MOUs or no MOUs, citizen groups continue the fight to save Bengaluru’s lakes

Since 2011, several lakes in Bengaluru have been cared for by citizen groups via MoUs with BBMP. Ten years on, the situation is quite different.

Will well-intentioned idealism end what has been a relatively golden period for Bengaluru’s lakes? The rapid unplanned “development” on the then outskirts of the city in the early 2000s was destroying water bodies that had existed for hundreds of years.

But thanks to a reasonably good partnership between Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) and different citizen-led groups, the last 10 years saw the revival of many of Bengaluru’s lakes.

Citizen participation in lake maintenance

In the summer of 2011, BBMP, the custodian of most of Bengaluru’s lakes, decided to hand over maintenance of 13 lakes to non-governmental entities through Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs). The list included Kaikondrahalli Lake, Uttarahalli Lake, Chinnappanahalli Lake, Puttenahalli Lake and nine others. This was a big step on BBMP’s part as they had signed such an MOU previously only with the army for Ulsoor Lake.

The lakes that were handed over in 2011 were at different stages of rejuvenation, and BBMP had a long list of other lakes that were in line to be restored. BBMP had been informally engaging with trustees of Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust (PNLIT) during the rejuvenation of Puttenahalli Lake, and they realised that having dedicated local citizen-led teams on the ground was proving to be an efficient way of ensuring that the lakes would receive the attention and support they required – both in terms of manpower and money.

One of the conditions of the MoU was that BBMP would complete the rejuvenation of the lake, but would not provide financial assistance for subsequent lake maintenance. Those who signed the MoU would need to raise funds for the lake’s maintenance on their own, without commercialising the premises.

The next few years saw an extensive interest being taken by citizens in lake restoration, particularly those in their neighbourhoods. Numerous citizen groups started actively engaging with the BBMP, either informally, or formally through MoUs.

Read more: How Bengaluru’s lakes got a second chance at life

Like with Jakkur Lake in north Bengaluru. The 160-acre water body was restored by the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) in 2008-2012. During this period, a few people living in the vicinity used to visit the lake and see what was being done.

“We got familiar with the BDA officials and the contractors, and discussed processes and plans,” says Annapurna Kamath, a trustee of JaLaPoshan (an NGO), who signed an MoU with BBMP in 2015. “Even after the basic restoration was done, we’d keep them informed if we noticed anything that shouldn’t be happening – like debris dumping or encroachers. In 2012-2014 the BDA wanted to hand the lake back to BBMP, but BBMP wasn’t ready and kept delaying as it was short of staff and funds. We registered JaLaPoshan to partner officially with BBMP, and that’s when they got the lake transferred to manage with citizen support.”

Mahadevpura area towards the east of Bengaluru has several lakes that were being restored. So citizens formed a society to take up the ecological lake maintenance activities after the rejuvenation of these lakes. Mahadevpura Parisara Samrakshane Mattu Abhivrudhi Samiti (MAPSAS) signed MoUs with BBMP for five lakes – Lower Ambalipura, Kaikondrahalli, Kasavanahalli, Soul, and Devarabisanahalli Lakes.

The period of MoUs varied from lake to lake, depending on the NGO’s understanding with BBMP – ranging from one to three years. All the MoUs expired in 2020-21 and none were renewed by BBMP. Currently there are no active MoUs in place.

Why MoUs were not renewed

A High Court order dated March 4th, 2020 on a Public Interest Litigation (WP 38401/2014) filed by Citizen Action Group and impleaded by Environment Support Group and Leo F. Saldanha required the government to wait for further orders before signing any MoU with any “Corporate Entity”.

Extract from the HC order: Prima facie, it appears to us that by the execution of the said agreements (MoUs), the State wants to shift its burden of maintaining the lakes to the private Corporate Entities. Unless the legality of such agreements is examined, we cannot permit the State Government to execute such agreements. Therefore, we direct that till further orders are passed, the State Government shall not execute any such MOU with any Corporate Entity. However, this order will not prevent the State Government from taking funds from the Corporate Entities for rejuvenation of lakes.

The full order can be seen here. Despite the fact that the citizen-led lake groups are not “Corporate Entities”, BBMP chose to err on the side of caution. Hearings on appeals by lake groups have repeatedly been postponed.

Read more: Can citizen groups maintain Bengaluru lakes? Legal tussle continues

Impact of no MoU: No CSR funding

Citizen Matters spoke to a few active citizens and members of citizen-led lake NGOs, to know the current situation.

Many of the lake NGO groups have, over the years, been using CSR funding to maintain their lakes and implement improvements. While the NGOs have earned credibility and goodwill through the work they have been doing, the MoU with BBMP is a document that completes the official paperwork and grants them authority.

JaLaPoshan’s MoU for Jakkur Lake expired at the same time as COVID struck in 2020. “Our expenses were about Rs 1.5 lakh per month, and majorly funded by CSR,” says Annapurna. “Money had already stopped coming from corporates as it was going for COVID relief. Now, even if corporates have money, we do not have an MoU.”.

It is worth mentioning that companies that give CSR don’t really need an MoU. But they do require a permission letter from the custodian of the lake stating that xxx is authorised to collect funds for yyy lake. Either BBMP or Karnataka Tank Conservation and Development Authority (KTCDA) can give this letter. But both prefer having an MoU. Hence no letter.

Representatives from MAPSAS describe a situation in 2021, where they were signing with a major corporate for CSR funding of one of their lakes. “When the MoU of this lake expired, we got the renewal signed by the then Executive Engineer (EE) in October 2019. All that was left to be done was affixing the BBMP seal, so we were 100% sure we would get the document. Our subsequent follow ups over 2020-21 yielded the response that it will be done soon. Based on this assurance we were engaging with the corporate on a three-year CSR plan starting Q3 2021. This plan would have taken care of our lake’s pending rejuvenation and maintenance comfortably. We had given up on BBMP financing this lake’s incomplete works especially after COVID severely hit all funding plans. We were in the final stages of the agreement with this corporate when it came to our notice that the MoU was not being released due to the March 2020 High Court ruling on the 2014 PIL. Though we apparently do not come under the ambit of that ruling, the KTDCA has taken the stand that until the High Court gives its clearance, no MOUs will be signed by the BBMP with not only corporates but also with not-for-profit citizen groups like ours. We were put in an extremely embarrassing situation with the corporate as they felt that we had misinformed them.”

Iblur Environs Trust (IbEnT), that had an MoU for Iblur Lake, has been relying solely on CSR funds. “With the expiry of the MoU in Q1 of 2021, the CSR funding stopped,” says Mukund Kumar of IbEnT. “So we do not have money to spend on the lake.”

Doddanekundi Lake is facing a similar issue. “There are many corporates who are wanting to put in their CSR funds to improve the lake.”, says Ganesh Kalmane, member of Nekundi Tank Rejuvenation Association (NETRA), the citizens’ group that had an MoU with BBMP. “Our group got a Detailed Project Report (DPR) for rejuvenation of the lake, but it is pending approval. Without the DPR and renewal of the MoU, we are nobody in the scheme of things.”

For Puttenahalli Lake, PNLIT has been relying on donations from well wishers (most are from the neighbourhood), for day to day maintenance and has looked to CSR funding primarily for improvement projects. “Our fund raising has been continuing as and when required, and we have been managing our staff salaries and other expenses as earlier.” says Nupur Jain of PNLIT. No MoU though would be a stumbling block if there is a CSR opportunity.

Also, there are other needs for a formal agreement. “We were getting a neighbouring apartment to release treated water into the lake,” says Usha Rajagopalan of PNLIT. “Without the MoU, we will not be able to get this renewed.”

Walking track being fixed at Puttenahalli Lake
Work on the walking track at Puttenahalli Lake in progress. Pic courtesy: Ramu, PNLIT

Maintenance compromised

At Iblur Lake, BBMP has put a contractor with a small team to take care of the lake, and they are doing the basic minimum. “It has been a year since we stepped back,” says Mukund. “The lake is not in bad shape but we must remember that it was rejuvenated only in 2018 and phase 2 of the rejuvenation is still in progress. Two things stand out. The small horticulture, like shrubs and climbers have been badly hit with poor watering. Also, we used to have a generous number of birds. Over the past year most of them have disappeared. We aren’t sure if this is due to poor water quality (due to wetland overflow after the heavy rains of last year) or excessive fishing by the fishing contractor.”

Iblur lak pre and post restoration
Iblur Lake in 2013 before restoration, in 2020 after restoration. Pic courtesy: Mukund Kumar

JaLaPoshan has reduced staff and encouraged volunteers, cutting expenses to Rs 60-70,000 per month. “We have turned to individuals for donations and have been managing so far,” says Annapurna. “BBMP has put a small team so our staff works with them. But without stakeholder partnership and citizen support I think BBMP would find it difficult to maintain the lake”.

“We have spent more than Rs 70 lakh over a period of 8-9 years for the maintenance and development of the lake and its parks,” says a frustrated Prabhashankar Rai from Chinnappanahalli Lake Development Trust. “I was personally visiting the place twice daily spending at least 3-4 hours every day. Every piece of work was attended to with utmost care – planting saplings, watering, manuring, sweeping, trimming grass on embankments, deweeding, desilting the silt traps, etc. The senior citizen park became a beautiful spot for photo shoots for the elderly. It is so hard to see it now look like a wild forest. I feel that all the money, effort and time invested in the past 10 years has been destroyed within a year of BBMP taking over.”

Despite no MoU, PNLIT trustees feel it is their duty to continue doing what they have been doing for Puttenahalli Lake since before the first MoU of 2011. “We continue to maintain the lake with the same rigour because we don’t want our work of over a decade to come undone,” says Usha.

“We feel a bit uncomfortable with no MoU as we don’t have anything to show we are authorised to maintain the lake, but we are continuing as earlier,” adds Nupur. “BBMP contractors are working on the walking track and fencing around the lake, but BBMP has not felt the need to provide workers for the day to day maintenance, other than the Home Guards who have been around for a long time”.

What does the future hold

“Citizen groups that signed MoUs with BBMP are all selfless with no vested interests,” says Annapurna. “The court order has a directive to form Lake Protection Committees, but we have to realise that we are in the infancy stage of democratic participation and need a bottom-up approach. The lakes that were under MoU were all doing well. BBMP and KTCDA can check the credibility of the groups”.

While Lake Protection Committees with Ward representatives to monitor lake management is an ideal situation, the experience of citizens who have been in Ward Committees makes them deeply wary of the outcome of such idealism. “It may seem nice to imagine an ideal world where lakes are totally the government’s responsibility, but there is a need to be practical,” they say, without wishing to be named. “Lakes need CSR funding to augment taxpayer funding which has been largely mismanaged in public works. In our experience, citizen groups bring transparency and accountability to the application of funds for crucial improvements and not cosmetic ones.”

Prabhashankar feels that while there is a limit to what we can expect from governmental bodies such as BBMP, citizens too can be quite disappointing. “What pains me is the apathy shown by the lake users and neighborhood stakeholders who are the direct beneficiaries of the beautiful environment which is so rare in cities,” says Prabhashankar. “We can’t take nature for granted. As long as people are insensitive to this environmental cause of saving and maintaining water bodies, it is difficult for people like us to come forward and take the responsibility with or without the MoU.”

The reality is that if it were not for citizens’ interventions, Bengaluru would have fewer lakes left today. Lake groups have observed that there is often a strong inclination to give up lakes for infrastructure in a blind quest for development. There are strong builders’ lobbies that are eager to use the lake lands to expand their land banks and increase the urban sprawl. There is this lurking feeling that getting citizen groups out of lake rejuvenation and maintenance will enable those with vested interests do as they like. Citizen groups are determined that this must not happen.

There is plenty of evidence that the citizen partnership model has been successful. “Despite no MoU, we continue to work closely with the BBMP,” says Mukund. “They include us in their discussions and inspections and the association is cooperative in nature. We feel they are keen to renew the MoU but their hands are tied.”

[Disclosure: The author is a trustee of Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust.]

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