In his report placed before the Karnataka High Court on 23 June 2008, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka Dr P J Dilip Kumar has observed that the privatisation of lakes in Bangalore would be detrimental to the eco-system, the fallout of which would most affect communities living in the surrounding areas. Kumar heads the state’s forest department and is the state’s highest ranking forest official.
The 91-page report was compiled at the order of the High Court in response to a writ petition filed by the Environment Support Group and others against the privatisation of lakes.
Kumar visited Hebbal, Nagvara, Agara and Vengaihnakere lakes to make his observations. He contrasts the rich bio-diversity present in Agara lake against the lack of it in Nagvara and Vengaihnakere lakes which have been privatised. Hebbal lake which has been leased out to East India Hotels (EIH) Ltd., and is in the process of being developed, has also come in for critical comment.
Agara lake has quite a rich bird population, and the striking feature of this lake is the rich aquatic vegetation, like ‘alligator weeds’ and reed beds, says the report. "Due to the water plants there is rich and varied habitat for different species of birds."
The report has contrasted Agara with the Nagvara lake. "Nagvara lake has been developed to a greater extent by paving the front shoreline and erecting structures for cafeteria, etc. The lake has been completely cleaned up, and has no shoreline vegetation, and thus no wading birds in the water spread area. The lake is used for boating, and the shoreline has been deepened and made vertical by masonry walls, thus not providing waterbird habitat."
On visiting Hebbal lake, Kumar and his team found that deweeding of the aquatic vegetation was in progress on the southern shore-line near the entrance. The report records that "The shoreline has been disturbed, and the water made deeper at the shoreline. This has obviously degraded the habitat of aquatic birds, which need gently sloping shorelines and mud flats, and aquatic vegetation for their feeding, breeding and resting."
Kumar’s report then sets down what is likely to happen at Hebbal lake with the plan to commercialise it. It points to a wetland in the north-west corner of the lake, which, with its profuse aquatic vegetation, supports a very rich birdlife. "Without the vegetation and the shallow water regions, the bird population would be much poorer. As per the approved plan, EIH are to empty the water, line the bottom with plastic sheets and imported gravel and raise a lotus pond, which will cause huge damage to the bird life," says the report.
Vengaihnakere, located in K R Puram and privatised recently, was a shallow wetland with exposed mudflats and aquatic vegetation, harbouring rich birdlife. The report says that today it is "completely devoid of such habitats, and has very few birds, just a few cormorants. The contrast between Agara and Vengaihnakere in the nature of the shoreline…..is obvious. The stone pitching on the steep banks to facilitate boating, has eliminated these bird habitats and led to the complete absence of the waterbirds that one sees in Agara and Hebbal as of now."
The report observes that the city’s lakes and tanks are not just water bodies but thriving eco-systems that play host to a variety of bird and animal life. It recommends that they are treated with great ecological sensitivity and care, keeping the interests of the birds and animals uppermost. Thus, no commercial and tourism activities should be envisaged in their "development" plans.
The report goes on to state that all the lakes left undeveloped so far are well worth declaring nature or bird preserves. And, that local residents’ groups and bird enthusiasts may be associated in their management on a regular basis.
It concludes with a scathing observation, rare for its candidness, and for one that comes from a top government functionary: ‘The model followed in the LDA programme of private lease seems to be taking all the ills of modern, built-up and paved-over, urban life into these hitherto natural spaces, which will result in further degradation of these places of natural beauty and ecological richness, and contribute to further deterioration of physical and mental health of the people living around them."
Background to the lawsuit
Following widespread protests against the commercialisation of Hebbal lake last year, Environment Support Group (ESG) filed a public interest litigation (PIL) against the privatisation of lakes in the High Court on 8 April this year.
ESG submitted before the High Court a range of concerns relating to the ongoing privatization of lakes/tanks in Bangalore. The NGO argued that the government’s actions were opposed to settled legal norms relating to management and conservation of such ecologically sensitive water bodies which are also wildlife habitats. In addition, ESG argued that the ongoing privatisation attacked a wide range of customary and traditional rights, especially of fishing communities, and thus is also a question of compromising livelihoods.
Protests against the conversion of Agara lake into an amusement park erupted first in May 2007 when citizens first got wind of the plans in store for it. A number of Koramangala residents immediately shot off a letter to the authorities objecting to the plans of the Lake Development Authority.
Environment Support Group
105, East End ‘B’ Main Road
Jayanagar 9th Block East
Bangalore – 560069
The PIL (PDF)
The LDA was set up through a government order in July 2002, and describes itself as a "non-profit organisation working solely for the regeneration and conservation of lakes in and around Bangalore." Ironically, its mission is to rejuvenate, revitalise and restore the dying lakes and protect them against further pollution in order to recharge the depleting ground water and to improve surrounding environs with the help of community participation.
Going by the arguments in the litigation and the forest department’s report, the LDA’s role and decisions will very likely come under substantial scrutiny at the High Court when it takes up the matter.
Citizens meanwhile, have raised their voices again. On 22 June, a Sunday, a large number of citizens (numbering around 300) held a protest meeting against the privatisation of lakes at Agara lake. An appeal was made to the Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa to stop the trend. Citizens formed a human chain comprising adults and children around the lake to further highlight the issue. ⊕