Lake conservation, tanked?

Plans were afoot to save a few Bengaluru lakes from the brink. Then came the KTCDA bombshell, bringing every city lake under its jurisdiction. The Minor Irrigation Department, with hardly any expertise on conservation, is now suddenly in control of these critical water bodies .

Cornered by the National Greens Tribunal (NGT)’s diktats on rampant lake encroachments, on the back foot over robust citizen activism, the State seems to have found a neat way out: The Karnataka Tanks Conservation and Development Authority (KTCDA). Does this sound the death knell for lake conservation?

Despite its faults, the now defunct Karnataka Lake Conservation and Development Authority (KLCDA) had devised a way to collaborate with citizen groups.

Plans were afoot to save a few Bengaluru lakes from the brink. Then came the KTCDA bombshell, bringing every city lake under its jurisdiction. The Minor Irrigation Department, with hardly any expertise on conservation, is now suddenly in control of these critical water bodies .

Lake area roads, bridges

In the driver’s seat, the Department and KTCDA can now build roads, bridges and any structure right across the lake, conveniently branded as a ‘tank.’ The lake bed, scientifically proven to be so critical to the water body’s survival, is now open for encroachment with an ‘official’ stamp. The only condition: The tank’s original capacity should be maintained.

The capacity rider is easy to manipulate. A pit can be dug on one side of the lake to increase its capacity, a convenient excuse to acquire land on another side. To make it worse, the Authority can give the go-ahead for any construction without seeking the government’s permission. In one shot, public consultation, lake conservation, anti-encroachment drives are all thrown out of the window.

Original lake capacity

The Minor Irrigation (MI) Department has clarified that the capacity of the lake would mean its original holding capacity during its first survey. But Nagesh Aras from the Federation of Bengaluru Lakes contends that there is no such thing as “rated or original capacity” of a lake. “Due to natural siltation, its capacity keeps decreasing over time (till a desiltation is done).”

Conversely, he says, a lake can be deepened beyond its natural holding capacity. “So anyone can grab any part of lake, by simply desilting in the remaining part of the lake, which “restores” the capacity of the lake.”

Varthur lake instance

To get a glimpse of how the MI department works on matters of lake, the ongoing pipeline-laying work near Varthur lake is educative enough. A road laid to facilitate truck movement has encroached upon the critical canal linking Bellandur lake with Varthur lake. The canal width has been narrowed, potentially strangulating Varthur lake’s supply.

The pipelines are designed to take treated water from the Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) near Bellandur Ammanikere and K-C Valley to Kolar and Chikkaballapura. But in the process, the physical characteristic of the lake system has been altered. “The Department has no expertise on lakes. The Tank Authority is a bunch of civil engineers who will concretise everything and make it a cement bowl,” notes Dr T V Ramachandra from the Indian Institute of Science.

Simply put, the Department’s method does not acknowledge the existence of an ecosystem of algae, bacteria and remediation process critical to a lake’s survival. The narrow stretch left as a canal can hardly be called an ecosystem. Warns Ramachandra, “Unless the KLDCA is brought back into force, this method will be repeated everywhere in Bengaluru.”

Powerful land mafia

KLDCA, he says, has been scrapped deliberately to aid the powerful land mafia. The Authority was established under the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2016 with a clear mandate: To conserve and manage the city’s dying water bodies.

Yet, the agency was not allowed to function properly. Its sanctioned staff of 96 was never allotted. Its proposal to publish the list of lakes with their extent was officially blocked. “Even the Koliwad committee report on the same subject was not acted upon,” notes a lake activist.

The motive, he says, is obvious: “There are powerful vested interests that do not want lakes to be protected. So, the switch to KTCDA is likely to remain an eyewash, and not likely to achieve its stated purpose.”

Urban disconnect

Essentially, the MI Department’s mission is to promote irrigation, a purely rural need. But urban lakes exist in a totally different environment, where the main need is domestic use (potable and non-potable), not irrigation. Thus the MI department is not suited as owner of urban lakes.

The NGT had earmarked a buffer zone of 75 metres around lakes and feeder canals to be left untouched. The rule was clear: No construction should be allowed in this buffer zone that include wetlands, primary, secondary and tertiary drains. This clearly did not go down well with builders and other lake and lakebed encroachers.

Bypassing NGT rules

The KTCDA, which specifies a buzzer zone of only 30 metres, now offers an opportunity to bypass the NGT rules. An element of confusion has been introduced now, with even the Bruhath Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) Council debating whether to follow the NGT rule or to follow the KTCDA guidelines.

Although, the Palike is likely to seek legal opinion in this matter, the consensus is definitely heading towards a reduced buffer zone. If this is settled, the land mafia could be the biggest beneficiary, and lake conservationists the biggest losers.

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