this land while the remaining would be appropriately landscaped. The annual lease rentals received from the private developer were designed to flow into a separate fund that would be used for maintaining the lake on a continuous long-term basis. 

Traditional craftspeople were brought in to restore the intricate jaalis and to build the wooden rowboats that would be used to ferry tourists
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Authentic restoration was incentivised through a private developer

As part of the lease agreement, the developer also took on the restoration of the monument. The monument was also damaged by the shoddy repair jobs of recent years: cement plaster that had been slapped over the meticulously crafted walls had to be carefully removed to reveal the original designs. Now the restoration team used only traditional materials — a special mortar mix of lime, sand and surkhi mixed with jaggery, guggal and methi. Traditional craftspeople were brought in to restore the intricate jaalis and to build the wooden rowboats that would be used to ferry tourists across the lake to the palace.

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The restoration team used traditional natural materials for restoration

A replicable PPP model for ecological restoration

With its historical, architectural, ecological and cultural components, the Mansagar Project Area was one of diversity, complexity and a range of stakeholders — true to the context, IL&FS designed the project to create a multitude of beneficiaries. The lake and its catchment area saw a drastic ecological transformation, while the monument received a dramatic and meticulous overhaul. With this groundwork, the private sector commercially developed the lakefront to encourage the conservation and revitalization of traditional arts and handicrafts, food, festivals and drama to form a rich tourist destination en route the famous Amer fort from the Pink City.

The MoEF recommended a similar approach to other states for lake conservation projects

The Jal Mahal project highlights the creation of a sustainable framework for operation & maintenance in terms of structure as well as funding, so far neglected in other such efforts. The institutional framework of the project enables strengthening environmental managerial capacity within the government and non-governmental organizations by demonstrating the feasibility of project implementation on a sustainable basis. The project created a replicable format involving private sector, to offer a technically feasible solution for ecological conservation projects, particularly lake bodies that are not monsoon-fed.

MoEF also appreciated the unique project structure recognizing that 'the project document and structure have served as a benchmark for developing sustainable lake restoration projects on Public Private Partnership (PPP) model', and recommended a similar approach to other states for lake conservation projects. The Jal Mahal project serves to demonstrate the power of partnerships when all the stakeholders bring trust, clarity, and integrity of purpose to the initiative.

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