Demanding a refill

Business Standard Weekend

Dec 24, 2011

Shilpa Pai Mizar

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The article online

About a hundred of Bangalore’s 280 man-made lakes have disappeared since the 1960s. At long last, says Shilpa Pai Mizar, a popular effort is turning the tide

Usha Rajagopalan is a writer who doesn’t have the time to write. As chairperson of the Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust (PNLIT), she is busy saving a lake. Located between two large apartment complexes in south Bangalore, Puttenahalli Lake was an unspoiled water body not very long ago. Recalls S K Srinivas, a keen birdwatcher who has lived in the neighbourhood since 1998, “This was the southern end of Bangalore. Puttenahalli Lake was clean and brimming with water. From my balcony, I could see the whole of Sarakki Lake [an adjacent water body]. You could spot migratory ducks from Europe, and even pelicans. Now, Sarakki Lake is contaminated. Lab tests tell us that our borewell water is as good as sewage — and I was hospitalised recently due to this”.

This is the story of many of the city’s lakes. Bangalore lies in a semi-arid region and the city’s numerous man-made lakes (also known as tanks) were once its source of drinking water. Every one of the city’s administrators, starting with its founding father, Kempe Gowda in the 16th century, recognised the importance of building and maintaining these water bodies. Water from the lakes was used for household needs and irrigation. The lakes added to the city’s biodiversity, had socio-religious uses, and supported traditional professions like fishing. Completely rain-fed, these tanks were interconnected through a network of canals, known as rajakaluve, to prevent flooding.

According to the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), Bangalore’s municipal body, the city had 280 tanks in the 1960s. The number today stands at 183. Where have all the lakes gone? Says Leo F Saldanha, Co-ordinator of Environment Support Group (ESG), a city-based NGO, “We have lost over a 100 lakes due to encroachment and pollution caused by reckless mismanagement of sewage.”

When Rajagopalan looked out of her balcony in January 2008, it was one such lake she cast her eyes on. It was being used as a garbage dump. Parts of the lake were encroached upon, and a few pond herons were its only avian visitors. Puttenahalli Lake was, she says, “crying out to be saved”.

The developers of the apartment complex she lives in promised to tackle the problem. But nothing much happened, and Rajagopalan decided to take up the effort herself. A few signature campaigns and emails later, and with the help of neighbour Ashwin Mahesh, a member of the faculty at the Centre for Public Policy of the Indian Institute of Managament, Bangalore, and an advisor to the state government on urban affairs, the lake was brought to BBMP’s attention. The municipal body kicked off the rejuvenation effort at the lake in 2009. In May 2011, the lake was handed over to the PNLIT for maintenance. By November 2011, more than 40 bird species had been spotted at the lake.

A similar success story is to be found in east Bangalore’s Mahadevpura, where the citizens’ trust, Mahadevpura Parisara Samrakshane Mattu Abhivrudhi Samiti (MAPSAS) has worked with BBMP on restoring lakes in the area. “There has been a huge rise in groundwater near Kaikondarahalli Lake [one of the lakes]. We earlier bought water from tankers. Our borewells are now yielding well”, says Ramesh Sivaram, a Mahadevpura resident who works with MAPSAS and is also State Convenor of the Karnataka BJP Water Management Cell.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the city’s water worshippers. In 2007, Bangalore saw many protests when the Lake Development Authority (LDA), a government body created for the protection of the city’s lakes, entered into agreements with private firms for the development of four lakes across the city. One of them, Nagavara Lake in north Bangalore, is now an amusement park. T V Ramachandra, Co-ordinator of the Energy and Wetland Research Group at the Centre for Ecological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, who has advised the local government on lake restoration, emphasises how “the lack of an ecological approach” leads to ineffective restoration. “Motorised boating and water sports affect bird and fish population. Vegetation which shoreline birds need for nesting is removed. The BDA (Bangalore Development Authority) norm of maintaining a 30 metre buffer zone is often violated. Too much concretisation reduces catchment yield,” he says.

After financing and implementing the initial phase of rejuvenation, the BBMP, which is cash-strapped, expects citizens to arrange funds for the regular upkeep of a lake. While MAPSAS receives corporate funding through an NGO, United Way Bengaluru, PNLIT depends entirely on donations from individuals and is open to receiving corporate aid. The going has not been easy and Rajagopalan says it is currently a “hand-to-mouth existence” for the trust. She underscores, however, the significance of what experts like Saldanha and Ramachandra maintain is critical for the successful restoration of the city’s water bodies — that is, local community participation.

“Even if X company gives us ~10 lakh, I will ask a visitor to the lake to donate ~10. People should believe that the lake is theirs,” she says. The numerous activities organised by the trust, like nature walks and volunteer programmes, are as much to create this sense of ownership as to raise funds. And it is due to this love for their lakes that citizen efforts like the PNLIT and MAPSAS have paid heed to ecologically sound norms from the start.

Concern for Bangalore’s lakes is not new. The Government of Karnataka constituted the Lakshman Rau Expert Committee in 1985 to examine the issue of preserving Bangalore’s water bodies. The committee’s report noted that these restoration efforts should be made with a “sense of urgency”. While there are a few positive instances of lake rejuvenation in the city today, issues of sewage contamination and illegal encroachment of lakes and rajakaluves largely remain unsolved. In April 2008, ESG filed public-interest litigation challenging LDA’s lake privatisation move. The Karnataka High Court appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Justice N K Patil to look into the matter of lake restoration.

Three years later, the committee strongly recommended that “private sector participation solely based on consequential commercial interest is not a desirable model”. On November 22, a local councillor ordered the illegal draining of Yediyur Lake, a well-known water body in the city, to put up a statue. Prompt citizen resistance put a quick end to this. Says Saldanha, “Several people jumped into the lake to close the breach, forcing the councillor to reconstruct the dam the same evening. The fact that the matter [of the city’s lakes] was before the Karnataka High Court played a very important role in ensuring that Yediyur Lake was not damaged beyond repair.”

He adds, “The courts have stepped in to ensure that the ecological security of present and future generations is not compromised by short-term goals. This is a major precedence in jurisprudence to protect our commons. Lakes play critical social, environmental and ecological functions, especially in semi-arid areas. Any lake management approach must be sensitive to the livelihood and housing needs of the poor, promote water security for all and ensure that wetland ecologies prosper. We have sufficient knowledge and social intelligence to achieve all these without much conflict.”

A beginning has certainly been made.