When the Angling Association came into existence in 1956, one of our members wrote a book, aptly titled Powai: The Angler’s Paradise.

Much water has flowed over the dam since, and Powai lake has thus far been able to survive numerous threats. Still, perhaps nowhere in the world can one find a lake which retains some of the beauty of old in the midst of high-rise buildings, industries and traffic jams. A lake which is home to the great Indian Mahaseer — a world-famous game fish fast facing extinction. A lake which holds some of the prized specimens of the famous Indian Carp family: the Catla, the Rohu, the Mirgal, running up to 45 lbs or a good 20 kgs. A lake with a crocodile island and ten crocodiles to boast of. A lake with fish hawks, kingfishers, cormorants, wild fowl, cranes, egrets and turtles. A lake with two hills in the distance, between which sunrise can still be seen as in old painted landscapes. A lake where silence is the only sound in the still of night, deep in the heart of Mumbai.

It’s believed that the original Powai valley stood here — a central village with clusters of huts, each having its own well. Powai village was also served by a rivulet resulting from the rain waters of the lowest slopes of Western ghats, now seen as the hillock on the southern end of the lake, with streams from the eastern and north-eastern slopes. During the British regime, the authorities intended to augment water supply to Mumbai by creating a lake from this rivulet, and in 1891, this was achieved by constructing two stone dams across two hillocks. Each dam was, and still is, about 10 metres high. The spread of the water body thus achieved was about 370 acres or 2.10 sq km, and the depth varied from about 10 ft (off periphery) to 40 ft at its deepest.

The lake is about 17 miles from central Mumbai. Average rainfall at Powai is about 2,540 mm, and the lake overflows for about 60 days each year. Studies in 1995 estimated 3,000 cubic metres of silt as having been deposited over the years. It is believed the original wells still exist below the water level but could have been silted up. However, after all this effort by the authorities, it was found that the waters of Powai were polluted and unfit for drinking. Various studies were conducted which repeatedly confirmed these findings, till finally the project was abandoned.

Then, Powai Lake was leased out to the Western India Fishing Association, a quasi-government organisation which used it for both fish culture and angling. Later, the Bombay Presidency Angling Association was formed and approved by the then Bombay government in 1936. Later, the name was changed to The Maharashtra State Angling Association (MSAA). It was registered in 1955 under the Societies Registration Act, 1860. The founder was the late Hugo Basil Hayes of The American Express, Bombay. The objective of the association was angling as a sport.

In 1991, realising the deteriorating environment and fast-disappearing beauty spots in Mumbai, the MSAA decided to amend itsconstitution and involve itself in environmental work to save Powai lake from the destructive influences working against it.

The MSAA itself has grown from a little shed to which dedicated anglers walked from Andheri station through snake-infested fields, with panthers on the prowl. They sat on the banks in the heat of the sun or among swarms of mosquitoes on a moonlit night, waiting patiently for the peacock float to quiver on the surface of the water at the end of a rod and fishing line — an indication that a giant of a fish was nibbling, and then the float would dip deep into the still waters as the fish took the bait. And the fight would begin, characterised by the scream of the fishing reel and the arc of the thin fishing rod, as the giant tore out metres and metres of line in its great run across Powai lake. At the end of anything between 30 minutes and two hours, a big fish of up to 60 lbs would show it massive head reeled in and tired by the long fight. It was time to land the prize, take picturesand, maybe, even return it to its home (a form of angling known as sport fishing).

Today the same electric atmosphere prevails as one waits patiently till that float dips slowly and the blood rushes as the monster runs, almost pulling out one’s arm with its power. But the MSAA now has covered boats and a proper club house. It has a nursery where fishes are reared and released into the lake each year by the lakh. Fishes are brought by the MSAA from Calcutta, Lonavla, Pune, and the Aarey hatcheries, as they no longer breed at Powai lake. It’s only because of the MSAA that the fishes are replenished every year, grown to their full size and even preserved, as in a conservatory, at the lake. Only a small fraction of the fish introduced by MSAA are taken on rod and line. Most of these specimens either live in Powai to their full lifespan or are poached by gangs of poachers, who invade the lake and even assault our security staff who get no help from BMC in saving these specimens.

A typical angler at Powai wouldwake up at 5.30 am. He would pack his bag with a tea flask and a few munchies. He’s too much in a hurry to reach Powai to bother about food. He spends most of the morning preparing the ground bait — a highly aromatic herbal preparation which he throws at his fishing spot. The hook bait is placed on the hook itself, and as the fish swims around the ground bait, he spots the hook bait and the nibble which is transmitted to the float alerts the angler into striking and hooking the fish. The typical angler is oblivious to the passage of time. How long will the legend of Powai go on? One cannot say. The lake is being threatened by builders, slumlords, poachers, and illegal hutments. Water is stolen from here, garbage and plastic bags dumped callously, clothes washed as on a dhobi ghat, and there are chemical pollutants, poisonous paints and organic wastes from immersed idols further endangering the lake.

But above all, Powai lake suffers from lack of support from the BMC and the government, who’re doing theirbest to get rid of MSAA, which has been spending about 80 per cent of its meagre income on environmental work at the lake. The BMC is attempting to raise the lease rent of MSAA by more than a hundred times, and it is threatening to evict MSAA. The MSAA introduces fishes into the waters, removes hyacinth infestation and supports research on fishes. It also works with other environmental bodies to keep the lake clean. The organisation has been responsible for inclusion of Powai lake in The National Lake Conservation Programme of the Government of India, which is pending implementation.

The BMC doesn’t appear to appreciate the work being put in by MSAA and has not renewed its lease since 1991. Representations are being made, and we hope better sense will prevail. The MSAA is now working to gain support of other environmental activists to save Powai lake. But we wonder if, after some time, we’ll still be able to call Powai an angler’s paradise.

(Gordon Rodricks is the honorary general secretary of TheMaharashtra State Anglers Association)

Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.