"Lakes in Indian cities have seen a pitfall in terms of quality. Their diminishing numbers in the last two decades have created an ecological void in cities' management and sustainable development. The intersection of environment and society at play has also been an important factor in deciding and shaping the country's urban lake governance scenario," says Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava, researcher and former Executive Director at SaciWATERs.
Bhargava was concerned about the alarming rate at which the urban lakes are getting shrunk, polluted and degrading the local ecosystem's balance. She shared her insights at a webinar organized by the Impact and Policy Research Institute and India Water Portal.
This diminishing state of the environment is due to urbanization and population, governance, lack of trust in government functioning and resource management, development, and the misconception that everything is for human appropriation.
There lies a gap between the proponents of action and knowing. Thus, a bridge needs to be built among the diverse people working in the water sector. Bhargava believes that such transdisciplinarity, where the science gets merged with society, will lead to more plausible solutions, less politicization, and development with a conscience.
A simple communicable language to disseminate the complexity will be a necessary tool, wherein the social-ecological system framework can be brought into the picture. The framework is a legacy of Elinor Ostrom’s theoretical and empirical foundations on long term sustainable resources and their management.
Governing a lake with a sustainable approach requires physical nature, value, and services, governing actors and mechanisms to be intertwined in a socio-political setting, and related ecosystems or development. Bhargava talked about the framework she has been working on, including concepts, theories, models, and methodologies that would work as a manuscript for governing a resource like a lake in a socio-ecological manner.
Shedding more light into urban lake settings' socio-political aspects, she explained that most lakes now are just engineered systems with ecosystem characteristics. These 'lakes' have also become a ground for cultural events, thus neglecting the idea of conservation. A lake without water is just a piece of land. Such a geopolitical contestation is another important aspect of the story.
She also emphasized that the lakes' water source and the city is a collective milieu of waterscapes. The development around such waterscapes needs to be monitored. Again, the related developments that influence the lake water other than the physical infrastructure can be the population density and social demography of the surrounding area, the people's occupation and lifestyle, and the extent of extraction taking place. The class divide of rich and poor and their access to the lake makes it a fine example of a socio-ecological resource.
Governing the lakes' physical nature will come about by integrating and managing challenges across scales such as lake system, the system of lakes, drainage courses, etc. She pointed to the cities of Hyderabad, Bhopal, Ahmedabad, and Udaipur regarding this. Integration of rainwater, groundwater, and wastewater is also crucial.
Further, the governing values will come into play with ecological, social, economic, infrastructure, political, climate regulations, and the practice of equally sustaining them in the long run. The various governing organizations will play in their capacity, be it the users (personal and businesses), the provider at the site, city, state, central level, the regulators, academicians and historians, and most importantly, the community as a whole.
Tracing the crumbling state of lakes, Bhargava explained that the growing' development processes', the British rule, the green revolution, lack of restoration methods all had a part in its degradation. The restoration of these lakes will have to be a cumulative approach.
Another lacuna is the lack of interest shown in research and education. She believes the research will push forward the sustainability quotient for the government, civil society, and businesses.
She talked about the lack of effective governance mechanisms at the local, regional, and national levels, citing a crucial point where organically developed villages carrying community-led lake management shifted to 'modern' land-use plans with the state as a provider. Such a social contract did more harm than good and needs to be replaced with a new socio-ecological contract of governing mechanisms, which are poly-centric and make their way through the planning, designing, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of government' actions'.
Other recommendations of Bhargava involve shifting focus to groundwater and wastewater, the real game-changers. Lakes should be treated as a heritage rather than a recreation source and wetlands should be treated as urban forests. There is a need to include biodiversity components in 'Detailed Project Reports' of the proposed surrounding infrastructure and quantify nature's elements - trees, the fish, or the birds. Investing accordingly and putting a price on wetlands services on top of the land price is important, said Bhargava.
Bhargava highlighted the governance-sustainability dilemma, where keeping people away is not the answer but involving them is. Only 'development' is not the answer. Talking about the state of water education, she said that there needs to be a well laid out, comprehensive and interdisciplinary pedagogy for water education.
Finally, Bhargava talked about amplifying the scope of capacity building, skill development, data development, community awareness, and engagement of youth and senior citizens on governing users. She is hopeful because the urban lakes are now slowly under restoration after years of deterioration and because a much-needed water census is being prepared and will be released soon.
Bhargava talked about the role politics and leaders can play to bring about a change. The best way to conserve the wetlands is to not do anything with them and let them naturally rejuvenate. Unlike the short-term agenda of economic development of the people in power, there is a need to focus on long term agendas of community well-being and ecology. The lack of ecological clarity in the budget 2021-22 and the economic policy reports that NITI Aayog comes out with further demerits the issue's seriousness.
In her ending note, Bhargava emphasized the broader concept of conserving water reflecting on the importance of pricing it, citing the unsustainable use of it by the county's middle class. The need to manage and have better wastewater treatment facilities also serves its purpose as an example of water regeneration. Finally, groundwater which she believes is the prime component of the water cycle (that includes the process of percolation of water in a lake slowly under the ground) is where the focus should be.
Also speaking at the talk Dr Fawzia Tarannum, Assistant Professor and Programme Coordinator, TERI School of Advanced Studies brought into the table the importance of a gendered perspective of water management and care, the need for social movements and community involvement, the effectiveness of current policies and laws and, fighting the tanker mafias.
Acknowledgement: Indranuj Pathak is a research intern at IMPRI and is pursuing Masters (Public Policy) from NLSIU, Bengaluru