Jockim and other members of his fishing community helped revive Jakkur Lake in Bengaluru. The rejuvenation project involved a local NGO, municipal authorities and other residents, but the fishing community's role in protecting and maintaining the lake was crucial due to their knowledge and dependency on the wetland for livelihood.Jockim and other members of his fishing community helped revive Jakkur Lake in Bengaluru. The rejuvenation project involved a local NGO, municipal authorities and other residents, but the fishing community’s role in protecting and maintaining the lake is crucial due to their knowledge and dependency on the wetland for livelihood. Illustration by Sriya Singh for Mongabay.

The quiet do-ers

Jockim, 45, has a quiet, confident presence. He takes a long time to open up and even after that, he speaks little. He is well aware of the role he and his people play in keeping Jakkur Lake as beautiful and ecologically thriving. However, he is also deeply aware of the fact that the urban idea of conservation often seeks to keep traditional dwellers out.

“Fishermen are the main people for a lake to thrive,” he says. “If fishermen are there, the birds will come. We are the only people entering the water and we understand it from generations.” His family, like many others in the vicinity, has always depended on fishing. They lived nearby and fished in Rachenahalli lake, very close to Jakkur lake (it gets its water from Jakkur too) and moved to Jakkur sometime in 2006.

Jockim witnessed the lake’s degeneration and the subsequent efforts of Bangalore Development Authority to clean and rejuvenate it. He has been part of the community initiative to maintain the lake from the very beginning and brought with him the entire fishing community.

The BBMP website about the lake says, “Jakkur Lake is an example of collective action – the implementation of a node for social and scientific innovation to help improve the lake ecosystem and social relations among stakeholders.”

Jakkur Lake is one of the largest lakes in the grid of man-made lakes in the city and is located in the north eastern part of Bengaluru.

Unplanned development in the area surrounding the lake had led to solid waste filling its feeder channels. This choked the natural watershed so much that the lake resembled a dumping yard. Jakkur Lake interestingly has a very well-designed wetland system. According to the BBMP website, a wetland is a complex assemblage of water, substrate, plants (vascular and algae), litter (primarily fallen plant material), invertebrates and an array of micro-organisms (most importantly bacteria), as defined by the US Environmental Protection Agency.”

Annapurna Kamath, of Jalaposhan, the NGO that was registered to partner officially with BBMP to manage the lake, says the primary goal of conservation has to be inclusive. “You cannot assume that you have some privilege because you are environmentally inclined and the rest of the world is not interested. Fishermen community have been here much before us, they know the lake very well.  Initially, some people said fishermen community are a threat, birds get threatened by fishing and all that. But we believed they had a role because fishing community understands water the best and the ecosystem as well. They need to be supplemented but they have the base knowledge of what a lake should be and how to take care of it. It’s innate. Moreover, we shouldn’t think of disturbing social eco-system,” she told Mongabay-India.

Annapurna Kamath of Jalaposhan, the NGO that partnered with the municipal authorities to create a citizen-led initiative to conserve Jakkur lake. Photo by Prachi Pinglay-Plumber.
Annapurna Kamath of Jalaposhan, the NGO that partnered with the municipal authorities to create a citizen-led initiative to conserve Jakkur lake. Photo by Prachi Pinglay-Plumber.

Jockim, on his own, has always tried to improve and learn the best practices for fishing as well as preserving the biodiversity of the lake. “The fisheries department people help us and guide us on what to do to maintain the biodiversity. Along with our traditional methods, we also get scientific advice. We don’t fish when the fish are small. We understand when to stop,” says Jockim, who has studied up to Class 8 but makes all efforts to understand the environmental issues, guidelines from the fisheries department and legal issues as well. He said at least 70 families directly depend on Jakkur Lake for their livelihoods.

He is right when he says that having healthy fish in the water body is a sign of good health of the overall wetland ecosystem. Nagendra Babu, Assistant Director in the Fisheries Department says, “If fishes are there in the water, it will be clean. If not, the rampant growth of plankton leads to bacteria, it dies and settles in water, becomes algae. All urban lakes are flooded with sewage, which leads to rampant growth. Secondly, birds will come, if the fishes are there. It maintains the food chain. Livelihood for fishermen is also useful to balance the ecosystem.”

Though it sounds logical and plausible in theory, it is easily possible to alienate and have differences between various stakeholders – administration, scientists, citizens’ groups and local communities. Especially, when there is a popular perception that removing all activity from a distressed waterbody will actually help its conservation. Because of that, there have been instances of indifference or even conflict between citizen-environmentalists and local communities. Add to that, if the administration is not effective, it can make the situation worse.

T.V. Ramachandra from the Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc) in Bengaluru has studied various wetlands management systems. “It doesn’t work where people have disassociated themselves. People are actively involved and it worked at Putanehalli and Jakkur lakes. If there is a sense of belonging, no one will abuse it. Moreover, many families who are below poverty line depend on common property.”

Jockim near coracles on the banks of Jakkur Lake. The lake supports and provides livelihoods for 70 fishing families who played a crucial role in reviving the lake. Photo by Madhusudhan.
Jockim near coracles on the banks of Jakkur Lake. The lake supports and provides livelihoods for 70 fishing families who played a crucial role in reviving the lake. Photo by Madhusudhan.

S. Vishwanath, urban planner and water conservationist, emphasises the need to recognise local communities. “Acknowledging the grass cutters and fishermen will go a long way. Middle-class attitude is to exclude in the name of protection. We have to reinvent the conservation of the lake with the current urban context. Lake is a complete wetland by itself if we allow biodiversity, the flora and fauna to develop by itself. However, the real question is are the citizens ready to pay the true cost of their sewage?”

Ramachandra adds, “Those who live away from the lake, pollute and contaminate. Raw sewage, industrial effluent are resulting in falling health standards, air and water quality. Vegetables, fish, grass – all had heavy metal. It is getting reflected higher instances of cancer and kidney failures in the city. Innocent people are paying for the irresponsible behaviour of bureaucracy and state and management strategies.” He says many lakes in the city are in need of urgent attention but the initiatives are not working the way they worked at Jakkur.

Kamath says there is no alternative to an integrated approach. “Everyone understands conservation in their own language. We can’t be extreme. The existing ecosystem is native intelligence. We can’t work with superficial intelligence. Jockim knows if sewage comes, what happens, if fish is dying, what is happening. Grass cutters and fishermen are the first responders. All of us have the same passion. They feel it’s “my own lake” they have an attachment to the lake. I don’t know if it’s special to Jakkur but it should be the model because it works.”

Kamath speaks of Jockim as a spiritual person who has the ability to take everyone along with him. “I always tell people that we never had any conflict with the fishing community. In fact, I even suggested that Jockim should train other fishermen near other lakes where similar efforts are going on.”

When asked if he has faced any resistance from the community or outside of it, while taking up these activities apart from fishing, Jockim simply says, “My reputation is good. They are with me.” One of the reasons why Jockim is respected and almost indispensable is his integrity and honesty. He has maintained the water body from their own expense and does not seek funds from the NGO or the administration.

Fisherfolk clearing the layer of water hyacinth, a plant that threatens the lake ecology. Photo by Jockim.
Fisherfolk clearing the layer of water hyacinth, a plant that threatens the lake ecology. Photo by Jockim.

However, the past year hasn’t been easy. First, the pandemic and the lockdown affected their business. And now they are witnessing rampant growth of water hyacinth. For Jockim and his fishermen partners, the lack of funds to clean the hyacinth is a challenge. Sewage also continues to be a problem.

What truly bothers him are different rules and regulations that try to put them out. While Supreme Court doesn’t allow fishermen to live near the water bodies, Jockim says at least facilities like sheds to mend the equipment, boat, and to rest while working should be allowed. “Community initiatives would be failures without fishermen. But nobody writes or recognises us,” he says wistfully. Ironically, he points out that they get unnecessary attention from social media when walkers post their pictures. “They don’t ask or talk to us about what we are doing but take photos.”

He doesn’t talk much about family members. He says he doesn’t want his children to follow this vocation. “People aren’t good. The younger generation will not be able to manage. It is not a peaceful profession,” he says requesting to highlight their problems and their contribution as a community and not as an individual.

Spot-billed pelicans nest on the vegetation in Jakkur lake. The wetland hosts around 197 bird species. Photo by T.R. Shankar Raman/Wikimedia Commons.
Spot-billed pelicans nest on the vegetation in Jakkur lake. The wetland hosts around 197 bird species. Photo by T.R. Shankar Raman/Wikimedia Commons.

 


Read more: The link between Bengaluru’s lakes, livelihoods and local memories

Reasearchers urge better protection as wetlands continue to vanish


 

Illustration by Sriya Singh, a self-taught illustrator currently based out of Bengaluru. Though she works digitally, her process is very organic.
She likes to reflect a sense of calmness through her illustrations.

Article published by Aditi
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