Turning Burning Lakes Around

 33 years of appeal, lakes' desperate plea, its current recovery

Sujata Devadas, June 01, 2019

101 out of 494 kere* or freshwater lakes (each larger than 3 acres) in 512 villages vanished under the expansion of Bangalore metropolis, converted to land along with 736 smaller waterbodies, as established by Centre for Lake Conservation in 2017. Without access to a river, these lakes harvested rain water for domestic and irrigation use earlier, channelling it through kaluves* or natural storm water drains to recharge groundwater resources.

Varthur lake in 1996 as ITPL construction begins at the far end of the lake

“Next to the 440 acres large Varthur village lake is where my family cultivated paddy, reared cattle, grew vegetables and fruits for 400 years.” says Jagadish Reddy Nagappa, senior officer in Publicis Sapient, “Born and raised next to the lake, I swam, fished, rowed boats on Varthur kere and walked around it with cousins & friends. Crabs crawled into our houses. Chirping insects and the sound of frogs is familiar countryside background noise.

Paddy field cultivation, Varthur Kere, 1996

Several types of frogs, squids, crabs, shrimps and 30 varieties of fish lived in this lake. Thousands of birds migrated here each year. Their droppings provided nitrogen, an essential nutrient for plants, in ample measure. We lost it all. This is NOT an overnight disaster.”

Scientist and academician from Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Professor TV Ramachandra’s research in October 2016 found 98% of the remaining lakes were encroached, 90% of them marred by untreated sewage, industrial effluents, solid waste and construction debris. Jagadish is Varthur’s 'lake warden', a title bestowed to him for his sensitivity to it’s each plight.

From flouting to flooding …

Villages like Varthur and Bellandur along Bangalore’s periphery were self-sustaining fertile biological cradles, that supported agricultural settlements supplying the city with food. Bio-remediation took care of sewage entering their lakes till 1995. But although 1970 town planning documents have detailed instructions on maintaining freshwater lakes, in spite of the Lake Development Authority being in charge, these were completely flouted.

Students thronging to Bangalore for good quality technical education, attracted industries to it. Information Technology Park Ltd. (ITPL) establishment and the city’s ‘good climate’ fame swelled its residents by a whopping 38% from 1991 to 2001, shooting up a further 44% in the next decade. Seven times more water is extracted by over 12.34 million residents, a dense 11330 persons per sq. km population, but not replenished.

101 lakes were filled :Bangalore's many 'lay-outs' to construct skyscrapers there. Sheer apathy led to illegal structures mushrooming around it. Existing natural storm water drains were concreted, their width narrowed, reducing their capacity to carry rain water to the lakes. This also prevents the absorption of excreta through the soil. The underground water level consequently declined from 200 ft to below 1400 ft.

Human inhabitants’ untreated sewage of 550 million-litres-per-day(MLD) flowed into Bangalore’s south-eastern lakes’ holding area through these concrete drains. Once village lakes, now categorised ‘urban’, turned into cess pools for expanding Bangalore. Floods increased since 2000 even during normal rainfall.

FIRST ALERT: nature’s toxic distress

Floating green algae, dead fish in Varthur kere

IISc Professor TV Ramachandra's regular visits to KK Institute private school in Varthur from 1986 prompted him to take water samples from its lake for testing. He documented toxic froth spewing from it in 1988. For 33 years until now, he collected irrefutable evidence of the disastrous harm done to it. The Environmental Support Group also provided evidence.

Glaringly obvious by 1996, no one could swim in toxic Varthur lake or fish there as a green layer of gel, islands of mould, algae and hyacinth built up because unconcerned citizens chucked empty tetra packs and plastic into its water while passing by, treating it as a dump yard. Trucks dumped waste there.

Deafening silence replaced insects chirping near Varthur lake” reports Jagadish. “Cows drinking from it suffer digestive diseases. Dead fish float on its murky polluted water. Flood plains where paddy cultivation once took place could no longer be irrigated from it. 6 years ago, my own bore well had 195 total dissolved solids (TDS) with calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium inorganic salts, bicarbonates, chlorides and sulphates. It was 900 TDS 3 months ago and 2400/2500 TDS below 400 feet. The toxic soil around the lake causes skin allergies. Farmers no longer enter these paddy fields. Many left farming to pursue other occupations. For greater economic sustenance, some opted for horticultural cultivation.”

Fruit and vegetable crop grown there is sold for our consumption. Karnataka State’s High Court gave a verdict in 1998 stating all the lakes, wetlands, stormwater drains must be protected. Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) are these two lakes’ custodians since March 2011.

Dumped waste on the banks of Varthur lake

Hammering for resolution

KK Institute’s Principal Mohammed Ataullah Khan assisted Professor Ramachandra in conducting workshops. He organised marches, rallies and campaigns from 1986 till 2006, informing his school students and the local people about the harm and ways to correct it. Varthur’s government school teachers and their students also joined these from 1991.

Mohammad Ataullah Khan

For Jagadish “farming is a part of my life, my desired profession. My qualifications in cost accountancy and in business administration have not deterred me from living next to Varthur kere even though cultivation on that toxic soil is a hopeless prospect. My appeals to government officials in several departments since 2006, met with indifference. However, through first-hand experience, Varthur village Panchayat members, mostly farmers and cultivators with minimal formal education, understood the debilitating catastrophe. Their letters to municipality corporation(BBMP) brought demarcation and partial fencing of the lake in 2008. But theft by encroachments, trash dumped over the fence continued wrecking the lake.”

Varthur and its lake, in the vicinity of Bangalore's Whitefield area, caused Whitefield Rising citizens movement to give it detailed attention. In 2014, the lake’s recovery became a part of its main agenda.

Horrific BURNING lakes

Toxic foam spewed out on to the roads due to industrial and sewage effluent contamination. Toxic flakes floated in the air on 28th April, 2015. Whitefield Rising members raised immediate critical alert, attracting vast media coverage and global attention.

Foam and froth from Varthur lake, April 2015 

When residents living next to it, filled barren flood plains with mud, then leased it to the poverty stricken who used that space to put up shanties for shelter, the lake's plight worsened. The shanty dwellers collected trash from apartments and offices receiving payment for this service. After picking out high value plastic,the rest was  dumped into the lake.

Fire erupts, Bellandur lake,  May 2015

“Every time it rained, the lake foamed. FIRE erupted in the foam on Bellandur’s 914 acres lake on May 16, 2015 under Yamalur bridge when methane gas trapped under the foam combusted” recalls Whitefield Rising member Zibi Jamal, “nature’s desperate cry for help”.

Shanties, 'garbage processing' units next to Varthur lake

From May 2016 onwards,  government officials made periodic visits to assess the scale of the problem. Senior executives from several departments formed a Lake Expert Committee under Additional Chief Secretary Mahendra Jain to detail methods to solve lake pollution in November that year.

Varthur lake warden opines, “in a city the size of Bangalore - burning plastic garbage, the stench, froth spewing out into traffic, lakes that burn - there is a limit to what authorities can do, if the common man chooses to plead ignorance. The incredible value of limited fresh water resources is taught in every school curriculum. Until we accept the vital importance of disposing the waste we generate with approved vendors shouldering civic responsibility, the biggest aggravation is the lack of vigilance and law enforcement in a democracy where people dump waste & sewage in the most expeditious way, mindless of such catastrophic repercussions.”

No resources? Splendid response

Whitefield Rising member Ambika Sen and her husband, a retired Indian Navy captain countered the “no resources” justification by government officials with an amazing initiative:  they requested and received splendid assistance from 2 Madras Engineering Group army platoons to do a hydrographic or bathymetric survey with Professor Ramachandra’s 8 IISc scientists, their sonar device and equipments.

Tough spots navigation for platoon members during

bathymetric survey 

Prof. TV Ramachandra (left) and colleague

From April 04 to 07 2016, they measured the two lakes’ depths, collected samples from the lake’s bottom and of water at different places using 4 boats, for analysis. Their published report in June 2016 detailed the decline in the quality and level of groundwater, heavy metal contaminants, hydrocarbons, organic polymers, methane and carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions and  fish mortality. The nutrient laden sedimentary organic silt could fertilise huge acres of farming land and may have great economic value. 

 

What emerged was a collective endeavour to act:meetings and discussions with Namma Bengaluru Foundation, freedom fighter Doraiswamy, lake activist groups from Bellandur, Thubarahalli, Sarakki Puttenahalli, Jala Poshan, Jala Mitra, Friends of Lakes, United Bangalore and Varthur Rising.

Happening now ​. . .

Unflinching persistence of 33 years is what it took to begin the recovery of 1354 acreage two interconnected lakes, Varthur and Bellandur. A 5-year project that requires funding by several hundred crores. Noticing events unravelling at Varthur, Managing Director of Mineral Enterprises Ltd. Basant Poddar contacted Whitefield Rising founder Nitya Ramakrishna and visited the lake in April 2017. He offered finance to clean up the lake (the first phase) and mining equipment to desilt it. For this, he enlisted the help of Sensing Local. Their detailed project report has been approved by the BDA.

 

“Prior to getting this approval, Sensing Local tested the silt and found contaminants in it. This naturally makes it hazardous for agricultural use. The pivotal question now is whether the silt can be used to make bricks for building an embankment around the lake. It is BDA’s decision.” says Nitya. Varthur kere breached in October 2017. The villagers contained it.

National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) assessment of 3 lakes in South Bangalore resulted in a landmark judgement in February 2018: a directive to Karnataka State government to transfer Rs. 500 crores for execution of the action plan within one month; to deposit Rs. 50 crores by way of interim compensation for restoring the environment with the Central Pollution Control Board. Civic bodies have concurred with NGT to make temporary diversion channels for raw sewage in order to separate it from rain water. Foul odour in the area is a likely fall-out of this.  

Although BDA emptied Bellandur lake’s catchment, sewage continues flowing in. Its source is being identified to divert or arrest it. For 20 lakes, sewage diversion is complete, the water’s PH level maintained. 50 more need it. New STPs constructed under Bangalore’s Water Supply and Sewerage Board will be operational by July 2020.

A harrowing lesson on responsible waste management, nature most definitely returns it to us or through us.

*Words with an asterisk are from Kannada, the vernacular language of Karnataka state, south India.

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