Who's incharge of our lakes?

WHITHER BANGALORE'S LAKES? The Doddagubbi, a 50-acre lake was home to storks, egrets, blackwinged stilts, but today lies ruined and neglected. Photo by the author.

The Lake Development Authority has become the subject of much controversy recently and is currently involved with PILs relating to the outsourcing of its responsibilities to private business houses. Several lakes in the city have been leased to private companies for maintenance and development.

The Environment Support Group (ESG) has objected to leasing on the grounds that public lands should be looked after solely by the government and managed not for private gain, but in the public interest and on sound ecological lines. This question now needs to be debated not in the Courts, but among leading ecologists of Bangalore and it is time we took realistic decisions about the best way to manage our lakes.

During the past three decades, we have only heard of good intentions, with no action on the ground. For the first time now, we are heartened by the frank analysis by V Balasubramanium, a retired additional chief secretary to the government. In his report submitted in March this year, he says, “the land of 1000 tanks has now become a land of 1000 sewage tanks. Urban local bodies and the BDA have treated the once-existing (sic) 1000 tanks as sump tanks for the waste of apartment dwellers.” Taking the PCB to task for its negligence, the author says, “the Board was not even aware of its powers for the control of the pollution of the tanks, leave alone enforcing them.”

Who’s to blame?
It was way back in 1974, that my wife and I moved to Bangalore, and built a house with a view of a lake in Doddagubbi. The choice of this site was due largely to the environs of the lake and its inhabitants, storks, egrets, blackwinged stilts, ducks, coots and a variety of plovers. Very soon, we noticed signs of erosion and siltation around this 50-acre lake and I thought that I would do whatever I could to arrest its degradation. But who was in charge of the lake? The Forest Dept, Minor Irrigation Dept, Agriculture Dept, PWD or who? We were unable to home in on any one individual or department. In short, this lake now lies ruined by neglect and misuse.

In July 2007, I contacted the CEO of LDA B K Singh, in the hope that some action could be initiated for the lake. He visited the lake with me and we held meetings with the village panchayat chairmen, who promised to end brickmaking activities that were damaging the foreshore and preventing the ingress of rain and drain water into the lake. But no action has followed, not by the LDA, or by the village panchayat. With the Agara lake again, a similar story, several visits, promises and no action.

The only success I have had with lakes was when I contributed to persuading the Oberoi hotel management, the lessees of Hebbal lake, to give up the idea of a floating restaurant and other features which were included in the agreement arrived at, with the LDA on May 19, 2006. A floating restaurant in the middle of a bird sanctuary would have sent the birds packing for good.

Rejuvenation of lakes
The hotel has undertaken the rejuvenation of the lake at vast expense, and have done what was necessary: desilting, deweeding, strengthening the embankment, planting the foreshore with trees and grass and protecting the 500-acre water body from encroachment. We might remember the A T Ramaswamy report of February 2007, which pointed out the lapses of the government authorities in preventing encroachments on wetlands in their care. The Oberois at least have prevented any encroachment and the lake is in good shape now though the Court case is interfering with its proper maintenance. The time has come to finally decide by whom and how the lakes are to be managed. Will it be the sole responsibility of the government, or will private parties be involved?

In view of the enormous task ahead and in the light of the manifest failure of the authorities to protect lakes from encroachment, the expertise and resources of civil society should be utilised as with the Oberois and Hebbal.

What is required is a highly professionalised LDA staffed with ecologists who can ensure that whatever is done by private parties or government bodies is ecologically appropriate. There is often talk about reviving lakes to their pristine condition; this is absurd in the light of the massive change in the surroundings of the lakes. The former catchments consisted of hilly areas covered with trees and grass as well as open meadows. Now the catchment consists of bathrooms and kitchens, from where water has be taken, treated and stored in our lakes for further use. Saving our lakes, and recreating them will be possible only, if in the attempt, there is close co-ordination between civil engineers and ecologists, a partnership of human technology and the forces of Nature.

(The author is an environmentalist and a writer)

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