Hebbal lake: whose space?

A recent study by a doctoral students at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore suggests that Hebbal lake's 'development' is against the idea of the city being a 'melting pot', because it cuts off access to several communities. Rajeev Yeshwanth has more.

Once a pleasing part of the landscape, Bangalore’s lakes have now become scarce and valuable commodities in a burgeoning metropolis. Hebbal lake, which was in the eye of a storm last year over its acquisition by the Oberoi Group of Hotels, mirrors the changing mores of a city in transition. Created in the 16th century to function as a reservoir, the lake’s extent is 150 acres. It has since sustained scores of local and migratory birds. The lake along with neighbouring Nagvara lake (which has already been turned into an amusement park) is part of extensive wetlands system in the area.

Hebbal Lake, Bangalore

Hebbal lake: Will the city swallow it? Pic: Meera Baindur.

In 2006 East India Hotels Ltd. (the Oberoi Group of Hotels) bagged a deal from the Lake Development Authority (LDA) to develop Hebbal lake. Under this scheme the lake is leased out for a period of 15 years for an annual fee of Rs.72 lakh. Some in the city feel that the commoditisation of the lake is a threat to its identity as a ‘public space’ with which a variety of citizen users can identify with and feel a sense of belonging to.

"Hebbal lake is on its way to becoming another urban artifact that will showcase the city’s global status thus privileging one section of the public over another," feels Meera Baindur who is currently doing her Ph D in environmental philosophy at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. The New Delhi-based organisation for contemporary urban research SARAI had supported her research on the lake. Meera presented a paper titled The Lake as Urban Space: The Spirit of the Place on the Hebbal lake at a conference in December 2007. Meera’s work takes a deeper look at the lake, going beyond the recent controversies and discussing the idea of public space and access and the notion of the lake’s ‘development’.

For the tantrik it was a place where he could worship his goddess on a full moon night. For the fisherman, the dhobi and the weed cutters this was the place where they earned a living. For the villager it was the place he belonged to. For people living in the layouts close by this was the green lung they repaired to for a respite. Then, of course, there are the birds, reptiles and insects which are an intrinsic part of the lake’s ecosystem.

Hebbal lake today is witnessing not merely a conflict of interests and user rights access alone but also a conflict of ‘place exclusions’.There is no amusement park yet, but in line with the transformation of the lake in that direction, an entrance fee of Rs. 20 is being charged. This brings in another set of people, allowing them access on their ability to fork out money for entrance fees and the various amusements inside. These people would not appreciate the dhobi’s washing hanging about or cattle grazing in the place. Those who once regarded the place as their turf for their activities would now be deemed intruders.

"Those whose daily activities take place in the vicinity of the lake are unable to relate to those who will primarily use the lake for recreation. The very idea of the lake as recreation space leaves certain populations out," says Meera. Take for instance the migrant fishermen from Kuppam whom Meera came across in the course of her study. "The fisherman community generally did not seem anxious about the prospective development of the lake as they felt that their rights would be safe guarded and they could continue fishing in the early morning and late evening hours after the park closed for visitors. But, in fact EIH had no plans for more fishing arrangements and we were told that the LDA would direct the Horticulture Department to stop all fishing activity as in the case of Nagvara lake," says Meera.

Hebbal lake fishes

Mired in fishy deals: a catch of the lake’s fish. Pic: Meera Baindur.

Meera documented six fishermen, all daily wage workers for a fishing contractor who lived in a small shack on the banks of the lake. Their usual catch consisted of fish like catla, rohu, mrigal, chali, jilabi, bigede, tigerjilabi, glasscar, etc. The day’s catch was sold at a small stall nearby. They were paid Rs.20 per day and Rs.4 extra for every kg of fish that they caught. The day’s catch was about 20-30 kg.

When Hebbal lake was drained overnight in July 2007 it left loads of fish stranded in the lake bed. "One morning I found lots of people around the lake. The fishing contractor who wanted to make the most of this years harvest had his men catch the last fish-small big or water and was briskly selling them on the road. Many people heard of this "sale" and were buying fish at cheaper rates. Some children and others too walked into the lake bed in the slush and fished out the last of the fish," says Meera.

Once the fish have gone, the birds and other aquatic life will disappear too. In their stead will appear plastic trees (as in the case of Nagavara lake) and motor boats. What was once a thriving ecosystem will be rendered sterile. The attempt to ‘develop’ the lake ignores its importance as a vital link in the city ecosystem.

The lake itself is visibly shrinking. "Development of the lake is a waste of a resources," emphasises Meera raising the question whether a lake, a habitat in its own right, needs to pay for its upkeep. When the lake was last dredged by EIH (and since then it has filled up) Meera found that the EIH contractors were furrowing the lake bed unevenly and dumping soil over the levees and the retaining wall. "They wanted to deepen the lake and increase the bank so that the walkway could go all around the lake," she says.

The question is whether they needed to dredge it again given the fact that it was done a few years ago. Dredging threatens to destroy its existence as an ecosystem. Loads of mud from the dredging have been dumped on the lake’s periphery, maybe in order to extend its foreshore area.

What was once a small overflow area, a kind of a marshland between the lake and the old road is today all filled up. It was used by the cows and villagers, till EIH took over. Soon construction debris was allowed to be dumped there, filling it up and enlarging the lake’s foreshore to be used for parking vehicles or extending the walkway around the lake.

At stake are the notions of ‘preservation’ and ‘development’ says Meera in her paper. These are crucial issues to be debated upon. A growing Bangalore will need to draw up guidelines to be adhered to in altering the basic fabric of its public spaces. Meera says that excluding groups of people from using the lake would widen the social gap and goes against the idea of an urban space being a ‘melting pot’. According to this NIAS scholar, the so-called development of the lake shouldn’t seek to change the role it has played so far in the area.

Baindur, Meera, The Lake as Urban Space: The Spirit of the Place, unpublished paper, SARAI Student stipendship conference presentation, December 2007.

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