Bengaluru’s lakes: What ails them?

IN PERSPECTIVE

Representative image. (DH Photo)

Bengaluru’s lakes are in the news again for all the wrong reasons. The breach of Hulimavu Lake, the third lake to breach in the last few weeks, which brought untold misery to unsuspecting citizens has brought the focus back on the pathetic condition of these water bodies. Once again, the High Court has issued notices to authorities concerned for a report on the safety of the city’s lakes; once again, the civic bodies are scurrying to file a status report, which will be duly filed and forgotten until the next such episode. Have we not seen this charade going on ad nauseam?

The utterly miserable condition of the city’s lakes, most of which are no better than cesspools and sewage tanks, is well known. The completely unacceptable water quality in them has been flagged time and again by several studies. The regular episodes of frothing in the Bellandur, Varthur and other lakes has been noticed throughout the country. These have been taken cognizance of by the High Court, the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal (NGT), all of whom have been expressing their displeasure and directing whoever cares to listen to set things right. The authorities promptly visit the sites with experts and give un-implementable plans (Bellandur Lake desilting proposal, surprisingly accepted by NGT, is one such). For good measure, various excuses are also cited, with mutual blame games among the plethora of civic bodies that are supposed to be in charge.

This is not to say that nothing has come out of all the court directions and unrelenting public and media campaigns. Some prominent lakes have been revived. But these successes are few and mostly unsustainable.  

The chief issue is frequent changes in the ownership and custody of lakes. There have been so many orders transferring them from one civic agency to another that one has lost count of them just as people have lost count of court orders to clean up the lakes. Once these lakes were with the Minor Irrigation department. Then they were transferred to the Forest Department, which tried to fence the lakes and develop them. Soon, these water bodies were divided between BDA and BBMP, and some retained by Forest. Subsequently, a Lake Development Authority (LDA) was created exclusively for the conservation, protection and development of all lakes. Between them, the LDA, BDA and BBMP did revive several lakes and for some time, it seemed like there was unified action by all these civic bodies. However, after the LDA was abolished, the custody of the water bodies is once again being tossed from one civic agency to another, creating not only utter confusion but also resulting in lack of coordination among them. This chaotic situation has been taken advantage of by land grabbers and encroachers.

Clearly, long-term plans are needed in this regard. But one reason for lack of long-term solutions is the unscientific approach to the development of lakes. It is well known that Bengaluru’s lakes, arising out of three valleys, are in a series. What’s done or not done for one lake affects the lakes downstream. Since the model adopted for lake rejuvenation is chiefly civil engineering-driven (diverting sewage to downstream lakes, desilting, bunding, etc), each of these developments are done on stand-alone basis without considering the effect on other water bodies and the surrounding areas.

The Hulimavu and Jakkur breaches were the result of such isolated works done by the civic agencies concerned. Unless these agencies sit together and plan unified action and monitoring, we will always suffer such catastrophic incidents. The quality and standards of all such civil works also leaves much to be desired, what with the oft-repeated allegations of nexus between contractors, corporators and officials. So, safety audits and quality checks with proper accountability must be instituted to ensure that lake breaches do not happen again.

None of these will make any impact unless an all-out effort is made to treat these water bodies as an important entity in city/urban planning to tackle the root causes of converting them into filth. Isolated and knee-jerk reactions would only give a false sense of complacency. Each wing, be it BWSSB, Pollution Control Board, BBMP or BDA, they all have to be joint stakeholders and pull up their socks. They should invariably involve locals in their lake conservation and protection works.  They must also look into the possible solutions with all available cost-effective measures rather than engineering designs only. Of course, the best solution would be to tackle all point and non-point sources of pollution and check them at the source itself.

With unpredictability in the monsoons due to climate change-induced weather fluctuations, one can no longer take these fast-shrinking water bodies for granted. The exploding population of the city and ever-increasing land grab will only add to the problems.

(The writer is a retired Indian Forest Service officer and former CEO, Lake Development Authority, Bengaluru) 

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