Citizens await BBMP's lake custody policy

Four years after corporate participation in lake rejuvenation and maintenance was barred, civic lake groups await a clear policy that allows them to maintain the neighbourhood lakes
Last Updated : 29 June 2024, 12:20 IST

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Nekkundi Tank Rejuvenation Association (NETRA) is an umbrella organisation of RWAs formed in 2014 to maintain Doddanekkundi Lake. In 2019, it signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) to this effect.

However, not much could be done during Covid-19 pandemic and the lake was in bad shape. Meanwhile, NETRA prepared a detailed project report (DPR) to rejuvenate the lake and submitted it to the BBMP, which got the required approval from the Karnataka Tank Development and Rejuvenation Authority.

The work is in progress, but the MoU lapsed in 2020 and was not renewed due to a court order issued while hearing a public interest litigation by Citizens Action Group.

The high court issued the order in March 2020 which observed that with lake maintenance MoUs, “the State is virtually parting with the lakes to private Corporate Entities”.

“Prima facie, it appears to us that by the execution of the said agreements, the State wants to shift its burden of maintaining the lakes to the private Corporate Entities. Unless the legality of such agreements is examined, we cannot permit the State Government to execute such agreements. Therefore, we direct that till further orders are passed, the State Government shall not execute any such MoU with any Corporate Entity,” [sic] it said.

Now, NETRA has no authority to maintain the lake. There are 67 such lake groups in Bengaluru facing the same issue.

“With the MoU in place, at least 67 lakes will be saved and maintained well. Many groups are handling more lakes, so the number of lakes is more,” says Usha Rajagopalan, co-founder of Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust.

NETRA volunteers coordinate with BBMP and report misdeeds to them, and timely actions are taken. “We cannot do anything more, though the DPR has a lot of work cut for the lake community,” he says.

“DPR has planned walking track, cycling track, etc, for which the BBMP has no money. The intention is to fund them through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). NETRA has no resources and cannot get money because there is no MoU,” he says.

The plans for a herbal garden and plantation drives are also on hold.

Rejuvenating a lake is one major part, while regular maintenance is another important part that keeps the lake in good shape. The 135-acre lake is being rejuvenated, and civil works have been completed. Sewage flow into the lake has been stopped, and silt traps have been installed. But without maintenance, the rejuvenation work done will be wasted.

Empowering Keremitras

In October 2023, the BBMP launched the Keremitra scheme to encourage citizen participation in lake protection and maintenance. “This is a move to get citizen participation. But if they do not formalise the arrangement, it will be difficult,” says Usha.

For example, according to the old MoU, lake custodians are supposed to call BBMP and inform them if there is a sewage leak. However, the proactive ones call the contractor and stop the leak immediately, reducing the time required for action.

“BBMP officials cannot do certain things needed to revive and maintain the lake. That is where we come in. We can meet our local MLAs and other representatives and push things forward. Involving local communities is a big support to BBMP and the lake,” explains Usha.

“This model has worked well and is becoming an example for other cities,” she adds. In July 2022, the Odisha Housing and Urban Development Department officials met BBMP Lakes Division and citizen lake groups to study the Bengaluru model of lake saving through citizen participation.

Dilemma about funds

Many companies are willing to fund lake projects under Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), but there are also cases of vested interests with ulterior motives pitching in, according to volunteers. Such cases led the high court to stop the old MoU.

“Of course, everyone may not have the same interest. The BBMP must identify the groups with ulterior motives and take a measured call,” says Usha.

Sources say the high court’s directions would have been different if the BBMP had clarified to the court that the MoU was applicable for even citizen groups, not just corporates. Another source observes that when the petitions are clubbed together to be heard on the same day in the court, every petition gets postponed if one of the parties seeks and gets an adjournment. As a result, the court cases drag on while lake maintenance suffers.

“Lakes like Jakkur and Kaikondrahalli are huge and need a good amount of money for maintenance, which may not be achievable based on citizen contribution. There is no point in rejuvenating lakes over and over just because there is no maintenance. In such cases, CSR money comes in handy,” adds Usha.

Citizens point out that lake groups cannot accept CSR funds without an MoU. In Jakkur Lake, home guards and a small team of maintenance staff are from BBMP, which also undertakes main works such as wetland rejuvenation. Many other works, such as education, awareness, and community-based programmes like bird walks, do not run under the BBMP.

“Minimum funds are needed to run these, and crowdfunding is quite challenging. CSR legal cells mandate permissions from the BBMP to fund such activities,” explains Annapurna of Jalaposhan Trust, who is involved with Jakkur Lake.

“A lot of people and organisations are willing to cooperate. They do not want to fund the BBMP directly. But we can’t do anything as we have no authority,” says a NETRA volunteer.

“The BBMP always does as much as it can. But it also has human resource challenges. More than 200 lakes are under BBMP, and many need high budgets. When there is a limited budget to be split between lakes, rejuvenation happens, but maintenance suffers,” explains Annapurna of Jalaposhan Trust involved with Jakkur Lake.

What’s in the draft?

The newly drafted Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike Community Involvement for Lake Conservation Policy, 2024 (BBMP CILC Policy, 2024) awaits court directions before implementation.

The draft MoU defines an ‘entity’ as a group of citizens, associations (including resident welfare associations), cooperative societies, companies and NGOs registered under the relevant act.

It allows such entities to “develop/create/provide a facility or asset to be used by the BBMP for its lakes, or to offer services on behalf of BBMP to develop and maintain the lake.”

The activities include installing benches, constructing and maintaining public restrooms, installing water treatment plants, providing aerators and floating islands, creating parks and open spaces adjacent to lakes, etc. As part of lake maintenance, it allows the cleaning of lakes, the maintenance of the public spaces around the lakes, and other things.

The ‘entity’ must provide relevant plans and documentation and get the Chief Commissioner’s permission for any work. BBMP-empanelled supervisors, project consultants, or third-party project management companies funded by the ‘entity’ can supervise the projects. The projects undertaken will be certified by the local Executive Engineer, who will also be the nodal officer for the lake. After such certification, the asset or facility created becomes the property of the BBMP.

“The provision of any services in respect of the lake shall not entitle the Entity to privatise, derive profit from, exclude the public from, or monopolise the lake in any manner. The lake shall remain open to the public and under the custody of the BBMP in the same manner as it would have been had no MoU been entered into,” [sic] says the draft. Violation of this would lead to termination of the MoU.

The draft states that the BBMP is not liable for any direct or indirect damages, problems or intangible losses resulting from the activities undertaken by the Entity in connection with the MoU.

BBMP Lakes Chief Engineer Vijay Kumar Haridas said that while the draft is ready, the civic body will file the addendums as per the court’s directive and proceed after the court approves them.

Meanwhile, the BBMP is also deliberating with citizen groups. Lake groups recently brainstormed internally about what should go into the new MoU. The demands include a composting unit, a tool room, silt traps, trash catcher grills, etc., which were not specified in the old MoU but make the maintenance easy.

"We submitted it to the special commissioner. We are awaiting a meeting with the Chief Commissioner,” says Usha.

Published 29 June 2024, 12:20 IST

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