Creation of a Rural Lakes Authority should not lead to local communities losing control over water bodies, feels M.A. Siraj

Appearances, it is said, could be deceptive. Most people believe Karnataka to be a water-rich State, given the early and high precipitation during monsoons on the areas skirting the Western Ghats. But the greenery that sheaths its capital, Bangalore, and southern and western districts obscures the painful realities that grip most of the districts north of Bangalore till its northern tip except the areas where they are criss-crossed by rivers. Most of these districts remain bone dry and depend on tank irrigation and the little monsoon that charges its underground aquifers.

Very few people are aware that Karnataka ranks second among the most arid States in the country. As much as 79 per cent of its area is dry and has no perennial source of water. Karnataka follows Rajasthan which is known as the desert State. Karnataka has over 37,000 lakes with a potential irrigation area of 6.85 lakh hectares. But the reality is that today only 2.40 lakh hectares (just 35 per cent of the potential) are irrigated by these tanks. This speaks of the declining use and increasing neglect of these sources.

Assurances

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah earlier this week unveiled plans to set up an Authority to develop rural lakes. The Minister for Rural Development and Panchayat Raj said that the work to rejuvenate tanks and lakes will be completed in 42 months.

The announcement of an Authority to develop rural lakes is sure to be met with scepticism, given the fate of four major lakes in Bangalore which were to be “developed” under the Lake Development Authority (LDA) but were handed over to corporates to reap the commercial benefits after the State had already spent considerable funds to develop them. One wonders if the new authority would only serve as a conduit for wresting control over the lakes from the community of beneficiaries and create another monstrous body to hand over what is considered a ‘common’ in environmental parlance.

Hindsight suggests that any effort to put such natural resources — be they forests, woodlands, grasslands, lakes or wilderness — under some authority effectively deprives the users of the benefits traditionally accruing to them. It is fraught with risks of privatisation in future or exploitation by corporates under the garb of development. Environmental activist Leo Saldanha dubs the move unnecessary and feels that in all likelihood it would result in creating an undemocratic and non-transparent parastatal agency like the LDA, BDA, BMRDA, etc. He says: “Time and again such bodies have promoted projects that tend to take away the control of public over commons, such as lakes, as was done by LDA in privatising Bangalore’s lakes.

Beneficiaries

Even the mere presence of such bodies is temptation enough to gamble with natural resources which under any democratic set-up belong to the people and the governments are expected to merely act as custodians. H.G. Raghavendra, Team Leader, Dhan Foundation, which has been rejuvenating rural tanks in Kolar district and Pavagada taluk of Tumkur district, says the State Government should rather revive the Jala Samvardhana Yojana Sangha (JSYS) or the Tank Communities Scheme which is currently being closed. Raghavendra says the Dhan Foundation could revive nearly 3,000 tanks in these two districts by mobilising shramdaan by communities of beneficiaries and providing technical and managerial support. He says the control over water bodies should rest with local people and if at all the corporates step in, they should do it by channelising CSR funds through the NGOs.

In this regard, the Karnataka Government would do well to act on lake conservation as per the directives of the Karnataka High Court in its ruling on July 7, 2012. The Court had observed in response to a PIL by Environment Support Group (ESG) that any model involving PPP wherein “dominion” over natural resources belonging to the State is handed over to private enterprises either for rejuvenation or for management and maintenance, the same is likely to result in an anomalous situation requiring constant supervision by the State and its authority to ensure that there is no deviation from the stated policy and norms. The court had specifically stated that “it becomes extremely necessary for the State to see that they are used for public purposes and not for enrichment of private enterprises”.

Stipulating the guidelines, the Court asked the Government to undertake legal survey of lakes and tanks in the State and the interstitial canals; ensure protection of spatial extent of 38,000 lakes in the State, prepare their map and make the information public; leave a 30-metre mandatory “no development zone” around each of the water bodies; remove encroachments around the lakes; arrange for the humane rehabilitation of people who would be evicted as a result of rejuvenation efforts; create live fencing with endemic trees with emphasis on food and nutritional security to local communities; undertake desilting only when absolutely necessary; set up a District Lake Committee involving the members of the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority; stop flow of sewage, industrial effluents and dumping of garbage; and allocate Rs. 50 crore with matching contributions from BBMP and BDA to rehabilitate Bangalore’s lakes.

The judgment lays down a formal institutional framework at the local level exclusively to protect, conserve and rejuvenate the rural lakes and wetlands that dot the Karnataka landscape. The ruling provides a very comprehensive bulwark for ensuring water security for local communities. It is now for ministries such as Rural Development and Panchayat Raj and Minor Irrigation to see that control over these natural resources is not taken out of the hands of the ultimate beneficiaries.

(The author can be reached at maqsiraj@gmail.com)