Water wonderful world

Oct 4, 2011

What can happen when residents of high-rise buildings take ownership of the lake that gives them their view? Lots, finds Akhila Seetharaman.

Read the article online on TimeOut Bengaluru

There’s a vacant patch of earth awaiting a red silk cotton tree at one corner of the walkers’ pathway around Puttenahalli Lake in JP Nagar. “If your readers could help us get a sapling, we would be thrilled,” said Usha Rajagopalan, who lives in the towering L&T South City apartment and is one of the trustees of the Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust. The Bombax or red silk cotton tree is among the tallest tree species that grow in India, reaching a height of 30 to 40 metres. Birds prefer it for its canopy and large red blooms full of nectar and, owing to their frequent visits, so does Rajagopalan.Along with the other trustees, she has chosen 125 trees to line the 1.1km pathway around the lake, including tropical almond, Indian beech or honge, amla, teak, neem, jamun, cassia, Singapore cherry, gul mohar, Pride of India and bougainvillea. “We’ve also planted a peepal tree,” she said. “There’s nothing like the sound of its leaves rustling in the breeze.”

It’s not often that neighbourhood residents get to participate in designing and planning public spaces in this manner. But when Rajagopalan moved into her flat overlooking the lake on the fifth floor of the apartment complex in 2006, the lake was a picture of neglect. “Trucks would dump garbage in one corner. Slum dwellers would push the garbage toward the lake. It was overrun with weeds,” she said.

Increasingly concerned, Rajagopalan sent a mail titled “Save Our Lake” to the other residents of the 1,600-flat complex. A signature campaign followed, and residents met local legislators. With some lobbying, the water body made it to BBMP’s list of 23 lakes for revival. In early 2010 the BBMP began desilting the lake and then built a fence and walkway around it. With three residents from Brigade Millennium – Arathi Manay, Prasanna Vynatheya and OP Ramaswamy –, a cluster of apartments nearby, Rajagopalan formed the trust to safeguard the lake and the neighbourhood. With a security guard and gardeners in place, Rajagopalan and her team mates are intent on continuing to improve the lake as a thriving wetland and nurturing a green cover around it with diverse species.

The change is already evident. When Rajagopalan first moved to the area, the only birds she ever spotted at the lake were pond herons. Now the air above the lake flutters with cormorants, coots, both blue and white-throated kingfishers, purple herons, red-wattled lapwings and white-browed wagtails to brahminy kites, mynahs, parakeets and mottled wood owls.

The Puttenahalli Lake is the smallest of three water bodies in the area. The others – the Sarakki Lake and the Chunchaghatta Lake – are both dying, said Rajagopalan. “It’s very easy to say it’s the government’s work to take care of our lakes, but unless people take an interest, nothing will happen,” she said, adding that many of the city’s tanks have ended up as stadiums, bus stands and other concrete construction projects.

This Ganesh Chaturthi, Rajagopalan and the other trustees stood on guard at the lake, preventing people from immersing their idols in it. “We didn’t want to risk our fish, crabs and water snakes being killed by the chemicals from idols,” she said. “So we placed a big red bucket at the entrance and got people to immerse their idols in it.”

Rajagopalan is intent on getting people to adopt the lake. “I think of it as mine and I want every person who comes here to feel the same way,” she said. To develop the sense of ownership, the Trust invites families in the neighbourhood to do gardening around the lake, children to learn about composting and amateur photographers to spot birds and capture images of them here. They have also taken children on nature walks, teaching them about plants, insects, trees, birds along the way. And while these are certainly developments to feel proud of, Rajagopalan sometimes wonders how different things may have been if she had moved into a flat on the other side of the building. “I probably wouldn’t have known about the lake at all,” she said.