Let's save our lakes

Published: Saturday, Feb 2, 2013, 17:38 IST

By Subir Ghosh | Place: Bangalore | Agency: DNA

When British novelist EM Forster described Chicago in a letter thus: “Chicago--is--oh well a façade of skyscrapers facing a lake, and behind the façade every type of dubiousness,” he could well have been today penning the epitaph of Bangalore's lakes. The metaphor would have rung ominously true for this city.

Agreed, Bangalore's lakes are not all gone yet, but the threats posed by biotic and commercial pressures to wipe them off the map are now more imposing than they were when groups of concerned citizens made small, but strident bids to save the lakes.

The state of the city's lakes is well known and documented; recounting them on the occasion of World Wetlands Day would be a farce. But what is worth delving into is the issue of community participation and initiatives in salvaging the lungs of the city.

After all, the Ramsar Convention (see: At a glance) keeps reiterating the need to involve local communities in saving wetlands from destruction. And not without reason; the concept of conservation has over the years taken a paradigm shift from the earlier top-down, elitist approach towards being more community-driven now. Certainly, on paper.

So, if the lakes are still imperiled, have citizens failed in protecting them?

The response from Leo Saldanha of Environment Support Group (ESG) is an emphatic “no.” Saldanha would know -- he has been involved in lake protection campaigns from the beginning. He argues, “Communities almost everywhere are begging to be involved in protecting local waterbodies. They have a direct and tangible benefit in doing so.

Unfortunately, highly centralised structures of governance have denied them statutory opportunities of being involved, including the hare-brained schemes of the privatisation of waterbodies, which actually distance communities from protecting lakes.”

Suresh Heblikar of Eco-Watch agrees, and goes on to point out, “The original communities who lived in Bangalore didn't vandalise the lakes. They knew their value. Many lakes were drinking water sources. These communities grew fruits, flowers and vegetables using lake water. A lot of land under agriculture was irrigated by these lakes. In other words, agricultural and horticultural areas almost functioned like the watershed of Bangalore. Consequently, the groundwater recharge occurred during monsoons .”

To make his point, Saldanha draws on the example of Hebbal lake. It was comprehensively rehabilitated by the forest department with Norwegian aid. The work was so impressive that the prime minister of Norway even paid a visit. The lake was maintained jointly by the department and local communities. The best indicator of their success was that bird life sprung back, with up to 100 species making it their home.

The hard work put in by the communities were conspicuous and lauded -- till, the Lake Development Authority (LDA) put a spanner in the works. The authority “privatised the lake and handed it over to the Oberois. The first thing the latter did was to tear off all the wetlands and foreshore vegetation, thus destroying the breeding habitats of birds.

The engineers were conditioned by 'aesthetic demands' and didn't even think twice when they destroyed the constructed wetlands: several acres of the waterspread that were deliberately planted with aquatic vegetation to act as a living water treatment system and filter out the sewage flowing into the lake,” rues Saldanha.

Conservationists are unanimous in telling you who the bad guys have been and what accentuated the decay. Continues Heblikar, “This vibrant ecological system of the lakes went on deteriorating as the city began to to grow. The coming in of the IT sector hastened this.The BBMP, BDA, KSPCB and state urban development department contributed their mite in destroying the wetlands and the lakes, as these ecosystems became unattractive and less valuable in comparison to the grand plan of metropolitan Bangalore. What, with the designs of an international airport, long elevated roads, flyovers, giant corporate offices, malls, etc, embellishing the image of Bangalore as a silicon city and imagining the metropolis on the global map.”

The soaring dreams and the grandiose plans have clearly become a nightmarish reality. But have people been brought down to the real world?

Saldanha is optimistic and goes beyond perfunctory lip service practices, “Clearly, people want to be involved in protecting their lakes, parks, open spaces, and thus secure a reasonably good quality of life for all. Recently, the Karnataka High Court took a momentous decision and forced the government to constitute ward committees in all urban areas. With such people-centred forums beginning to function, there is a very high probability that we will find citizen involvement channelled for a variety of progressive efforts such as lake conservation, garbage management, etc, and not merely settle down to ritually organising some festival-based community action.”

One of the biggest success stories of community-driven action was the rejuvenation of the Puttenahalli lake. Usha Rajagopalan, chairperson of the Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust, made it possible with a core group of five persons. As Rajagopalan avers, “With a group of 20-30, you can save the world.” (see: First Person).

The Puttenahalli story went on to enjoy a sort of cult status. Such inspirational values coupled with the backdrop of formation of ward committees holds promise. Another important development, according to Saldanha, has been the directive of the high court to constitute a committee of various agencies, which subsequently came up with recommendations and guidelines to protect the lakes of Bangalore. The court directive came in response to a public interest litigation filed by ESG.

Saldanha underlines, “The recommendations are extraordinarily progressive, mandate public involvement in lake protection, promote ecological methods to rehabilitate lakes and their canals and not resort to engineering methods which create sterile waterbodies.This report was accepted by the court and its recommendations made mandatory for all lake and raja kaluve protection efforts across the state, not only Bangalore.

“The court proceeded to institute district level lake protection committees in collaboration with district legal services committees, and directed the setting up of an apex state level lake protection authority with powers to review complaints of pollution, encroachment and diversion, and pass necessary orders. Unfortunately, 10 months after this order was issued by the high court, the Karnataka government is yet to constitute these authorities, and is thus in contempt of court.”

Even when one talks of success stories and positive developments, the bad guys keep creeping into the picture. Saldanha offers a reason, “This is an urban problem, as we are distanced from our natural world. In rural areas, people know the importance of waterbodies, how to desilt them periodically, and protect them. But, decades of centralised control and management of lakes has distanced people (from their lakes). It is critical that we get the people back into lake protection, management and wise use.

“Our education process must be reinvented to actively engage with such matters, as it is critical to our life and livelihoods. What's the point on talking about lakes in North America or Europe when we fail to appreciate the importance of those in our backyard?Our lakes have extraordinary scope to support biodiversity (not only birds), and contribute to our water and ecological security. “

That's how it should be. That's how it will, hopefully, be.

Read the report online here

Read the related interview with Usha Rajagopalan here

Read the e-paper here