It is a site that has inspired poets like Kuvempu and scores of other artists, a beautiful green cover in the heart of Mysuru city that provides recreation and relaxation for the hundreds of city residents who come here every day for their daily walk, run or merely to enjoy the peace and beauty.
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Such is Kukkurahalli Lake, a calm, naturally scenic place rich in biodiversity, home to more than 150 species of birds, 85 species of butterflies, 20 species of reptiles, 14 species of mammals, 37 species of spiders and many more documented in the lake, leading it to be recognized as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) by Birdlife International. Therefore, for citizens like us “Kukkurahalli Kere Ulisi” (Save Kukkurahalli Lake) has become a rallying cry, especially since February this year.
Kukkarahalli lake was created in the year 1864 by the then Maharaja of Mysuru, Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar to provide water for irrigation and other purposes. Over the years, however, like most urban lakes, this too began to be fed largely by sewage water.
The real drive to restore it, however, started when local newspapers carried the news that Kukkarahalli lake was to be developed and the lake bed started to be scraped; citizens were deeply concerned at the sight of a lot of earth being removed using a JCB machine and a few of them arranged a meeting to discuss the above issue. About 30 people, from across all walks of life gathered at this meeting.
Probing further, we learnt that the custodians of Kukkarahalli lake had decided to carry out developmental activities to convert the lake into a tourist attraction. These included construction of concrete structures, boating, an adventure theme park, aquarium and other facilities. While we concur that development or rejuvenation of lakes is necessary, for a richly biodiverse water body and its surroundings, we felt it was important to stop activities that would affect the ecology of the area. We wanted them to limit their activities to those that were absolutely necessary to improve the lake conditions.
A roller-coaster ride on the way to awareness
Various options to have our concerns addressed were discussed and finally, we decided to start a signature campaign, an online petition, a silent protest in the lake premises for the following few days and a day-long silent protest in front of the office of the Deputy Commissioner (DC).
The first step was to create awareness among people about the lake’s rich biodiversity, and to convince them that it needs to be preserved for future generations. We did not have a proper plan, but executed ideas as and when they occurred to us. We did not know what the outcome would be, but we wanted to send out a message that we were not going to be mute spectators to the destruction of the space.
On the first day of our signature campaign in the lake premises, we received a good number of signatures, although there were people who felt that desilting would be good for the lake, as they knew it to be a common practice in rural areas especially during the summers.
Many of us admittedly did not know much about desilting and its effects, although we could clearly see that it was destroying the habitat for a few birds. To understand the issue better, we started reading and talking to experts about the practice and the benefits and costs of such an exercise for this lake and its ecosystem. We then realized that in Kukkarahalli lake, the procedures being followed were inappropriate and they were removing too much earth below the layer of silt. In addition, desilting was being done even where it was not really necessary.
The second and third day of our campaign in the lake premises were rough as some people created a fuss claiming that we were against development and we were asked to move out.
Up until then, a photo exhibition had merely been a tentative idea brewing in some minds, but now we decided to go ahead and hold one, showcasing the life in the lake. With many photographers in our group who had been documenting the biodiversity of the lake over years, this turned out to be quite doable.
The venue was just outside the lake, under the trees, where we had to resort to some innovation but still managed to put up the exhibits by tying strings and hanging the photos using cloth clips. To our surprise, many people visited and were awed and could not believe that the lake supported so many birds, insects and animals. We also organised a couple of bird watching sessions using binoculars inside the lake.
This time we did not have to ask people to sign our petition, as they voluntarily came forward to do it and that was the turning point in the movement. We continued this for three days leading up to the final protest in front of the DC office.
By that time, local newspapers had picked up the issue; we were called environmentalists, activists, emotional fools, who were going against development. Yet, we fit none of these labels, we were just ordinary citizens concerned about the natural world, who care for it and want to protect it.
It was our silent protest in front of the DC’s office that finally caught the attention of the authorities. We had shared news of our protest on social media and had requested all to join our protest. More than 100 people, old and young joined us — as individuals, from various organizations, colleges.
We submitted our requests to the DC’s office along with supporting documents we had compiled in the meanwhile, including reports, scientific studies, documentations from naturalists over many years and other literature.
From this point, there was no turning back. The DC suspended the work temporarily and requested the Lake Development Authority to send two experts to assess the development plan. There was a public hearing in which the lake custodians justified their moves in their own way.
The expert committee report took almost a month and finally concluded that desilting, boating initiatives and other construction were not necessary and getting fresh water to the lake should be of primary concern. The DC heeded the expert opinion and stopped the work completely.
We continue to follow up; a committee has been formed by the DC to look into the provision of fresh water to the lake. We have also been trying to identify other problems regarding Kukkarahalli lake, such as blockage of storm water drains, garbage dumping and the like, and bringing it to the notice of respective authorities. Thanks to them, we have seen positive results till now.
We have also requested the public to get involved in future plans for the lake and we see it happening slowly. We have had a few sessions of bird watching, tree watching for citizens, so as to make them aware of the lake’s biodiversity; we also conducted a clean-up drive inside the lake, removing plastic.
It is also important to mention here that documenting biodiversity in such places goes a long way in conserving them. Without that, we could not have made such a strong beginning here.
Kukkarahalli lake has seen many problems in the past, including the near death of the lake by algal bloom and others. The custodians have had a tough time maintaining and keeping the lake alive. There has always been a battle between developmental activities and maintaining ecological balance. It is very easy to choose development for beautification and immediate human convenience, but now finally, thanks to a very cooperative administration and a group of passionate people, there is a gradually growing realisation of the fact that our own survival and well-being ultimately depends on preserving the natural world.