Sultanpur and Najafgarh Jheels - by Peter Jackson
When I moved to Delhi in 1954, the birding place to visit was Najafgarh, a depression at the end of the Najafgarh drain spreading across the Delhi-Haryana boundary, which we reached from Najafgarh town. The drain had been created to allow floodwaters from the river Yamuna to flow into the depression to reduce the threat to Delhi city and areas downstream. After the monsoon, with the drop in the river level the water from the Najafgarh jheel (lake) flowed back to the Yamuna. But in the 1950s the drain was partly clogged and the excess water did not dry up, leaving an extensive jheel which attracted vast numbers of birds. I took Sir Julian Huxley, a famous ecologist and ornithologist, there one day, and because we had a crippled American birder with us I drove right to the edge of the jheel. The birds must have known of my distinguished guest for we had a spectacular show with every bird imaginable in the air, on the water and around us. Sir Julian was amazed.
I was absent from Delhi from 1960 to 1962, and, on my return, found that the Najafgarh jheel no longer existed. The drain had been cleared and had been linked to a series of jheels in Haryana and Punjab to drain monsoon rainwater away and stop water logging of farmland. It was then that I went further out and took the road from Gurgaon towards Farrukhnagar. It soon turned out to be derelict and broken up because of the water logging. I struggled on, despite not having four-wheel drive, and reached a low hill, just short of Sultanpur. Today, with a smooth, pucca road, you probably don't realize it is there, but at that point the road collapsed almost completely, leaving a sandy track. A new road to Farrukhnagar had been built further south and this "road" was left for bullock and camel carts. With a bit of speed to start with, I managed to surmount the hill and looked out on a large jheel, packed with birds. As I drove on there was a smaller jheel on the right before the main one.
Sultanpur had clearly become a major haven for birds now that the Najafgarh jheel had gone. I had a great time, and, for the next eight years, was there frequently. It was then a plain sheet of water, with no mounds or trees as there are today. Further on, across a railway line, was another large jheel on the right, quite good for birds, but I think that has gone now.
I took Peter Scott, Richard Fitter, Dillon Ripley, Salim Ali, Zafar Futehally, and some others to Sultanpur Lake in 1969. That led the following year to my approaching Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to obtain protection for the jheel. The Haryana government was enthusiastic, because the state had few attractions, and they were starting to create picnic sites at various reservoirs. Their plans rather frightened me, because they proposed the mounds and trees, along with the rest house and tourist village, presumably having in mind another Bharatpur, while, to me, Sultanpur was sacred as a natural jheel. Later I came to appreciate the mounds and trees, which surely add to the number of bird species, while Sultanpur and other villages benefited from a pucca road. I had been across the hill north of Sultanpur to have a look at the old Najafgarh jheel area, and noticed that there were trees on that side, with old nests - in fact, some cormorants were still there. I realized that the nesters could well move to trees on the Sultanpur jheel. Incidentally, when I went there with Usha Ganguli, a keen Delhi birder, we saw half a dozen Blackbuck, already extremely rare. I don't recall seeing any Nilgai around Sultanpur then, but now they are plentiful and love the mounds.