Despite the previous government’s claims of developing 47 lakes in Bengaluru at the cost of Rs 317.25 crore, under the Nava Nagarothana scheme, with an additional Rs 200 crore being sanctioned to restore 17 lakes, the process of lake maintenance is shrouded in issues. Chief among these is the lack of transparency and access to information, poor enforcement of laws, and above all, absence of public consultation.
Environmentalists and citizen groups have worked against these odds to protect lakes, but questions remain on why public consultation is not duly followed and why lakes continue to be encroached upon and overflow with sewage. It was to address these issues that Citizen Matters, Bengaluru, organised a webinar, Missing: Public participation in lake development in Bengaluru, on May 26th.
The panelists included Bijoy Venugopal, bird watcher and founder-editor of The Green Ogre. He is part of a group of active birdwatchers pushing for Saul Kere development to be biodiversity friendly. Nirmala Gowda, co-founder of Paani.earth, a citizen-led research initiative that is building up a detailed database on the river-basins of the Cauvery basin. Ram Prasad, co-founder of Friends of Lakes and leading advocate for transparent and scientific lake management, and Soumya ND, Member, Yelahanka Puttenahalli Lake and Bird Conservation Trust, a citizen group monitoring the above mentioned lake.
Lakes in an urban context
Ram Prasad makes a distinction between perspectives on lakes in rural vis-à-vis the urban context. In rural areas, lakes are important for livelihood whereas in urban areas the quality of water is ignored because the city gets imported water. “A lake in an urban context is only for recreational and beautification purposes. There is a need to reimagine what the lake means in the urban aspiration. Urban aspiration is being taken away by a certain section of people, who are looking at it as real estate value and not for its environmental value,” says Ram Prasad.
Nirmala, then, spoke about the work Paani.earth, which aims to empower citizens with a database of river basin information. “We look at issues from a lake perspective and zoom out from the river basin perspective.” Nirmala spoke about the unscientific restoration of Byramangala lake.
The High Court issued a stay order on the works in 2020, which continues till today. “The use of the lake is for irrigation. Wastewater, which comprises industrial effluents and sewage, has been entering Vrishabhavathy river and Byaramangala lake, since 1980s till the 2000s, due to the industrialisation of Bengaluru. The farmers would not have access to water for their livelihood.” Nirmala says they ran from pillar to post to get the Detailed Project Report (DPR). They finally got it via filing an RTI. “We translated the DPRs into Kannada and took it to the farmers and women, and explained to them the implications of the restoration projects.”
Regarding the experience with Bellandur technical committee, Nirmala says: “There were two or three public hearings. Scientists were saying one thing to the public and the exact opposite inside the technical committee. Bangalore Environment Trust (BET) made hand drawn maps and used it for discussions during the Bellandur technical committee meetings. We got the data that these are the lakes that drain into Bellandur, these are the stressors. This was used in the technical committee meetings.” Paani.earth was started, Nirmala says, because they didn’t want people to struggle to get information.
Bijoy says he wanted to go beyond bird watching and delve deeper into other aspects of biodiversity. ‘’In 2020, I was part of a lake survey by BngBirds, Environment Support Group (ESG), and several others. We surveyed about 30 lakes around the city. At that point it came to my attention that we were looking at a larger problem. Our core job was to document biodiversity there, but we also made note extensively of the other problems that pervaded these lakes. For instance, we noticed that many of the lakes were being constructed like soup bowls. Part of our orientation was to understand what should be the ideal wetlands. It should be commons, not fenced, and not cut off to the general public.”
Bijoy adds: “We have seen the problems of raw sewage inflow. Most of us in Bellandur lake were victims of the floods last year. Late December, last year, we came across a flex banner just outside Saul Kere announcing that the lake would be developed and beautified. That rang a lot of alarm bells for us.”
Bijoy says they noticed there was no transparency in information. “We realised that no real conversations were happening between administrative bodies and citizens. Also, as most of us know, BBMP hasn’t even had an election in the last few years, so you don’t know who is responsible for what. We have seen the systematic destruction of these public commons.” He makes a pertinent point that talking to citizen groups is not the same as informing citizens.
“A lake is not just a body of shimmering water, it is also the vegetation that surrounds it. It is what plants live in that water, what creatures does the water support. That entire web of life is quite fascinating for us. It is not clear what the milestones are for lake development. Keeping this process opaque works for those with vested interests.”
Soumya spoke about her experience of how they worked to get the lake entrusted in the care of the forest department and out of the hands of the BBMP. “We had already interacted with the forest department and the lake was under the custodianship of the Forest department for quite some time. When we saw what was happening with all the other lakes that were under BBMP we thought that maybe BBMP’s intention is right. But it was more people centric whereas the forest department was more nature centric. The forest department was more open to suggestions and has created a lake management committee. They call us to understand what we have in mind. Transparency is not that big of an issue for us while working with the forest department,” Soumya says.
Lakes are not public parks
For any rejuvenation of lakes one has to go through the KTCDA. Without a DPR if you do any lake rejuvenation it is not right, Ram Prasad stresses.
Nirmala adds that significant political interference at the MLA level creates problems. “Media doesn’t do enough scientific reporting. Transformation at the citizen level is required.”
She disagrees that lakes should be transformed into parks. “From a lake perspective, the space is not meant for jogging parks and gyms. We should be able to think beyond ourselves. Water coming into the lake is bypassed. We need to know how that bypassed water affects certain settlements-this is not factored in.”
However, citizen engagement is important to get people interested in protecting the lakes. Soumya says, regarding citizen participation, they have a huge community of 300 to 400 people.
Ram Prasad advises to get a lake vision document ready before lake rejuvenation starts. “In an urban context, we need social activity to keep an eye on the lake. When the DPR is being prepared, the public should be consulted. We prepared a lake health index, for which we interviewed people. We found that nobody is talking about water. Citizens should engage with the water too.”
However, there seems to be no easy answers on how to get the authorities accountable, how to get more credible and in-depth information in one place that is easily available and accessible to citizens.
Watch the full discussion here: