Disappearance and privatisation of lakes in Bangalore

, by  FERNANDO Valérie

Bangalore, a rich environment endangered by growing urbanisation

Bangalore, capital of the State of Karnataka (South India), is situated on the Deccan Plateau at an altitude of 920m. Traditionally known as the “city of lakes”, Bangalore used to enjoy, till recently, a pleasant and salubrious climate with pure air, due not only to its altitude but also to its numerous green spaces and famous lakes.

Water bodies in Bangalore are either natural lakes, man made lakes or tanks which have been built from the 16th century to meet the water requirements of the population. These lakes are still used by poor sections of the population for both domestic needs (bath and cloth washing) and livelihood activities like agriculture (irrigation), livestock, fishing or commercial washing (dhobi).

Bangalore lakes are also part of the local hydrologic system. It helps keeping monsoon waters for the drier periods of the year, to canalise these important flows preventing water logging, inundation and erosion, and to ensure the refilling of groundwater. They are also at the centre of a rich ecosystem, with a great variety of animals and plants. They are a central factor in Bangalore’s microclimate which has been characterised, till recently, by mild temperatures and safe air as lakes and humid zones used to cool hot winds, and regulate air and soil humidity.

But the preservation of the lakes and of this ecosystem is in danger because of the unprecedented economic and demographic growth of the city, which has become the ‘Silicon Valley’ of India, specialised in aeronautics, biochemistry, information technologies and services. The population has increased from 1.7 billion in 1971 to 6 billions today as a result of the attraction exerted by the city’s dynamism and high salaries. This demographic explosion put a huge pressure on real estate. The extension of residential areas on drained lakes and the pollution due to household and industrial wastes affect in turn the remaining lakes that are unable to meet the growing needs in water of the population. The municipality is thus forced to get its water supplies from the Kaveri River situated at 100 km from Bangalore. This involves important works that are costly from both an economic and environmental point of view.

The disappearance of Bangalore’s lakes started in the 80s but has sped up with rapid urbanisation. While in 1961 there were 262 lakes, official statistics today mention 117 lakes, but only 33 lakes are still more or less visible on satellite imagery. Over the last decades, lakes have been rented to private constructors. The authorities themselves have built their own infrastructures on lakebeds whereas other areas have been illegally encroached upon. Previous lakes have thus been transformed into residential and commercial areas, universities, bus stands, stadium or golf course. Some lakes are now used as rubbish dump for domestic and industrial wastes or open sewage. Fourteen percent of them are surrounded by slums.

This development is paradoxical as Bangalore would need ever more natural spaces (water and forest) to compensate the negative impact of urbanisation: degradation of the environment, worsening living conditions, air pollution, more frequent heat waves.

Actors of management of lakes in Bangalore

Until 2002, management of lakes in Bangalore was dispatched between a number of actors: the Forest Department, the Minor Irrigation Department, the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (municipality of Bangalore), the Bangalore Development Authority and the Horticulture Department. Because of this split of responsibilities between the diverse bodies owning the lakes and in charge of their maintenance and preservation, water policy in Bangalore lacked coherence and clarity in its aims.

That is the reason why the Government of Karnataka decided in 2002 to set up a single body, the Lake Development Authority (LDA), as a registered non-profit society. It aims at the regeneration and preservation of the lakes. According to its Memorandum of Association, the LDA is an « autonomous, regulatory, planning and policy making body with nodal functions for protection, conservation, restoration, regeneration and integrated development of lakes, whether natural or man made. »

But the heterogeneous composition of the Governing Council and of the Empowered Committee has not changed anything to the existing cacophony of the lakes’ management.

Moreover the LDA is in charge only of water bodies and shorelines but not of the areas surrounding the lakes that are managed by other administrative entities. This dissociation between land and water denies the continuity that normally exists between lakes and lands and the traditional utilisation of water by the poorer sections of the inhabitants. It fosters a liberal vision according to which these lakes must be economically profitable.

Privatisation of Common Property Resources

Under the aegis of the Department of Ecology and Environment (Government of Karnataka), the Lake Development Authority set up a scheme for the development of a few lakes in Bangalore. As part of its Public - Private - Participation (PPP) policy, it invited private participants to take the lakes on a 15-year lease and to develop, beautify and maintain them. Apart from their own activities and according to a Develop Operate Transfer agreement, these private parties commit themselves to drain and dredge the lakes, and to buildwater treatment plants from which the treated water will be released back to fill the lakes.

Until now three lakes have been leased out to private parties: Navgara in 2004, leased out to Lumbini Gardens Ltd; Hebbal, one of the largest man-made lake in the city (60.7 hectares), built in the 16th century, and leased out to East India Hotels ltd (Oberoi Group) in 2006 in a Rupees 7,200,000 (Euros 120,000) deal; Venkayanakere leased out to Biota Natural Systems (India) Pvt. Ltd. in 2007. The projects include tourist spots and entertainment facilities such as artificial beaches, eco friendly water sports, luxury hotels, floating restaurants, etc. About thirty lakes should be concerned by this scheme.

The LDA explains this choice by the lack of financial and human resources to pay for and manage the maintenance of the numerous lakes in Bangalore. On the contrary, the revenues of privatization (even though the LDA refuses to call it so) will enable these works. According to the LDA the restoration of a 25 hectare lake costs at least Rupees 10 billions (Euros 160,000). It would therefore be impossible to restore all the lakes of the city. The leasing out of the lakes is intended to generate the revenues that enable the financing of rehabilitation.

Socio-economic and environmental consequences

The privatization of these common property resources leads to the displacement and growing marginalization of the traditional users of the lakes. This evolution goes together with the development policy of the city aiming at fulfilling the wishes of the new middle class in terms of comfort and modern infrastructures. Even though the scheme LDA/private parties stipulates that the traditional or acquired rights, acknowledged by the Government, of the local population must be respected, there are many doubts about the actual implementation of this clause as the main focus seems to be on the beautification of the lakes.

Yet lakes are still economic resources for the population living in the surroundings and using the water, fuel wood, fodder, compost they find in this particular environment for their daily life. The disappearance, pollution and privatization of the lakes have also an impact on their livelihood, such as agriculture. Water for irrigation comes either directly from the lakes via channels, or indirectly from underground waters through wells. Its pollution has led to a decrease in productivity. There is also a great risk that the Government limits the access to underground waters and forbid it to small farmers or poor people. There is indeed a great pressure on water resources and the Government, under the lobbying of private investors, may rather favor luxury hotels that have huge water consumption than poor inhabitants (cf. Hebbal lake where Oberoi Group intends to build a 223 room hotel).

Subsistence and commercial fishing are also one of the traditional activities related to the lakes, including in the centre of Bangalore (Ulsoor lake). But, little by little, because of the triumphant commercial logic, fishermen may have, at best, to pay an access fee (Rupees 20 to 30) which would put an additional strain on their small budget, or, at worst, shift to another activity. Similarly, washer men (dhobi), who work on the lake shore, will probably be denied the access in the name of cleanliness of the water, which leaseholders have to ensure. Without any other recognized skills, these underprivileged people will have no other choice but to go for precarious jobs and lose their economic and social independence.

From an ecological point of view, while the leasing out to private parties is supposed to be done in the name of the preservation of lakes, it appears that consequences will be disastrous. The experience of Nagavara Lake showed that water has become sterile and the concretization of shores and the draining of humid zones do not enable the linkages between the different lakes. This will certainly lead to the multiplication of inundations during the monsoon season and the progressive draining of the water table. The fauna (about 100 species of birds) and the flora dependent on this endangered ecosystem are severely threatened. Bangalore’s microclimate is also at stake as it relies on this very complex system of lakes/humid zones/natural shores. The average annual temperature of the city has already increased by 1.2 Celsius degrees in 30 years.

Finally, on a cultural point of view, the complex and ingenious network of manmade lakes that are interconnected through locks and drains, is part of the historical heritage of the city as it was build during the 16th-17th centuries. Yet, it is disappearing. Lakes are also the traditional place of rituals and pujas (offerings) during religious and social festivities. This communal usage may be prohibited by the actors of privatisation. While the lakes were a source of pride for original inhabitants in Bangalore, these people are going to be dispossessed of them and, as a consequence, of their life and work habits, of their history and cultural practices.

Critics and perspectives

The choice of privatisation is severely criticised because of the negative consequences mentioned above. Moreover, a debate rages about the status of Common Property Resource. Lakes, which are public spaces and common resources, are transformed into private spaces with a commercial and tourist purpose as their access is restricted or forbidden to their traditional users (fishermen, inhabitants of the surrounding) by physical barriers (barbed wires, walls) or by discriminating entry fees that violate the rules of collective usage of common resources. The fundamental right to access to water is denied while the leisure economy (hotels, amusement parks) flourishes unscrupulously.

In April 2008, the Environment Support Group (ESG) brought this controversy in front of the Justice as it filed a public interest litigation (PIL) against the privatization of lakes in the High Court. It asserts that only the Government is entitled to lease out on bail, whereas the LDA is not. LDA has therefore overstepped its authority and has not fulfilled its task of rehabilitating the lakes. The ESG demands the cancellation of the three leases and opposes the recent decision of the LDA to lease out 12 more lakes to private real estate and hotel builders. ESG relies on a 2006 Supreme Court Judgement which stipulates that water tanks are common properties and must be maintained in a way that does not exclude traditional users. The group also considers that garbage and sewage water treatment are a State’s duty and not a matter for private companies.

Opponents to lakes’ privatisation need now to put pressure on the Government in order to protect these common property resources used by the population both for its livelihood and as a place of rest from the urban life’s stress. An answer to the alleged lack of human and financial resources could be to involve existing bodies like Bangalore Mahanagara Palike, municipal councils, or Panchayats (local village governments). Concerning regular traditional users, and in a decentralised perspective, they could enjoy a certain degree of autonomy through a Water User Association. The local population would thus be more involved in the protection of the lakes and would therefore be able to put pressure on the official bodies regarding the maintenance. Local institutions’ employees and even the population could be trained in maintaining the lakes and other water bodies.

Comments

The city of Bangalore is symptomatic of the challenges that India has to face in its quest for global economic power. The policy of the city is ultra-liberal, entirely aimed at the creation of wealth and oriented towards the upper and middle classes that make its economic growth. On the other hand, the total lack of policy taking into account the other strata of the society and the other aspects of urban life leads to a disastrous situation from social (exclusion of the poorest), health and environmental (pollution, warming, floods) points of view.

Notes

The case of Bangalore is a good illustration, in an urban context, of the notions of ecosystem people and ecological refugee developed by M. Gadgil and R. Guha in their book Ecology and Equity. The Use and Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India (Routledge, 1995). It concerns individuals whose livelihood depends almost entirely on their natural environment (forest, lakes) and who suffer from an ever more restricted access to these resources. According to these authors the winners of the present system are the “omnivores” who take advantage of the products of the biosphere thanks to their wealth, their purchasing power, their prestige and their political clout.

SOURCES
- Rohan s D’Souza, Impact of Privatisation of Lakes in Bangalore, CED, 2007.
- Minti Jain, Bangalore Lakes on Lease, Down To Earth, Vol. 16, No 7, 27/08/2007.
- T.V. Ramachandra and Rajnikanth, Economic Valuation of Wetlands, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Sciences, 1999

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