India's 13th national lake surrounding a heritage palace has turned to the 13th President for protection. This follows thirteen meetings between Tripura Tourism officials and 600 farmers who have since 1960 eaten up 1465.86 acres of the 2071.78 acre (800ha) lake.
Neermahal translates into Water Palace. Sited in the middle of Rudrasagar Lake 53km south of Tripura capital Agartala, it is the only lake palace of its scale after Jagniwas Palace in Pichola Lake at Udaipur, Rajasthan.
But while Jagniwas Palace prospered as an upscale hotel, Neermahal fell into disuse six years after Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya made it his summer residence in 1938.
Post-Partition in 1947, settlers raided and peeled off the palace's furnishings. The lake around suffered more as fishermen took to farming and began stretching their farmlands into the lake.
"The survival of 2,000 fishing families depends on this 800ha lake that becomes 140ha during the dry season. We had only 600 members in 1960. These 600 decided to distribute among themselves the land on the edges of the lake for cultivation during the dry season. They should ideally give up the land which does not belong to them so that tourism can be promoted," said Satyaban Das, secretary of Rudrasagar Fishermen's Cooperative Society.
The society wants the 'stubborn 600' to make way for a tourism project to dredge the lake, build an embankment and a ring road around it. Tripura Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC) has also tied up with the society for sharing revenue from a 100-bed lodge coming up on the edge of the lake.
"Our focus has changed after we earned Rs. 24 lakh in the 2011-12 fiscal by ferrying people to the lake palace. Fishing during that period gave us only Rs. 18 lakh," Das said.
The Neermahal Palace is the only lake palace of its scale after Udaipur's Jagniwas Palace. HT photo
Krita Ranjan Chakma, TTDC managing director, said increasing Neermahal's appeal hinged on reclaiming the lake from the farmers.
"We are eyeing at recovering at least 700acre of the 800acre lake that originally measured 5.3 sq km," he said.
That, locals said, could depend on President Pranab Mukherjee's reaction to a plea to save Rudrasagar.
"We hope Rudrasagar's status as the 13th national lake will strike a chord with Pranabda, our 13th President," said Anjan Barman, a fisherman seeking a lake cleared of the 'hideous' encroaching paddy fields.
Tripura's focus on Neermahal follows DoNER ministry's push for awareness about prime tourist attractions in the Northeast through the Indian Chamber of Commerce.