The City of Thousand Lakes is now home to a concrete jungle

It has become rather romantic to say that Bangalore once prided itself over nearly a thousand lakes. Intense urbanisation has left merely 15 per cent of them on the city map today.  How did they disappear is public knowledge.

Few however know how the covetous politicians, avaricious builders’ lobby, the land-hungry mafia and the bureaucrats connived to deprive the people of these water bodies.

Today barely 150 of these lakes or ‘kere’ survive. Clearly, a third of them face severe threat of extinction as encroachers are tightening the noose around them by each day. Having been severed from the watershed areas, they serve as garbage dumps. A torrid summer that sucks them dry is loved by those in the officialdom, for it helps them to signal the rubble contractors to fill them up. Once officially declared ‘defunct lake’, the land is up for grabs.

Bangalore lakes were interconnected by an intricate network of canals, capturing monsoon precipitation and transferring the excess water to the lower level lakes through interstitial canals which came to be called ‘Rajakaluves.’ As most of these water bodies were allowed to dry and built over, Rajakaluves turned into arteries carrying sewage discharged from the apartments. What could have looked like a giant Mughal garden of yore with water cascading down from one lake to another, has now got reduced to severed cesspools of turbid water carrying all kinds of pollutants from arsenic to mercury, iron and nitrates.

Some summer-desiccated beds were used as landfills. Miller Tank stood opposite to the Cantonment Station. The depression that makes Kempegowda Bus Stand used to collect water till mid 1980s.  Kanteerva Stadium and Sampangiramnagar came up on a tank bed. The entire J P Nagar area was a tank till some two decades ago.

Hosakerehalli is now dry. Land sharks are now eyeing the Kacharakanahalli tank off Lingarajpuram where four temples have come up on the periphery. According to eco-activist M R Prabhakar, 40 per cent of the total 57 acres of the lake has been encroached from its periphery. A road was carved out from its midst and the land on one of its flank was turned into a layout by the BDA.

I recently visited the nearly 170-acre Chikkabanavara lake and was aghast to find that the entire watershed area from Chimney Hills has been systematically eroded cutting off the water feeder to the lake. In addition to this outrage, a road, namely Abbigere Road, has severed at least a six-acre portion of the lake from the main body and is up for grabs by the encroachers.

The lake is an active aviary and can still be developed as a full-fledged bird sanctuary. Similar is the fate of Yelahanka-Puttenahalli lake where sewage from the housing board colony is directly let into the lake. Resident says the sewage treatment plant commissioned a decade ago, worked merely for a few months.

Aesthetic value

Lakes and tanks not merely ensure high water table under the ground, but carry great aesthetic value. They sustain biodiversity and support tourism ventures and water sports and provide cooling surfaces for winds. But if neglected, they could equally prove environmentally obnoxious, raise stink, pollute ground water and kill organisms that support a whole ecosystem besides being active hatcheries for mosquitoes.

But environmental activists see a graver threat to the remaining lakes from official quarters themselves. Noted eco-activist Kshitij Urs cites the creation of Lake Development Authority (LDA) in 2002 which, soon after its formation, handed over four principal lakes of the city to private corporations viz., Oberois (East India Hotels), Lumbini, Par-C and Biota on 15-year extendable leases. The private companies have turned them into highly commercialised space by setting up food courts, water theme parks and restaurants.  
Urs alleges that creation of parasitical bodies such as LDA is an attempt to mask the reality of privatization of natural resources that should be treated as ‘Commons’.

He says LDA is a toothless body which is not empowered to protect the lake from encroachment.  He alleges that all such steps are being taken at the behest of political agenda of bodies like the World Bank which advises creation of such bodies for  allocation of funds but with no accountability.

He cites structure such as KUIDFC (Karnataka Urban Infrastructure Development and Finance Corporation) on the state level and JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) at the Central level in this context which utilize public funds without being accountable to the public.

While that could be part of the larger debate, the Karnataka’s Principal Conservator of Forests (PCCF) had reported in 2008 that “in three (of the four) lakes viz Hebbal, Nagawara and Vengaiahkere, where private parties had already begun work, the damage to the ecology and local community was extensive.” This observation compelled the Karnataka High Court to constitute a committee headed by Justice N K Patil to suggest measures to maintain and govern the lakes. The committee in its report stated that the intense urbanization of Bangalore has resulted in seriously compromising the integrity of 386 lakes that are left and that the status of 121 lakes is unknown.

Unless the public consciousness is aroused with regard to the preservation of the remaining water bodies in and around Bangalore, we may be looking at a metropolis totally sterile of sites to harvest rain and runoff. Were it not for these tanks and lakes providing water security and productivity to farms and gardens in an otherwise semi-arid area, it is more than likely that the journey of Bangalore towards a successful metropolis would have been truncated centuries ago.

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