Social Organization Gets Judicial Support to Protect Lakes
By Leo F. Saldanha, Coordinator/Trustee, Environment Support Group
Our efforts towards the protection of Bangalore’s lakes started eight years ago. We realized that similar efforts in the past had not failed for lack of ideas or foresight. The problem was elsewhere.
In 1988, the Karnataka Government accepted
the report and recommendations of the Lakshman Rao Committee that strongly argued for the protection of about 120 lakes in the then built area of Bangalore on a war footing. The report said the city had no future without its lakes that provided water security. The government accepted the recommendations and directed that lakes should not be encroached or polluted henceforth, a decision supported by the High Court through an interim direction in 1995. Soon after, the Karnataka forest department was charged with the responsibility of rehabilitating several lakes in the city by desilting, removing encroachments, and improving their biodiversity value. In consequent years, several lakes were restored, thus reviving much hope in such initiatives.
What Ails Bangalore’s Lakes?
However, over the past two decades, the city has erupted into an unprecedented growth binge. Skyrises have grown out of paddy fields and wetlands to meet an insatiable demand for housing and business spaces. Urban sprawl has scrawled all over with bizarrely planned neighborhoods devastating and polluting farms, watersheds, and forests.
This path of development is a sure recipe for social disorder. The limits to Bangalore’s growth are not human enterprise, capital, or infrastructure, but access to good, safe, drinking water. Generations have built lakes knowing that no dense human settlement could survive in a semi-arid region without proximal and perennial rivers unless it conserved rainwater. This centuries-old tradition of tank building was abandoned in the 1970s by the Karnataka Government which instead placed heavy reliance on the Cauvery River to meet the city’s water demands. This costs enormously in terms of capital investment, energy, and maintenance, as the water has to be pumped over an altitude of 500 meters and from 100 km away.
Today, the greater Bangalore area has a population touching 10 million, and only half the people get Cauvery water, that too not in sufficient quantity. The other half digs deep borewells for water. As a result, ground water levels have fallen rapidly across Bangalore from an average tapping depth of 300 feet about a decade ago to over 700 feet in recent years. Even after all this effort, there is no guarantee that the underground water is potable, as studies reveal incredibly high hardness and toxicity. Water stress is now a major leveller across high-end neighborhoods and villages.
Our Approach Towards Conservation of Lakes
When we launched our campaign to save Bangalore’s lakes, we gathered extensive evidence of the problems and the challenges ahead. The biggest challenge that we faced was to build opinion on the need to protect lakes and faith in our age-old systems, especially among administrators. The lack of an effective governance mechanism emerged as largely responsible for the situation we face today. There is steady erosion in the sense of ownership of lakes by local communities, a result of reckless acquisition of villages and farming lands for urban housing and infrastructure projects. We felt the need for a renewal of faith in our capacity to protect and conserve lakes. Such a strategy could also help revive lakes as biodiversity havens, especially for migratory waterfowl, while also providing a variety of livelihood opportunities such as fishing.
As these efforts were underway, a joint legislature committee headed by then MLA, Mr. A. T. Ramaswamy, and appointed by then Karnataka chief minister, Mr. H.D. Kumaraswamy, produced a series of reports. The first was released in 2006. A shocking revelation was that over 50,000 acres of public and common lands had been encroached in the Bangalore region—almost entirely by the rich and influential. Lake lands and their interstitial canal networks were prime targets of such corrupt forces. Reports produced by various academic and public agencies also revealed that the condition of lakes was deteriorating rapidly and polluted water was contaminating ground water aquifers. Efforts by state agencies to rectify the situation were feeble or counterproductive. For instance, the Lake Development Authority (LDA) handed over lakes that had been comprehensively rejuvenated at public expense to various hotels and builders for intense commercial use!
On the basis of such evidence, we had to now communicate the crisis to influencers, whether in the public, the government, media, corporates, or social organizations. We decided to do this through a series of public workshops across Bangalore. It elicited widespread interest and even resulted in massive public protests. To our surprise, we found re-surgent public opposition to the privatization of lakes by LDA. The widespread media coverage of public protests helped dig out more evidence of the egregious nature of the lake privatization process. Even so, there was no comprehensive response from the local authorities or the state government on how to address the challenges of securing our lakes.
It was clear to us by now that the stage had come to seek the judiciary’s intervention. In January 2008, the Environment Support Group approached the High Court of Karnataka with a Public Interest Litigation (PIL). The high court immediately responded to the concerns we had raised and extracted commitments from private lease holders to maintain status quo in the lakes privatization program. The high court also set up committees to assist the court to address some of the wider concerns.
To examine the consequences of lakes privatization, the court directed Dr. P. J. Dilip Kumar, Indian Forest Service officer who was then Karnataka’s forest chief, to provide a report on four privatized lakes. Dr. Kumar produced an exhaustive report that comprehensively rejected the commercialization of lakes. A subsequent recommendatory report by Justice N. K. Patil held that such public private participation required constant supervision by the state to ensure that there was no deviation from the stated policy and norms and that the ‘profit motive’ did not become the norm. The High Court recently upheld the policy of privatization of lakes in Bangalore but subjected it to various conditions.
The campaign to save Bangalore’s lakes involved several
site visits and dialogues with local communities.
Our PIL also addressed the larger issue: that of bringing together various wings of the governance system and the public for the protection of lakes for posterity. Responding to this prayer, the High Court appointed under Justice N. K. Patil, a committee consisting of top officials from all departments involved with lake protection and management. The task was to formulate a scheme to protect lakes for posterity, and detail immediate steps required to extend water security for the urban population. I assisted this committee through five months of hectic debates and negotiations.
The Justice Patil Committee submitted its report and the High Court accepted it in March 2011 directing that the ecologically wise and socially sensitive guidelines proposed in this report would be binding on all agencies and action should be immediately initiated to protect Bangalore’s lakes. The report revealed that only 450 lakes remained in the city, though most were polluted, thus confirming that about 150 had been irretrievably encroached and destroyed in the past two decades. In response to these findings and the court’s direction, the state government has now allocated Rs. 150 crore in this year’s budget for the rejuvenation of Bangalore’s lakes, drawing resources equally from the state’s exchequer, the Bangalore Development Authority, and the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (the city council).
How the Future Looks
These are unprecedented developments in the country: a voluntary organization initiating efforts to protect lakes, the judiciary backing the initiative, and directing public agencies to develop practical schemes towards it. On 11 April 2012, the High Court accepted our submission that the Justice Patil report guidelines should be extended to the entire state of Karnataka. As a result, approximately 35,000 lakes in the state will be protected. The Court has also directed that a Lake Protection Committee be set up in every district. These committees will meet bimonthly and report progress to the LDA, which in turn will comprehensively report compliance to the High Court.
The task now is to make this pragmatic approach work. The result could be a fantastic state wide effort in protecting these waterbodies extending water and ecological security for present and future generations. It calls for resurgent community environmental action that could become a model all over the world.
It requires enormous capacity building across the state. The impact of the decision should be felt across communities. This would involve the development of a variety of community education material, and training of public officials and agencies to appreciate the value of lakes and their canal networks. School and college syllabi need to integrate the import of these decisions and develop programs for students to involve in lake rehabilitation. Corporates must step up to the challenge and donate resources without looking for commercial benefit, which will reflect genuine corporate social responsibility. And the public at large must remain alert against encroachment and pollution of lakes, and exercise pressure on District Lake Protection Committees for quick and remedial action. All this together would reflect a true democracy at work for a common cause.
(Mr. Leo F. Saldanha heads the Environment Support Group that was recognized for its legal initiatives to protect lakes for posterity with the 2012 “Water for Life” instituted by the United Nations and the 2011 Gold Award in the category of “Best Green Water Stewardship” instituted by the International Green Awards. Details at www.esgindia.org)