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Every lake has a story

Lakes are in distress in urban India. With the demand for real estate skyrocketing and the groundwater table touching new lows, many good samaritans are fighting to give a new lease of life to these fast disappearing water bodies. 

April 24, 2022 / 09:50 AM IST
Floating treatment wetlands on Neknampur Lake in Hyderabad

Floating treatment wetlands on Neknampur Lake in Hyderabad

After dragging its feet for years, the Delhi government is now taking significant steps to save over 1,000 water bodies in the National Capital Territory. The Wetland Authority of Delhi (WAD) last year mapped 1,043 water bodies tagging them with unique identification numbers. However, much to the shock of the authorities, the WAD was recently informed that 221 wetlands out of the list of tagged water bodies may have disappeared forever due to possible dumping and encroachment. Now a technical committee being set up by Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor will conduct an audit of the 221 water bodies to explore any possibility of their revival.

Lakes, ponds and other water bodies in urban India are under distress. Take the example of Surajkund and Badhkal lakes in Delhi NCR. Till about 2004, both these lakes were filled to the brim but in the last 15 years, they have both gone dry. Even after adequate rainfall in the region, these lakes were unable to hold water because the groundwater table went so low that the water percolated into the ground leaving these water bodies dry.

Changing rainfall patterns, rampant mining in the Aravallis and encroachments ensured that these lakes disappeared forever. Once the lake does not have water through the years, it becomes a garbage dumping ground and over the years transforms into a piece of real estate that everyone wants to acquire.

“The commercial value of land means much more to people than the ecosystem services value of the land. Who cares if there are flamingoes in the Najafgarh Jheel? Who cares if Northern Shovelers are coming to Hauz Khas Lake? These are the kinds of motives which are driving factors for the extinction of urban wetland,” says Manu Bhatnagar, Principal Director Natural Heritage Division, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), which undertakes projects on eco-restoration, and conservation and creation of environmental assets.

Good Samaritans

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In Bengaluru, Anand Malligavad, a mechanical engineer-turned-lake conservationist, is a man on a mission. In 2016, he started researching lakes and lake rejuvenation. He was distressed to see that the city with so many lakes was facing massive water shortages. From around 300 lakes in 1960, Bengaluru is now left with only 80 lakes, most of which are either polluted or unable to hold enough water.

After much thought, Malligavad decided to work on rejuvenating a 36-acre lake close to his office. But his plight was anything but easy. From convincing the local community about the benefits of lake rejuvenation to running around government offices for approvals, battling legal challenges and raising funds, it took almost six months for Malligavad to break ground. The road to lake rejuvenation is long as the government and encroachers sometimes become the biggest stumbling blocks in this process, he says.

Despite the challenges, Malligavad has revived 18 lakes in and around Bangalore in the last six years. He partners with the corporate sector to raise funds. Intel, HPE, JSW and Hykel Pharma are among the companies who have supported his lake rejuvenation projects as part of their CSR efforts.

“Water transcends as a common theme across all our locations. It is an issue that has to be addressed for the communities as well as for business footprint. It has its own connection with sanitation, hygiene, local area economic development and the livelihood choices that people make,” says Ashvini Saxena, CEO, JSW Foundation, the social development arm of JSW Group.

Drone image of Chikkanagamangala Lake in Bengaluru after rejuvenation. Drone image of Chikkanagamangala Lake in Bengaluru after rejuvenation.

In Gurgaon, GuruJal Society has been working on wastewater ponds restoration and rejuvenation. Since its inception in 2019, GuruJal has completed six pond revivals and the work on 11 sites is ongoing. It works closely with the local community, the corporate sector and the district administration to establish wastewater treatment methods, cleaning and desilting of the ponds and beautification of areas surrounding the pond. So far, GuruJal has received support from Rites, PowerGrid, Honda, Hyundai and ICICI Bank for its pond revival projects.

The Fight For Survival in Urban India  

Lakes are an important part of the urban landscape. They act as natural water harvesting structures that play a critical role in absorbing excess rain water and recharging ground water.

Dried up Kommasandra Lake in Bengaluru Dried up Kommasandra Lake in Bengaluru

“With rapid urbanisation, channels in the catchment from which water flows into these lakes get blocked. Thus reducing the amount of water that enters these lakes. Another reason is depleting ground water level in cities because of which during the monsoon season, rain water percolates into the ground instead of filling up these lakes. This is the grim hydraulic reality of urban India,” says Chetan Agarwal, an environment analyst.

Master plans are forward planning tools that anticipate urban development and make provisions for it on city space. But unfortunately they only look at infrastructure that will come up on the land which is transportation-based, industry-based or residence-based.

“The need of the hour is to integrate water use plans with land use plans. Water plans for cities are done by a different agency like the Delhi Jal Board in the case of Delhi for which they look for far away sources of water supply and local water does not make sense at all. It is not part of the plan to use local water bodies to supply water to cities. So there is a conflict between land use plan and water use plan,” says Srikanth Vishwanath, Advisor, Biome Environmental Trust that conducts research and policy advocacy in the areas of land-use planning, energy, water and sanitation.

Silver Lining Behind a Dark Cloud

Lakes are not one person’s responsibility. If there are examples of government apathy towards water bodies, there are also success stories where the community and the local area development authorities have come together to save water bodies from dying.

Kommasandra Lake in Bengaluru after rejuvenation Kommasandra Lake in Bengaluru after rejuvenation

“Most people believe that it is the responsibility of the government alone to work on lake restoration while the residents of the city have no role to play. That is not true,” says Madhulika Choudhary, who runs Dhruvansh, an NGO that works in the area of environmental awareness.

Choudhary worked with local authorities in Hyderabad to save the Neknampur Lake from extinction. By 2016, Neknampur Lake, a 450-year-old water body, spread over a 100 acres, had all but vanished as chemical pollutants and domestic sewage ravaged the pristine water body in a city that until the 1970s boasted of over 3,000 lakes.

The courts including the National Green Tribunal (NGT) have also stepped in to save the dying water bodies. In the case of Najafgarh Jheel, the NGT has directed the Union Environment Ministry to prepare an integrated Environmental Action Plan for the wetland that is shared by Delhi and Haryana. In Chennai, the Madras High Court last year directed the state government to remove 403 encroachments around the Chitlapakkam Lake.

Similarly, in Kolkata, the NGT has given the East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority six months to demarcate the boundary of the wetlands with pillars to stop encroachment within the 1,25,000 hectre of internationally recognised area.

We need to reimagine lakes in urban India so that the community starts to engage with lakes by owning and nurturing them.

“Lakes will have to find a new meaning in urban India. It is time to recognize these as socio-ecological spaces that provide livelihood and bird and animal biodiversity,” says Vishwanath. Lake rejuvenation is always work in progress and it has to be sustainable. The goal should be to figure out how institutional and community partnerships will work constantly to try and keep the lakes clean and prevent them from drying up.



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Vimarsh Bajpai Views are personal.
first published: Apr 24, 2022 09:38 am
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