New act could leave lakes of Bengaluru in lurch

The government of Karnataka has come up with Tank Development Act which, in its current form, could be detrimental to the cause of protecting and rejuvenating lakes.

Activists and citizens in Bengaluru are incensed that the government just dissolved the Karnataka Lake Conservation and Development Authority (KLCDA) without even a discussion in the assembly, on March 1, 2018. The Legislative Assembly quietly passed the Tank Development Act when the members were not even present in full strength.

It came as a surprise, nay shock, that the lakes needed to be handed over to the Minor Irrigation Department (MID), rather than the environment ministry, which it is intended for. The act is expected to come into effect in the next three months.

A KLCDA official says that he did not even know about the act, and found out about their own cancelled existence only through newspaper reports! “If it has been abolished, then the Authority ceases to exist,”  The Hindu quotes him as saying.

Lake conservation act to save lakes

As per 74th Constitutional Amendment, it is the role of the ward committees as well as the Bengaluru Bruhat Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) to oversee the lakes.

The KLCDA Act is only two years young, and had been passed in 2014, in order “to restore the quality and importance of lakes to their pristine status”. Of the mere 81 lakes left in the city, many are already filled with sewage and silt. A number of them have not been given basic attention and care.

Still, there are some aspects of the KLCDA act that are quite positive. The institution has actually improved prospects for the city’s lake management, especially its regulatory powers. Ram Prasad, Friends of the Lakes, says that the “BBMP has done an exemplary job and should be empowered.”

But the rules of the new Act are expected to be merged with KLCDA soon, so that it would become only a regulatory body, overlooking local authorities.

Reasons for repealing KLCDA act

Would it have been more sensible and practical to empower the KLCDA rather than transfer its powers to another department? Is improving an institution or act better or should it be shifted elsewhere?

Why, anyway, has the transfer taken place at all? The MID Minister, T.B. Jayachandra, defends it as necessary to restore the lake’s quality and importance, ending its ongoing confusion and problems over ownership of lakes. He explains that it is necessary to have well-trained professional engineers to take care of them.

However, activists refuse to buy that argument. They say that minor irrigation department is composed of engineers not environmentalists. It can build tank bunds and weirs, but do they have the expertise to tackle wastewater and sewage? Those are challenges that call for ecologists and wetland specialists.

Moreover, the minor irrigation department is a unified body that can oversee lakes, but would not get involved in the minute or subtler areas of attention. Does it really work out to everyone’s advantage to shift the lakes from the Environment to the Irrigation department? The MID, if it does get involved now, should be only a minor player, giving just technical support, feel activists.

Sridhar Pabbisetty, CEO of Namma Bengaluru tells The News Minute that the government has failed to follow its own rules. It is really like saying “you have fever, I can’t treat it so I will kill you”, he points out.

Challenges in the KLCDA

KLCDA Act that was passed in 2014 wasn’t a perfect one. What were the flaws?

The implementation. Some schemes seem to have boomeranged. As KLCDA could not bring in 176 dry lakes under the Wetlands Rules, it seemed to suffer delay in execution. Other agencies that are also involved in the lake restoration project have been told about the improvements needed, but continue to leave their work half-done.

“The BDA has been repeatedly told that we are not at all happy with their lake development,“ KLCDA chief executive G Vidyasagar told Economic Times, referring to the “half-developed” lakes, Arakere, Hulimavu, Byrasandra and Doddanekkundi. The Agara lake has still not been given its shot in the arm, while Madiwala lake biodiversity park project worth Rs 25 crore was expected to take two more years.

Last year, on April 12, the National Green Tribunal noted that the KLCDA is the “only lake development authority in the world which is causing fire in the lakes”.

Reasons for tardy implementation

The main problem facing the KLCDA is the lack of enough personnel to run its affairs.  Right from the beginning, it required 96 members, but had just 14. Some posts in the Police and Revenue wings, even if intended only to explore the  development and complaints of lake infringement, are still vacant.

Moreover, the institution never received enough funds, so it could not get adequate empowerment. In August 2016, the cabinet had brought a rule that passed a part of cess collected by urban local bodies to KLCDA. But a couple of districts, ie Chitradurga and  Davanagere, gave the cess that totals upto less than Rs 1 crore. On the other hand, Bengaluru has not made its contribution of Rs 65 crore.

Hence, the resources  received by the KLCDA total upto just Rs 150 crore for 3,607 lakes across the State. At times, it even gets less than one-third of the funds required to rejuvenate just two lakes, such as Bellandur and Varthur.

In defence, officials claim that it is due to tardy or slow information that the KLCDA is not getting funds or personnel. Many impute that the KLCDA did not inform the institution of its lack of funds and resources, thus failing to hold the responsibility of lake custodian!

Community involvement for lakes

Worryingly, the new Tank Development Act does not even mention “community participation” as part of the lake development program, nor is it trying to use the lakes as a tool to understand and learn about biodiversity.

Water conservationist, S. Vishwanath told The Hindu that the Act is “retrograde”. Although the earlier Act was not perfect, its access to community participation, policing and management helped in inclusivity.

In fact, a number of communities have helped to rejuvenate and revive many lakes. For instance, Jakkur and Kaikondrahalli Lakes have been touted as “models” for development, due to citizen involvement in their rejuvenation. Friends of Lakes has been appreciated for evicting encroachers from lake beds and also stopping a road construction on the tank bed of Doddabommasandra Lake.

But the latest rules seem to have been framed to “kill an institution and bar community participation,” according to Ram Prasad, from Friends of the Lakes.

Twist in the tale

The Lake story of the city, then, seems to be a tragic tale due to inspired policies but tardy implementation, which is now making way for a complete policy misdirection and wholesale shift to a majorly irrelevant department altogether.

Activists are sharpening their claws through an online campaign to fight the proposed plan. There is expected to be a letter to the governor, requesting him not to sign the Act.

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