Developing lakes should go beyond engineering, to be sustainable

Brijesh Kumar, BBMP's Chief Conservator of Forests, in-charge of lakes, shares his thoughts on lake development, and sheds light on some systemic issues.

Lakes in Bengaluru invoke the same awe as does the Ganga at Varanasi or the Yamuna in Delhi. Indeed lakes are very special to the city of Bangalore. Without any river passing by, lakes were the natural source of water for the plateau, now called Bangalore.

Lakes have been the lifeline of the city and its surroundings till recently. Credible accounts exist as to how the Sankey Tank served as a source of drinking water till quite recently. The dependence on the lakes started easing in the sixties, thanks to bountiful supply from the Cauvery.  

Bangalore has grown exponentially in recent times. Though urbanisation has been on increase in post-independent India, Bangalore has grown faster than probably any other city in the country. Barely a few decades ago, Bangalore was nowhere in the top cities of India. Now it is the fourth!

Such a phenomenal growth of the city has its own cost on the ecosystem of the city, especially lakes. Devoid of their importance due to cheap and accessible Cauvery water, lakes rapidly started losing their importance. The twin onslaught of urban sprawl, together with cheap and dependable river water, dealt a heavy blow to the lakes of the city. At one point the lakes were being looked upon as easy land for development. Landmarks such as the Kanteerva Stadium, the Majestic Bus Stand, the Golf Course, the JP Park and many others have come up in lake beds.

Rapid expansion may hasten this process.

A government committee, headed by Laxman Rao did some pioneering work to identify the fast vanishing lakes of the city and also gave a wide range of suggestions that are being implemented even now.

Virtual orphans

Lakes are owned by a set of agencies (Revenue Department, Zilla Panchayath and Minor Irrigation Department) handed over to another group of bodies for development (BBMP, BDA, Forest Department and LDA), to be managed as per the guidelines of the LDA, under the supervision of Lok-Adalat and in some cases even by the High Court. Even the Bangalore Metro has been roped in with the expectation that its resources will come in handy.

The BDA has currently about two third of all the lakes of Bangalore. The cash-rich BDA is expected to develop these lakes and then hand them over to the BBMP for maintenance. The BDA apparently has no special place for lakes in its statute, more so for the lakes outside its assigned area. The only eligibility for the BDA to manage the city lakes appears to be that they are cash rich. Similar is the case with the BMRCL.  

LDA conundrum

Karnataka is one of the very few states in the country to constitute its own Lake Development Authority. The LDA is expected to exercise control over the overall direction of development and management of lakes. However the LDA appears to be nothing more than a paper tiger. Registered under the Societies Act, the LDA is expected to exercise statutory control of development of all the lakes. Virtually devoid of the requisite technical, executing and enforcement capacity, the LDA is powerless.

The LDA is also in a dilemma, as it does not know if it is a regulating agency or an implementing authority. Ideally speaking, the regulatory functions should be separated from the executive duties. The LDA appears to a hybrid of the both.

Beyond engineering

Lakes are living eco-systems. For effective management, lakes should be seen beyond just water bodies. Successful lake management involves an inter-disciplinary approach involving engineers, limnologists, ecologists, sociologists and so on. Till now, engineering mind-set pervades all our current approaches to the issue. Lakes have been handed over to the BDA probably because they have competent engineers as well as requisite money. Similar is the case with the BMRCL and the BBMP.  Such an approach may not be bear fruit in the medium to long term.

In the LDA, all the lake plans, irrespective of agency, are scrutinised by a distinguished panel of technical experts. The current policy planning is so much obsessed with the engineering approach that the technical committee, consists of three ‘Subject Matter Experts’. All three civil engineers!

Holistic approach

It is a well-known fact that the Lakes of Bangalore are interconnected. These man-made water bodies are connected by an intricate network of seasonal streams, called raj-kaluves. The lakes along with these streams form a dendritic pattern covering the entire landscape. For holistic development, an integrated approach is needed, starting from ridge to the valley.

Another horror is that that un-restricted flow of un-treated sewage is choking the lakes. With increased water consumption by the expanding city, the quantity of sewage has also increased manifold over the decades. A large quantum of this sewage is still untreated and also conveniently allowed to reach open drains, raj-kaluves. The sewage management scenario in the already complex picture was further compounded by the fact that the BBMP area was expanded in 2007, bringing in its fold a number of CMCs and villages. Many of these newly added areas are not serviced by the BWSSB yet. Even if the BWSSB is able to meet their commitment, some of the newly added areas of the city will not be serviced by the BWSSB as they do not have a plan to service the same in near future.

The BWSSB thus being a major player in the deterioration of lakes does not have any role in lake management. In the current state of affairs, the BWSSB does not have any role or responsibility in lake management. Thus the current strategy of leaving a major player like the BWSSB out of lake management may not take us very far in developing the lakes.

With the lakes arbitrarily divided amongst various agencies, lakes down-stream are being developed without paying due attention to the existing lakes up-stream. Thus sewage keeps flowing into the lakes from the upper catchment even though the lake in question is developed. A quick-fix engineering solution is to by-pass the entire incoming sewage downstream, through diversion channels. While this is a quick solution to the sewage problem, in the longer term, the lake is devoid of the very water on which it owed its existence. It is thus no surprise that many lakes do not receive enough water just even to fill the lake. Even after the development a few lakes like Attur, Agara and Allaldandra are still devoid of water.

While the city keeps on growing incessantly, the lakes need special attention of the policy makes and implementers alike. It is not denied that a great deal of efforts is being put-in by various stakeholders including the judiciary. The success shall depend on not only the efforts but more importantly on synergic strategies of the agencies involved.  

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