Will PPP destroy lakes?

Will the Lake Development Authority’s (LDA) public private partnership (PPP) model protect or destroy Bangalore’s last remaining lakes?

Created in 2002 to check the deterioration of lakes in the city, the LDA has identified 30 lakes for ‘development’. One of these, Nagvara Lake, has already been turned into an amusement park. Next on the list are Hebbal Lake and Agara Lake.

The LDA has signed an agreement with East India Hotels Pvt. Ltd, which operates the Oberoi chain of hotels, for the ‘development’ of Hebbal Lake. The privatization of Hebbal Lake has created a storm of protests from environmentalists and concerned citizens who fear that a precious community resource will be out of bounds for all but a select few.

An agreement has also been signed for the development of Agara Lake with Biota Natural Systems Pvt. Ltd., a Hyderabad-based company. Concerned citizens are determined to stop it from going the way of Nagvara and Hebbal lakes.

Nagvara lake

Nagvara Lake (pic: Rajeev Yeshwant)

“What the LDA is planning to do is in contravention of its own by-laws and directives of the Supreme Court,” says Leo F. Saldanha of the Environment Support Group. He alleges, “An organization which was set up to protect the lakes has become a trading agency. It is handing over community assets to private parties on a platter. The LDA will have absolutely no control over what they do to them thereafter.”

The importance of the lakes to Bangalore’s ecosystem cannot be stressed enough. Hebbal Lake, which is 500 years old, alone played host to hundreds of birds, fish, insects and amphibians. The presence of more than 100 species of birds, including a variety of ducks, grey herons, cattle egrets, white storks, stilts, river terns, gulls, coots and little grebes, has been recorded there over the past few decades by avid birdwatchers and ornithologists. Many of these came all the way from Central Asia and Europe.

Nagvara Lake today has no birds at all where once it played host to a variety of birds, much like Hebbal Lake. The ‘development’ of the lake has driven them all away. The presence of noisy crowds on the shore and boats in the water no longer make the lake a congenial place. Furthermore, the mud banks of the lake have given way to a stone embankment, making nesting impossible.

Agara Lake is still rich in birdlife but not for much longer, maybe. Bangalore’s lakes have a crucial role to playing in maintaining the city’s micro climate and replenishment of the water table. For centuries, many fishing and agrarian communities have depended in them as their only source of water.

The sums of money that private firms are investing and paying as fees to take over the lakes for ‘development’. This indicates that profit-making will be the major concern for parties. In the case of Hebbal Lake, Oberoi Hotels will invest Rs.16 crore in its development, paying the LDA an annual fee of Rs. 72 lakh escalating at 1.5 per cent every subsequent year. In the case of Agara Lake, Biota Natural Systems Pvt. Ltd. will invest Rs. 13 crore in its development, paying Rs. 46.80 lakh per annum, escalating at 1.5 per cent every subsequent year, to the LDA.

What will the LDA do with the funds earned form leasing out the lakes? Says Dr Muni Reddy, Chief Executive Officer, LDA, quite ambiguously, “We will see to it that the money will further benefit the lakes.” He adds, “I think its best that the big lakes are leased out while the smaller ones can be adopted.”

If profit making is the primary motive of the parties taking over the lakes it is evident that the environmental aspect will take a back seat. Says Arvind Jannu, Secretary, Ecology and Environment, Department of Forests, Ecology and Environment, Government of Karnataka, “The LDA’s PPP model has checks and balances. Only a few lakes will come under this model while the rest will be under public trusteeship. Moreover, these lakes will be better maintained.” But, at what cost to the general public and the environment?

Also. access to lakes that are being developed will be restricted. Lumbini Gardens on Nagvara Lake charges an entry fee of Rs. 30. So will other such projects on other lakes. Many lakes are located in residential areas and access ought to be free what is essentially a community resource. Communities living in the neighborhood of these lakes have not been consulted on their development. This does not go down well with residents associations and environmentalists. Says Saldanha, “Access is the most important determinant.” He wants nothing short of all the agreements the LDA has signed with private parties to be rescinded.

A protest on 4 August 2007 at Hebbal lake saw some 300 citizens turn up to lend their support. The Koramangala Initiative has shot off a letter to the Chief Secretary, Government of Karnataka, P.B. Mahishi, who is also chairman of the LDA, objecting to any plans to turn HSR Layout’s Agara lake into an amusement park. The Environment Support Group, in association with other like-minded groups, is planning to make a representation to the Chief Minister and ask for an enquiry into the matter.

Environment Support Group
Leo Saldanha
105, East End ‘B’ Main Road
Jayanagar 9th Block East, Bangalore – 560069
Ph: 26531339

Birdwatchers Club of Bangalore
Naveein O. C.
Ph: 9880082234

Jurisdiction over all lakes in and around the city does not lie solely with the LDA. Many lakes are looked after by the Forest Department, the Revenue Department, the Bangalore Development Authority, Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board and the Minor Irrigation Department. These include those of Kothnur, Alahalli, Ibblur, Melinakere and Kundalahalli. Other lakes on the city’s periphery like Bellandur Lake are jointly looked after the respective panchayats and the Minor Irrigation Department or the Forest Department.

“I suggest that the lakes with the LDA are handed back to the Forest Department for maintenance and conservation,” says Naveein O C, a member of the Birdwatchers Club of Bangalore which studied all water bodies within a 40 km radius of the city for 10 years. He appreciates the work done by them in fencing, removing encroachments and stopping contamination of various lakes.

Almost two decades ago, in 1988, the Lakshman Rau Committee examined the condition of the city’s lakes and recommended measures for their maintenance and conservation. It’s report emphasises the development of the lakes in such a way as to benefit Bangalore’s environment and its micro-climate. It calls for the various bodies involved in the overall development of the city to act in coordination with each other for the conservation of lakes. Its recommendations call for the establishment of tree parks on the foreshore areas of the lakes and the clearance of encroachments. That report appears to be gathering dust.

In the meantime, Bangalore’s burgeoning development threatens to swallow the city’s last few remaining lakes. Less than 40 of them exist today as live water bodies. In this context does it make sense to go in for their commercialisation?

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