At a ‘water retreat’ organised by the Bangalore Sustainability Forum at the School of Ancient Wisdom in Bengaluru last week, I realised how far behind Delhi is when it comes to citizen engagement. Considering what we have done to Yamuna and how desperately we need a citizen driven movement to save this lifeline of our capital city, I was eager to learn what Bengalurians are doing to save their lakes.
Bengaluru’s history and geography are intimately connected with its lakes. Taking advantage of the undulating terrain, a system of cascading lakes was created centuries ago to provide natural rainwater harvesting in which the raja kaluves or storm water drains carry surplus water from higher elevation lakes to the lower ones. These lakes, or tanks as they are called locally, supplied water, helped recharge ground water and also prevented flooding.
Bengaluru has come a long way from being the City of a Thousand Lakes. BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike) puts the number of currently ‘live’ lakes (i.e. still surviving on the map and with potential for reclamation) at 190. On the other hand, Karnataka ENVIS reports that only about 80 lakes remain, of which a mere 34 are actually ‘live’. Most of the lakes and canals have disappeared through encroachment by housing complexes, bus stands, malls, stadia, and what have you. Many that remain are choked with untreated sewage and effluents, while construction debris and garbage is also dumped there routinely. The most polluted is the Bellandur Lake which, because of its location, is at the receiving end of all the sewage and chemical effluents that flow downstream.
The good news is how citizen action on lake rejuvenation is gathering momentum in Bengaluru and is making a difference on the ground. While BBMP is restoring the lakes, the task is far from accomplished. Sustainable solutions will be found only when sewage and effluents are treated and not just dumped into the lakes, but in the interim, citizen groups are working with great sensitivity with BBMP in rejuvenating lakes, one at a time, while BBMP lays down pipelines for bypassing wastewater.
I narrate the story of the rejuvenation of the Kaikondrahalli Lake (covering 48 acres) on Sarjapur Road in the South-East part of Bengaluru to show the power of urban collective action, the importance of human leadership, and the effectiveness of partnering with the government. I spent a couple of hours at the lake in the company of Priya Ramasubban, the force behind the transformation of Kaikondrahalli, and philanthropist Rohini Nilekani, who has been trying to focus the attention of our country on the water challenges that are knocking at our door. What I saw was breathtaking and inspiring.
In 2008, when Priya moved to live close to the Kaikondrahalli Lake, she read in the newspapers about a proposed plan of BBMP to rejuvenate the lake. She gathered a group of local residents and approached BBMP with a request to be involved in the process of rejuvenation. They learnt that the Detailed Project Report (DPR) had already been prepared and a budget had been sanctioned. They were lucky that the chief engineer of the Lakes Division of BBMP, Mr BV Satish, believed in working with local residents and was willing to share the DPR with them.
The first shock was when they examined the DPR with the help of some technical experts. The plan was essentially based on an engineering approach, which would include a garden with exotic gladioli, gazebos and a boating jetty. It would also fence off the lake from an adjacent school for low-income children. Priya’s group lost no time in reaching out to a number of technical experts including Harini Nagendra, an accomplished ecologist, to advise them on an alternative plan which would focus on ecology rather than only aesthetics and be inclusive.
The group came to the conclusion that it was much more important to preserve the original watershed area of the lake and plant indigenous trees in the surrounding area. They also felt that the plan should not only provide access to the lake for the children from the adjacent school which had its play area on the lake land, but also washroom facilities which they earlier did not have. A separate pond should be built into the plan for religious practices during festivals. In redesigning the DPR, the group reached out to Vasudevan Kadalayil, an architect, who gave his services pro bono. A horticulturist, an ornithologist, and many more joined in.
After four years, once the infrastructure work was completed and water started flowing in, the citizens’ group formed themselves into a trust—MAPSAS (Mahadevapura Environment Protection and Development Trust)—and assumed responsibility for the maintenance of the lake at the invitation of BBMP. There are other groups such as Friends of Lakes that have also come up to advise residents around different lakes on how to participate in the rejuvenation exercise and act as watchdogs.
During my visit to the Kaikondrahalli Lake, a charming surprise was to come my way as I saw a discrete plaque next to a jackfruit tree. The tree was planted in 2012 by Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, lauding the collective action to develop these urban commons. I saw lots of medicinal trees along the way. I was told that once local fishing communities get licenses from the fishing department to fish, they come to the lake for fishing and do voluntary de-weeding in return. Cowherds are encouraged to take away grass for cattle feed. The trustees of MAPSAS, mostly women, are planning to train disadvantaged women in the skills using reeds and weeds from the foreshore and wetlands to make handicraft products so that they can supplement their income.
The MAPSAS motto of public land for public good has found resonance in the local community. The larger support network is provided by WhatsApp groups, Facebook pages and regular meetings. The Kere Habbas (lake festivals) have now become a regular feature and they keep everyone enthused and active with respect to the lakes as their common resource, and therefore in need of their watchful eye and loving participation.
As Priya put it, not all battles have been won and there will be challenges galore. The real estate interests, the politicians, the bureaucrats in the government departments with overlapping jurisdictions, and the differences within the community—all need to be reconciled and resolved to nurture and enjoy the public commons that have been created. Ostrom, who won her Nobel Prize for work on the enormous potential of community action to resolve difficult problems, is now no more. But she would be happy to see what has been achieved at the lake where she planted the jackfruit tree.