Some lakes in Bangalore recently made headlines after spewing foam and catching fire. This was a sign of things to come, as we continue to fill up water bodies with effluents or turn them into sewage dumps in most cities across India. In this interview, Leo F Saldanha of the Environment Support Group in Bangalore talks about how these precious resources can be managed.

Bangalore is known for its lakes, but they have been in the news lately for the wrong reasons. How have things changed?
If the 1960s and '70s, many of these water bodies made way for infrastructure including bus stands, stadiums and marriage halls. When malaria was widespread in 1980, besides spraying insecticide and contaminating these water bodies, the authorities also drained out many of them. There were essays written by public health engineers favouring these measures and even the then chief minister had campaigned for it.

But the problem is also largely because of the dependency on imported water. In the 1970s, when the Cauvery river was a source of water for the city, there was massive neglect of urban water bodies. Through the 1980s and 90s, water contamination was widespread. The lakes were eutrophic, but not like today when they are catching fire. For instance, in Bellandur lake, 50,000 migratory birds used to come during winter. Today, it’s just 5,000-6,000 birds. This drop is a very significant indicator of the quick death of these bodies as functional ecosystems.

There has been talk about the right to water and the fact that these bodies are a community resource. But the government response has largely been that of commodification. I remember former Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia giving speeches at various forums, recommending that we need to put a value on the lakes to make people start acknowledging their worth. As a result of such advocacy, Karnataka became the first state to commodify lakes as the state government claimed it did not have the resources to maintain them.

Around 15-20 lakes were earmarked and four were leased out to private consortiums. For instance, Oberoi got 200 acres of what was was touted as a dead lake on paper, even though it was perfectly alright. Oberoi got it for a pittance on a 40-year lease and they were about to build hotels on the water spread.

What was the public response to this?
We ran campaigns for two-three years but nobody listened to us. We argued about how the state could give away water bodies which belonged to the people. So we ended up in court, which immediately stayed privatisation of lakes and subsequently ruled that no more lakes would be privatised.

We went a step further because our litigation spoke about the need to re-imagine how urban societies relate to these water bodies. So a committee was formed which came up with guidelines looking at these resources in a new way. We pushed for the revival of the constitutional promise of self-governance through ward committees and area committees, which can be custodians of water bodies. You can have other agencies which execute the work, but it should be people, through democratic agencies, who control the work.

Another problem was that a lot of maps have been fudged to legalise encroachments. A new movement started when the court directed that every lake be surveyed again, but not according to current maps. Revenue maps of the 1950s and 60s are being used to map the lakes and this is why you see a lot of demolition going on in Bangalore. So we are reclaiming the lakes and the state has become a partner in this campaign, which can otherwise be a difficult task. In the last six months, around 90 lakes have been surveyed, their maps uploaded online and encroachers listed.

What is the next step for these lakes?
One of the things we told the court  was that lakes are just receptacles of water. The real systems are the water conveyors – the canals that interconnect various lakes. So if you divert sewage and garbage to these canals, there is no way you can protect lakes. The court agrees with us on this point.

There is an 800-km network of canals. We have to revive them as living water channels. It’s an exercise in reimagining the city to suit the current times. The movement is going in the right direction and the good news is that the court order is not limited only to Bangalore. There are 38,000 lakes in Karnataka which may benefit from this order.

There are various citizen groups working to save lakes. How has that worked out?
Any amount of citizen involvement will not show results immediately. Lakes are part of a series, they are not independent systems. If the upstream is contaminated, the downstream will also be contaminated.

So there’s a need to network communities, which is what we are trying to do now. We need to start talking about watershed communities. This is very difficult in a city like Bangalore which is highly stratified in terms of class. The upper class is able to get together because they have time to network, but they won’t talk to the immediate lower class, which is staying in the same watershed. It’s this myopic and self-centric vision we have to address now. It’s only then that you can think of protecting the lake system.

Traditional communities which lived around the lakes protected and maintained them. They still know how to revive the lakes. We have to stop treating them as outsiders.

Do you think people have an understanding of watersheds?
Many watershed are still left, as any farmer who has seen the water flow will tell you. In peri-urban areas, these are the people who got adversely affected because their land was acquired or snatched away by real estate booms and they were left with nothing. Even their grazing pastures were taken away. They are the ones who are staring at the buildings and thinking about what they did to deserve this fate. The farmers are the only hope for any city.

This article first appeared on India Water Portal.