Check out the property hoardings that dominate the Bangalore cityscape. Real-estate developers would have you believe that they are setting up a tropical paradise in the suburbs. The words 'lakeview', 'lakefront', and 'lakefacing' feature prominently; the accompanying images are often of a father and son fishing in a stream, or a couple lolling on a sunny, grassy bank as rosycheeked children splash around in the shallow waters of a clear lake. These lakes were a part of a centuries-old network of waterbodies that excessive urban development is choking out of existence in Bangalore. The irony is hard to escape.
"They sell these apartments as 'lakeview' properties. In a few years, the lake itself is gone, but the name remains," says Arbind Kumar Gupta, a citizen activist working for the rejuvenation of the city's lakes. Gupta has banded together with others to set up the Save Bangalore Lakes Trust, an umbrella body for activist groups working to conserve Bangalore's 190 waterbodies.
Several of these groups have seen unprecedented success in engaging with the local government and civic agencies. They have not only created greater awareness in the city about these dying lakes but also managed to rescue some of them from silting, encroachment, and rampant, unregulated sewage disposal.
"There is no point in saying that you can't engage with the government, that it is too difficult, that 'we pay our taxes, why should we do the government's job' . To say that the government is not receptive is to give it a free hand," says activist and documentary filmmaker Priya Ramasubban.
In the 1970s, Bangalore had around 270 thriving lakes or wetlands. The city's unique undulating topography allowed the formation of natural troughs where water collected and complex ecosystems emerged. These lakes were a part of the lives of the people who lived around them. Many of these lakes are in outlying areas that were semi-rural till a few decades ago.
The lakes provided drinking water so they were cared for and protected. There was extensive vegetation around them that sheltered the catchment areas. As the city grew and spread, the farmlands in these areas were sold as SEZs or residential plots. The catchment areas shrank, and the lakes started drying up. Some of them turned into marshes and drains.
Bangalore's lakes have a unique feature which is called raja kaluve, a complex network of storm-water drains, partly natural and partly man-made, which ensured that water from one overflowing lake automatically emptied into another in the neighbourhood. This network was damaged by rapid urban development. Of the 190 lakes that are still in existence, at least on paper, most are half their original size and filthy.
The Kaikondrahalli lake is an exception. Situated on Sarjapur Road, one of Bangalore's busiest IT corridors and an area crammed with housing complexes, this 48-acre lake was going the way of most city lakes till a few concerned citizens stepped in. In 2009, Ramasubban, a resident of the area, decided to fight for the lake's survival. She roped in other like-minded individuals, among them Ramesh Sivaram, an environmental engineer, and Dr Harini Nagendra, an ecologist who works with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.
The team started haunting the offices of the BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike) and other government bodies such as the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board, to drum up interest in the cause. In 2008, the BBMP had already made a list of lakes to rejuvenate, and an open-minded and proactive government officer, BE Satish, chief engineer of lakes at BBMP, listened to the Kaikondrahalli citizens' group and accepted their ideas and suggestions. He even scrapped the agency's plan to start boating facilities in the lake and a landscaped garden around it to preserve the diverse ecosystem.
The conservation group here is inclusive — participants include both homeowners as well as farmers who have lived here for decades. "We definitely didn't want it to be seen as some sort of upper middle-class effort," says Ramasubban. "We made sure that the lake retained some of the uses it had supported earlier. We included a kalyani (a small tank) where people can perform religious rituals and immersions, and made sure a local fisherman was allowed to fish in the lake. Recently, he came and told us that he wouldn't fish for two months 'because your pelicans are here' . They are roosting now, and he didn't want to disturb them. He also keeps an eye on the water quality and reports if there is a problem." The maintenance of the lake is funded by United Way Bengaluru, a non-profit organization, which has also 'adopted' 11 other lakes in the city.
Even before Kaikondrahalli, another citizens' group had worked to save a lake in south Bangalore called Puttenahalli. In fact, the Puttenahalli success story was an inspiration for many of the 35 lake trusts functioning across Bangalore. Activist citizens spend between 8-10 hours every week on the effort.
"When we formed the Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust in June 2010, we were the first to do so. I have lost count of the number of groups we have shared the trust deed with," says Usha Rajagopalan, a writer who spearheaded the rejuvenation of the 13-acre Puttenahalli lake.
One of the primary goals of these groups is to instill a sense of involvement among residents. The Puttenahalli group, for instance, has a website which is updated regularly with fresh information about the lake — new species of birds spotted, unusual activity and so on. "The first monsoon after the lake was revived, people gathered near it with torches and umbrellas to see the water gushing in from new storm water channels," says Rajagopalan.
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