On a cloudy day in early June, Leo Saldanha, the 54-year-old coordinator of the Environment Support Group, a non-governmental organisation working on issues of social and environmental justice in India, made a quick survey of the Subramanyapura kere (lake) in south-west Bengaluru. There was no water in the bed of the 18-acre lake, which was overgrown with dark green weeds. A slum cluster had encroached on the lake’s edge on one side, with tall apartment buildings dominating the skyline behind the houses. On the other side, a hillock topped by a temple could be seen in the distance, and buildings ringed the lake on all sides, hugging the road.
“When I was young, the lake was so clean that people used to drink water from it,” recalled Saldanha. Pointing to a transformer in the distance, he said, “That transformer near those white apartments has been built on the kaluve [canal], which leads to this lake. The kaluve has been blocked because of those constructions. The slum that you see here belongs to people who encroached on the lake when S. Bangarappa was Chief Minister [1990-1992]. According to old topographical sheets of the Survey of India as well as revenue maps, the area surrounding this lake is made up of gomala [grazing pastures] land, which served as a catchment area for the lake, but where are these commons now?”
The story of Subramanyapura kere is similar to that of almost all lakes in Bengaluru, which was known as the ‘City of Lakes’. It is common now to hear horror stories of lakes such as Bellandur catching fire because of untreated industrial effluents, of fish and birds dying in large numbers in lakes across the city. One of the reasons cited for frequent flooding in parts of Bengaluru is the encroachment of lakes and the subsequent construction of layouts on low-lying waterbeds.
According to an exhaustive survey of the lakes of Bengaluru, conducted by the Environmental Management and Policy Research Institute (EMPRI) in 2018, there were 1,521 identifiable waterbodies in the Bengaluru Metropolitan Area (BMA), which spans 1,307 square kilometres. Of these, only 684 waterbodies exist now. In other words, “837 waterbodies have lost their characteristics and are no longer in existence in BMA”.
T. V. Ramachandra, Coordinator, Energy and Wetlands Research Group, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, said, “Way back in the 1800s, Bengaluru had 1,452 waterbodies in the 741 square kilometres of what now constitutes the Bruhath Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike [BBMP]. Today we have 193 waterbodies in this same area.”
History of Bengaluru’s lakes
Bengaluru, like settlements all over the Deccan Plateau, does not have a perennial source of water. Tributaries of the Cauvery, such as the Arkavathy and Vrishabhavathi, that flowed through parts of the city were seasonal and never met the water needs of the residents even before they disappeared amid the burgeoning expansion of Bengaluru. Historically, it has been a system of man-made lakes that provided water to Bengaluru.
Harini Nagendra, Director of the Research Centre at Azim Premji University and author of Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present, and Future, said, “Bengaluru is part of the semi-arid zone and falls in the rain shadow of the Western Ghats so without a perennial source of water, lakes have always been important for its residents. There is an inscription going back to 870 CE which mentions the Agara Lake, which means there is documented history about lakes going back to the ninth century.”
According to Nagendra, whenever a settlement came up in the city, people would clear out a depression in a low-lying area and deepen it to form a tank, which we now call a lake. “Throughout Bengaluru’s history, including the time of Kempegowda I, Shahaji Bhonsale, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, the Wodeyars of Mysore and the British, lakes were built and were an important part of the landscape. One of the last lakes that was constructed in Bengaluru was the Sankey Tank in the 1870s. Till then, whenever an area of the city was settled, a new lake would be constructed or expanded.”
Dr S. Subramanya, former faculty member at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bengaluru, explained this further: “All the lakes across the inland Deccan Plateau, including those in Bengaluru, were man-made and were created by impounding monsoon run-off and building bunds across a natural stream or a low-lying area. There would be villages on either side of the bund or close to it, showing how crucial these man-made lakes were for the spread of human settlements in the region. The overflow from one lake flowed into another downstream, creating a series of interconnected lakes in Bengaluru like the Hebbal series and the Yelahanka series of lakes.” This smart engineering system ensured that water was available through the year, and a system of sluices ensured that crops were irrigated in the downstream areas.
According to Saldanha, this system survived till the 20th century and met Bengaluru’s entire water requirements. “If you look at old Survey of India maps, there were lakes everywhere and next to each lake there was a kaval [grassland].” This system also helped in replenishing the ground aquifer, which was subsequently tapped by open wells. Thus, most houses in the city had wells within their premises in the first few decades of the 20th century because the lakes fed them from below.
Things began to change when large dams were built. “When water began to be tapped from rivers such as the Cauvery, settlements like Bengaluru, which depended on lakes, began to look to rivers to meet their water supply needs, and lakes started becoming irrelevant to city planners by the 1950s and 1960s. By this time, Karnataka had became an electricity-rich State, allowing water to be pumped into the city. The idea of using lakes as support systems for drinking water was receding,” said Saldanha.
The pollution problem
After the establishment in 1964 of the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, the historic canals that fed the city’s lakes turned into sewage channels. Untreated sewage now began to flow straight into the lakes.
“In the 1970s, when Devraj Urs was Chief Minister, malaria became a big issue because of these polluted cesspools, and it was commonly advocated that lakes be breached as they had become a health hazard,” said Saldanha.
Many of Bengaluru’s major lakes were thus drained. Among them were the Dharmambudhi Lake, which made way for the Kempegowda Bus Stand (popularly known as Majestic Bus Stand); the Shoolay Lake on which the Bangalore Football Stadium was built; the Akkithimanhalli Lake, on which the KSHA Hockey Stadium is situated today; and the Sampangi Lake, which became the Kanteerva Sports Complex. This process continued in the 1980s when the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) encroached on lakes and acquired land for setting up housing layouts.
“The entire Banashankari area, which is one of the largest residential neighbourhoods in India, is an egregious example of BDA acquiring lake land. They went on to occupy grazing pastures that were designated as commons, which were not even considered protected areas though they had been conserved by the community. Following the BDA’s cue, large farmers began to organise themselves to become land developers themselves. Many lakes were devoured in this process. It was wave after wave of assault on the commons by the BDA,” said Saldanha.
During the 1980s, there was a concern that Bengaluru would run out of water. The Information Technology sector had yet to be established in the city, but it was felt that its increasing relevance as a manufacturing hub would be threatened if water was a limiting factor. In 1985, during Ramakrishna Hegde’s tenure as Chief Minister, a committee headed by N. Lakshman Rau, a retired bureaucrat, was appointed to look into the “preservation and restoration of tanks in the Bangalore Metropolitan Area”. This committee placed the number of lakes in the BMA at 262, of which 46 had already disappeared. It noted that “the rate of increase of Bangalore’s population and the rate of deterioration of its tanks have both become alarmingly accelerated and a sense of urgency is needed in stemming the tide of degradation of the environment which has resulted therefrom”.
While the government accepted the Lakshman Rau report, it never implemented its recommendations. In a strange twist, Lakshman Rau himself returned to the High Court as a co-petitioner in a public interest litigation (PIL) in 1995 because his recommendations were not implemented.
Petition in court
By the early 2000s, it became clear that the State government was moving towards wholescale privatisation, and the protection of lakes in Bengaluru was becoming fraught. The Environment Support Group filed a petition (WP 817/2008) in the Karnataka High Court in 2008 seeking to protect lakes as commons. The High Court appointed a committee headed by a sitting judge, Justice N. K. Patil, which gave several recommendations in its 2011 report.
Speaking to Frontline, Justice Patil said that he was “not fully satisfied with the progress that has happened so far” with regard to his recommendations. “If the State complies with all the recommendations of the report, it will go a long way in rejuvenating lakes in the city,” he said.
Dr Subramanya, who is also an ornithologist, has been tracking the presence of migratory birds at the lakes since the late 1980s. According to him, birds are crucial indicators of the health of lakes. “There has been a 90 per cent decline in bird numbers visiting these lakes. These are mostly migratory ducks and other waders. When we used to survey Hebbal lake between 1987 and 1996 in mid-January, we used to see 8,000 to 10,000 ducks. Now it is hard to find even 100. In Bellandur, which is so polluted now, we have counted close to 50,000 ducks during our early surveys,” he said.
It is difficult to believe now that when Subramanya and his fellow bird watchers would set out on surveys earlier, none of them carried water bottles. “The water used to be so clean that we would scoop it up straight from the lakes and drink.”
According to Ramachandra, if lakes were interconnected as before and harvested as a water resource, Bengaluru would never run out of water.
Saldanha, who is fighting a constant legal battle to protect Bengaluru’s lakes, said, “The degeneration of lakes in Bengaluru has happened by legal manipulation. Most MLAs from Bengaluru—we have 28 of them—are real estate developers who have built massive properties by encroachment. So, the politics of today is one of encroachment. It’s not a culture that has come from a culture of protecting the commons.”