Bangalore needs to break class barriers if its lakes are to be saved

The govt. has started reclaiming encroached lake beds in the IT city but unless citizens interact across class divides, these urban water bodies will continue to spew foam, says Leo F. Saldanha.
Foam from lake engulfs vehicles in Bangalore. Source: Yoga Priya
Foam from lake engulfs vehicles in Bangalore. Source: Yoga Priya

Lakes spewing foam and catching fire in Bangalore made big news for several weeks but this is just an indication of the times to come as we fill up water bodies with effluents or turn them into sewage dumps in most cities across India. India Water Portal talks to Leo F. Saldanha of Bangalore-based Environment Support Group on how to manage these precious resources. 

Bangalore is known for its lakes but they are in news lately for the wrong reasons. How do you think things have changed?

If you look at Bangalore in the 1960s-70s, many of these water bodies were converted to all sorts of infrastructure including bus stands, stadiums and marriage halls. When malaria was widespread in 1980, besides spraying DDT and contaminating these water bodies, the authorities also drained out many. There were essays written by public health engineers favouring these measures and even the then Chief Minister campaigned for it. 

In the 1970s when water supply came from the Cauvery river, there was a massive neglect of urban water bodies. Through the 1980s-90s, water contamination was widespread but the lakes were just eutrophic, not like today when they are catching fire. 

But you can also see that it’s largely the result of dependency on imported water. In the 1970s when water supply came from the Cauvery, there was a massive neglect of urban water bodies. Through the 1980s-90s, water contamination was widespread but the lakes were just eutrophic, not like today when they are catching fire. For instance, in Bellandur lake, 50,000 migratory birds used to come during mid-winters. Today, it’s just 5000 to 6000 birds. This drop is a very significant indicator of the quick death these bodies as functional eco systems. 

There have been talks of commons and right to water, but government response has largely been that of commodification. I remember Montek Singh Ahluwalia gave speeches at various forums recommending that we need to put a value on the lakes to make people start acknowledging their worth. As a result of such advocacy, Karnataka became the first state to commodify lakes as the state government claimed it does not have the resources to maintain them. 

Around 15-20 lakes were earmarked and four were leased out to private consortiums. For instance, Oberoi got 200 acres of lake spread which was touted as a dead lake on paper even though it was perfectly alright. Oberoi got it for a pittance of a lease rent for 40 years and they were about to put hotels on the water spread. 

What was the public response to this?

We ran campaigns for 2-3 years but nobody listened to us. Our contestation was 'Who is the state to give away water bodies which belong to the people'? So we ended up in court, which immediately stayed privatisation of lakes and subsequently said no more lakes will be privatised. 

We went a step further because our litigation had a prayer that we need to re-imagine how urban societies relate to these water bodies. So a committee was formed which came up with guidelines looking at these resources in a new way. We pushed for the revival of the 74th amendment promise of self-governance through ward committees and area committees which can be custodians of the water bodies. You can have other agencies which execute the work but it should be people through democratic agencies like these who control the work. This formed the guidelines.

We went a step further because our litigation had a prayer that we need to reimagine how urban societies relate to these water bodies. We pushed for self-governance through ward committees and area committees which can be custodians of the water bodies. 

Another problem was that a lot of maps have been fudged to legalise encroachments. A new movement started when the court directed that every lake be surveyed again but not according to current maps. Revenue maps of 1950s-60s are being used to map the lakes and this is why you see a lot of demolition going on in Bangalore. So we are reclaiming the lakes and the state has become a partner in this campaign, which can otherwise be a difficult task. In the last 6 months, around 90 lakes have been surveyed, their maps uploaded online and encroachers listed.

What is the next step for these lakes?

One of the things we told the court and that the court agreed on was that lakes are just receptacles of water. The real systems are the water conveyors, the canals that interconnect various lakes. So if you divert sewage and garbage to these canals, there’s no way you can protect lakes.

There is an 800 km wide network of canals. We have to revive them as living water channels. It’s an exercise in reimagining the city to suit the current times. The movement is going in the right direction and the good news is that this court order is not limited only to Bangalore. There are 38,000 lakes in Karnataka which may benefit from this order.

There are various citizen groups working to save lakes. How has that worked? 

Any amount of citizen response will not show results immediately. Lakes are part of a series, they are not independent systems. If the upstream lakes are contaminated, the downstream lakes will also be contaminated. 

The upper class is able to get together because they have time to network but they won’t talk to the immediate lower class which is staying in the same watershed. It’s this myopic and self-centric vision we have to address now. 

So, there’s a need to network communities, which is what we are trying to do now. We need to start talking about watershed communities. This is very difficult in a city like Bangalore which is highly stratified in terms of class. The upper class is able to get together because they have time to network but they won’t talk to the immediate lower class which is staying in the same watershed. It’s this myopic and self-centric vision we have to address now. It’s only then that you can think of protecting the lake system.

Traditional communities which lived around the lakes protected them and maintained them. They still know how to revive the lakes. We have to stop treating them as outsiders. 

Do you think this understanding about watershed exists among people?

Ask any farmer, many of them are still left. They have seen the water flow. In peri-urban areas, these are the people who got slummed up because their land was acquired or snatched away by real estate goons and they were left with nothing. Even their grazing pastures were taken away. They are now left staring at buildings that have come up on their farm land and are wondering what they did to deserve this desolation. They need to be rehabilitated as knowledge providers, and asked to help reclaim Bangalore's lost lakes and canal systems. They are the only hope for the city to build its water security, else it has no real future.

This interview was done on sidelines of a session on reviving local water bodies at CMS Vatavaran Festival organized in New Delhi from Oct 9-13, 2015. 

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