Once famous for its 12 dense forests and hundreds of water bodies, Vrindavan, the "leela-bhoomi", sacred land, of Sri Krishna and his consort Radha, Hinduism's popular divinities, is fast turning into a concrete jungle.
"Instead of trees you have multi-storeyed apartment buildings coming up all over. Where are the sacred forests where Sri Krishna frolicked with gopis and thousands of the devout meditated for salvation," asked a Hare Krishna devotee from Russia, not wanting to be named.
"The green cover has vanished. The dominant colour is brown and gray today," he lamented. The holy town has several hundred foreign "bhakts" seen chanting "Hare Krishna" while performing the "parikrama"– circumambulation of sacred places — along the Yamuna.
Local environmentalists blame large-scale construction and extensive sheet-piling activity on the flood-plains of the Yamuna river for the steep decline in the water table of this holy town, visited by millions of Sri Krishna devotees round the year.
At most places, the fall has been precipitous, say activists.
"The quality of water pumped out has also suffered. In many places, it is muddy and black. The Yamuna remains dry for most part of the year. What flows down is waste, sewerage and industrial effluents from upstream industrial clusters. The odour is noxious," said Madhu Mangal Shukla, a petitioner in the Allahabad High Court, which has stayed construction on the flood-plains.
The imminent water crisis ahead of summer has caused anxiety. Local environmentalists say the Yamuna River-Front Development Project of the Uttar Pradesh government on the flood-plains has choked the aquifers.
"Metal sheets were inserted 25 feet deep inside the ground in a two kilometre area in front of the heritage ghats of Vrindavan," said heritage conservationist Shravan Kumar Singh.
"The groundwater level of Vrindavan is entirely dependent on the Yamuna as the town is surrounded by the river on three sides. The percolation recharge of Vrindavan's ground water is determined by the river's water level. The sheet-piling activity may have impacted the city's water level," he added.
The priests, or pandas, of local temples fear that the depleting water table may hit Vrindavan hard, as the city's water supply is largely dependent on the tubewells bored on the banks of the Yamuna.
Since the Yamuna's water is unfit for human consumption, it is the 50-odd tubewells along the river which cope with the city's water needs.
"Groundwater decline has become a real and serious problem in Vrindavan. Although a large number of tubewells were dug by the municipality to provide water to the residents, no steps have been taken to conserve water," said B.L. Upadhyay, a resident of the Cheer Ghat neighbourhood.
"There are 14 wells and a water tank (kund), in our temple. Water supply for all the rituals of the temple is largely dependent on the water of the wells and the kund. We have seen a drastic fall of water level in our water reservoirs. The borewells in many parts of the city have dried up even before the onset of summer," Charchita Rangacharya of the Rangji temple explained.
Acharya Naresh Narayan, a senior member of the Braj Vrindavan Heritage Alliance, said: "The floodplains have been a self-recharging and self-sustaining aquifer for the city's water. The illegal dumping of debris, construction rubble and the extension of settlements on the flood-plain are the chief reasons for the groundwater not being adequately recharged. Now, the sheet piling activity has sounded the death knell in the potable water supply of the temple town."
The National Green Tribunal and the Allahabad High Court have stayed the River Front project started by the Uttar Pradesh government without expert consultation and NOCs from appropriate authorities, including the Archaeological Survey of India. But the civil works undertaken so far has already fundamentally impacted Vrindavan's fragile ecology.
"Unfortunately all over the Braj area, including Goverdhan, Barsana, Gokul and Mathura, one sees unprecedented construction activity, often without permission. The world's tallest Sri Krishna temple being built in Vrindavan could only add to the pressure on scarce water resources," fear green circles here.