The city’s biggest lake is finally getting a shot at redemption after years of abuse and neglect. Over a decade’s worth of industrial pollutants and residential sewage wilfully let into the 900-acre Bellandur lake have resulted in events unheard of in Bengaluru; froth spilled out first, followed by sporadic episodes of fire in the waterbody because of high volume of chemicals. All this was photographed incessantly, rose to international infamy, and caused formation of committees and a lot of talk. And it took a rap from the National Green Tribunal to get the State to finally act.
But it was not only the Bellandur and Varthur lakes that were subjected to long-term neglect. Several lakes in the city could have gone that way, but did not thanks to an alert and concerned citizenry that chose to act. Instead of waiting for government agencies to step in after receiving their complaints, people wore gloves, picked up equipment and got down to business, taking the agencies along with them. Some shining examples of citizens turning saviours of lakes are for all to see today, and these acts have spawned more such movements.
It is often described as the “model” lake, and those who had stepped up to save it will tell you why. With an “institutional engagement” already on with the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) and the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) working on the lake, citizens could step in and demand the construction of a wetland and ensure that everything worked after the rejuvenation process was completed in 2013.
“If the sewage treatment plant, which now also caters to Rachenahalli lake, had not been set up and had not remained in working condition, it would have been in the same state as Bellandur lake,” said S. Vishwanath, advisor to Jala Poshan Trust.
The trust signed an MoU with the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) in 2015 to maintain the lake, and it continues to be in charge of the 120-acre lake.
Another lake that has extensively been featured as a role model for rejuvenation, particularly because of citizen’s efforts, is Kaikondrahalli lake. What is now touted as a tourist spot of sorts thanks to bird-watching possibilities is, interestingly, not very far from Bellandur lake.
Shilpi Sahu, a member of the Mahadevpura Parisara Samrakshane Mattu Abhivrudhi Samiti (MAPSAS), said that in 2009, a few citizens started looking for information on the lake and then a dry patch of land that resembled a dump yard. They eventually involved the BBMP in the matter. MAPSAS is now the community custodian of the lake, spread over 48 acres and 23 guntas.
“We had involved ecologists as well because a lake is not just a space for urban recreation; there are a lot more uses to it and it has ecological functions as well,” said Ms. Sahu. The photographers who throng the lake to capture winged beauties over the weekends or on early mornings validate her statement.
It is said to be the first lake given to a citizens’ group by the civic body. The Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust (PNLIT), a not-for-profit body, has many such feats to its credit, having turned a marshy dump yard into a thriving lake. The trust meets the expenses of maintaining the 13-acre, 25-gunta lake without any assistance from the BBMP, managing fully on donations from people.
It all started in 2009. “We were four trustees to begin with, and we are six now. When we began work, there was pessimism. I don’t think they (the BBMP) or even we thought we would take over the lake’s maintenance. But lakes need a watchdog — someone who can monitor and maintain them,” said Usha Rajagopalan, chairperson of the trust, which has been the official citizen custodian of the lake since.
What does it take for citizens to do the job? “It is not just about maintaining the status quo; improvements also need to be made, for example to the quality of water. So it is quite a bit of time and effort, especially since we are not from the field. But we are passionate about it. Our experience has shown us that it is eminently possible to nurture a lake with perseverance, dedication and commitment,” she said.
They call themselves ‘Friends of lake — Chunchughatta Lake,’ and urge others to “make good use of the summer vacations”. Inspired by successful lake rejuvenation movements such as the one at Puttenahalli lake, a group of dedicated citizens got to the ground 10 months ago without as much as registering themselves as a formal association.
There have been quite a few cleaning drives since, the most recent one organised with the help of the NGO Youth for Parivarthan.
“Sometimes 25 to 30 people come, some other times there are just five people. We have spent ₹50,000 approximately so far, all donations from residents,” said H. Ramesh Bhat, who was among the first to decide to stop talking and start acting. The 22-acre lake has one primary problem — garbage dumping — and one primary advantage — water available through the year, he said.
Having brought both the local councillor as well as opposition party members on board, the group is now looking to rope in more people to get the government to notice the lake.
Among the other new lake saving campaigns is one that aims at making the 30-acre Kundalahalli lake an “urban life refuge”. Undertaken jointly by private firms and the public, the movement that started in 2015 has seen considerable progress, with the de-sludging process off to a start this year.
The responsibilities are divided between the public and private stakeholders, and so is the funding. The private money goes into the establishment of two sewage treatment plants, for example, while the public money goes into boundary building, feedstock pipes, and de-sludging. “We cannot do it alone. The government is also on board. But it was a group of us, appalled at the apathy shown towards public property, who started the process,” said Arvind Keerthi, a resident of the area.