Drowned in lakeside controversies

Updated on: Feb 21, 2017
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Government and civil society have responded in piecemeal fashion, not taking a long-term view on sustainable urbanisation

Bengaluru has always liked to see itself as a city that is far from ordinary. It loves to build up its prominent personalities into icons. But there is one extraordinary event this month that it would like to forget in a hurry: One of its major lakes — Bellandur — caught fire.

The response to a major water-body catching fire was, however, quite ordinary. There were protests by residents around the lake, official agencies shifted the blame from themselves, and there were promises of technological solutions. In the midst of these situation-specific responses there was no word of the larger challenge of determining the role of lakes in the city that neither officials nor environmentalists like to confront.

Response to a dilemma

The undulating terrain on which Bengaluru is situated allowed for the natural formation of several lakes. These lakes were at one time sources of water for the city. The essential nature of lakes to life in the city ensured the development of sacred practices, with one of the oldest festivals in Bengaluru — Karaga — having a prominent place for the water of its lakes. As the city grew it faced a dilemma it has not confronted in its entirety: If the additional population was to be accommodated it would require more land. If it was to protect all its lakes it would tend to expand far beyond its already extensive boundaries, hurting the interests of farming. And if it chose to use the lake beds instead, it would alter not just the environmental landscape of the city, but also its sense of the sacred.

In brushing this dilemma under the carpet the city came up with piecemeal responses that typically reflected the power equations of the time rather than a vision of what the city was to be. This is not a problem that emerged in recent decades.

The British drained a part of one of the city’s then major lakes to create a polo ground for its army regiments. Lake beds have been used since then for bus stations, playgrounds, schools and housing projects. When modern housing projects did not directly seek to drain a lake, they drained their sewage into it to a point where the lakes became inflammable.

Even before one of its lakes actually caught fire, the city had generated a much-needed civic response. Several civic groups emerged with the idea of protecting the city’s lakes. They went to court against encroachments into lake beds, and had their occasional successes. In specific cases the courts have ordered the removal of encroachments.

But this case-by-case approach had its shortcomings. The debates inevitably moved from the larger issue of the role of lakes to the details of specific cases. And this sometimes threw up its own ethical dilemmas: Should the homes of the poorest in the city be destroyed to reclaim lake beds?

Thus, both those who control the engines of urban growth and the civic groups preferred to go with the immediate requirements of specific situations rather than asking what an emerging global metropolis was to do with its lakes. In the absence of an explicit debate there is a tendency to take extreme positions that make choices by stealth.

Most civic groups would like to protect all the lakes, without an explicit recognition that this would mean taking over more farm land for urbanisation, or at least the emergence of a greater high-rise character to the city. At the other end, builders see environmental objections as an impractical nuisance that needs to be brushed aside through whatever means possible.

Piecemeal response

In keeping with the overall approach to lakes, the response of governments too has been piecemeal. The Karnataka government has tended to react only when confronted directly or indirectly with the possibility of a major crisis. After the floods in Chennai, the Karnataka government began a programme to clear the century-old main drainage system in Bengaluru of unauthorised constructions. But dramatic, and welcome, as the move was, it bypassed the more important question of what should be the relationship between man and lakes as the city moves into a modern, land-intensive future.

With both, the environmentalists and the government, unwilling to explicitly address this question, Bengaluru has been left with a process that is as unchanging as it is untenable. Civic action groups cry hoarse when an extreme event like a lake catching fire occurs. Official agencies respond with piecemeal solutions. In order to give the impression of a longer-term view new official bodies are set up with a clear mandate to look after lakes.

But without explicitly addressing the uncomfortable question of just how many lakes a modern city can sustain, they typically end up with policies that are considered impractical enough to be bypassed by those who see cities as engines of growth.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

Published on January 13, 2018

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