- Conservation of urban ecological commons like lakes and parks are crucial for the ecosystem services they provide as well as for the physical and mental health of citizens.
- Bengaluru residents are working on citizen-driven projects to conserve biodiversity around lakes.
- Some initiatives are criticised for neglecting lake water health while focusing only on creating manicured recreational spaces around lakes
Around 800 saplings arrived in a pickup truck at the community garden in Bengaluru’s Jakkur lake for a plantation drive, on September 8, 2023. The idea of a community garden was mooted in 2017 with the concept of growing food in urban commons — for the community, by the community. A permaculture design company created a food garden with the keyhole concept of working in synergy with nature in a two-kilometre area around the periphery of the lake. Everything to create the garden came from waste or nature — broken roof tiles, discarded metals and stones and dried leaves. It took off very well in the beginning, said Annapurna Kamath of Jala Poshan Trust, a citizen initiative for the upkeep of Jakkur lake. “The Covid-19 lockdown forced many workers and volunteers to go back to their hometowns. It hasn’t picked up as well after that,” she said.
The five-kilometre walkway along the embankment of the 50-hectare lake is divided into community and conservation zones, with an emphasis on creating and conserving biodiversity around the lake. The initial one kilometre of the walkway has ornamental plants followed by two kilometres of a community-managed garden of vegetables and medicinal plants. The next two kilometres is the conservation zone of largely native trees, most of them fruit-bearing. “The plants and trees are handpicked by us (the citizen’s group). If we leave it to the horticulture department, it will mostly be only ornamental plants with no biodiversity value,” said Kamath.
After the initial few years of nurturing, the trees in the conservation zone are left to grow wild, resembling a natural forest. While the community zone serves as a food space for pollinators and birds, the conservation zone is designed for their nesting “where they have some privacy and can nest and rest,” she said. The children’s park is almost entirely created from discarded waste materials like unused drainage pipes and has traditional games such as Navkankari installed in its premises.
Claiming commons and making them thrive
Lakes or tanks were the only water source for the largely agrarian Bengaluru, during ancient dynasties, as it did not have a river to depend on. The lakes, however, lost their relevance with better access to piped water modernity heralded. Most of them were turning into cesspools of waste and sewage before they were saved and restored by strong citizen initiatives, supported by the government. Now, many lakes have citizen groups watching over them.
Lakes are urban ecological commons that provide a range of ecosystem services to people. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the government body in charge of civic amenities and some infrastructural assets including lakes, has 167 lakes under its custody. Studies have shown that urban nature supports ecosystem services such as regulating, provisioning and cultural services as well as promotes physical and mental health and maintains people’s connection to nature. A 2022 study investigating people’s perception of blue infrastructure in Bengaluru found that lakes are of high societal importance despite their size and local people appreciated the ecosystem services like regulating services provided by them. With better awareness, these citizen groups are welcoming new initiatives and nature-based solutions that would not just keep the lakes thriving but use them as a means to conserve biodiversity, too.
Puttenahalli lake in Yelahanka, in the north of Bengaluru, is a 13-hectare lake that was notified as a bird conservation reserve in 2015. The lake, managed by a citizen group and the forest department, boasts 150 species of birds, according to the group’s website. There is a butterfly park with over 4000 flowering plants to attract pollinators.
Puttenahalli Puttakere, a lake in J.P.Nagar, is another shining example of a citizen initiative giving a new lease of life to a lake that would have been long dead otherwise. This small neighbourhood lake caught the attention of Usha Rajagopalan in 2006. With a team of like-minded people, she created a group called Save The Lake, which worked towards including the lake in the BBMP’s list of lakes to be rejuvenated in 2008. Today, the Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust (PNILT), a trust for the betterment of the lake, has planted nearly 500 trees near the lake, which is home to over 120 bird species. A variety of birds like spot-billed ducks, darters and Brahminy kites frequent the lake. A wild date palm in the middle of the lake that stood the test of time became PNILT’s logo.
Rajagopalan said that a lot has changed in terms of her perception of lake and biodiversity conservation from the time she started the initiative. “Earlier we planted the saplings that the horticulture department gave us. But later we got cautious of what we needed to plant and ensured they were native trees good for the city,” she said.
Better focus needed on lake water quality
Urbanisation is one of the major drivers of biodiversity loss in the world. Biodiversity-friendly cities are linked to sustainable urban development and human well-being. “Biodiversity in cities is less about rare species and more about conserving even what is considered ordinary,” said biologist Soubadra Devy, a researcher with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) who is leading conservation efforts of Venkateshpura lake, a small neighbourhood lake in north Bengaluru.
Devy envisages an exemplary neighbourhood lake with a butterfly trail leading the way to making it an urban biodiversity hotspot. Devy who is specialised in pollinator behaviour said that since butterflies need different plants at different life stages, the focus is placed on plant diversity. “The plants they seek at the larval stage are quite dull, like woodapple, while they need plants with colourful, nectar flowers at adult stage. Papilio butterflies need flatter platforms provided by plants like Ixora where they can land and flutter their wings,” she said. Butterflies need low viscous nectar while bees need viscous nectar with high sucrose content. Bats prefer voluminous nectar that are low on viscosity like in Bombax ceiba, she said, adding that all these needs are taken into consideration while creating the butterfly trail. A bee hotel with bamboo and wooden sticks is being planned for solitary bees. “We are planning to keep the space educational, where people can slow down, observe and learn new things about the nature around them,” Devy said.
Some of these citizen initiatives, however, are drawing criticism from public for neglecting the water quality of the lake. A recent report released by Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) (which was made available to the media earlier but is now no longer in the public domain) of the status of 90 lakes paints a grim picture with many lakes, including Jakkur lake, deemed polluted and unfit even for fisheries. Fishing is done on a contract basis by fishers in some of these lakes which is a livelihood option for many fisher communities in the city. The report looks at 25 different parameters including dissolved oxygen, nitrates and phosphates levels as well as fecal coliform and total coliform content. Ram Prasad, co-founder of Friends of Lakes, a citizen initiative for the lakes said that the report lacked some vital information such as time and place of sampling and the temperature of samples. “The KSPCB has to follow the CPCB guidelines for sample collection. We demand that it be a legal sample collection procedure,” Ram Prasad said.
Kamath said that Jakkur area is still not fully urban and in a peri-urban transition mode. There are many gaps to be plugged before it can be fully called an urban lake. “Untreated sewage still gets released into the lake at certain points. Storm water drains are broken at some places. All these bring effluence into the lake,” she said. She said they have noticed two peak periods of pollution in the lake—when the temperature goes up and when there is heavy rain.
A lot has been done to modify recreational spaces around the lakes by the citizens groups and the BBMP but none for the lake itself, said Ram Prasad. He said that it is disheartening to see that the water quality of the lakes continues to be neglected. “The urban aspiration is to have perennial lakes that look crystal clear like swimming pools. Lake rejuvenation is not translating to improved water quality,” he said. He alleged that the MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) the citizen groups signed with BBMP for the lake upkeep does not even mention the lake water quality or ways to improve it. The citizens involved in lake maintenance, however, said that it is a collaborative effort with the BBMP and not a transfer of responsibility to citizens. “We monitor the lake and report to the BBMP,” said Kamath.
The lakes largely depend on treated wastewater for perennial flow and to avoid drying out during summer. Bengaluru lakes are now mostly for recreational value and in some cases, for groundwater recharge. Devy said we need to adapt with time; the small neighbourhood lakes like Venkateshpura lake are needed to recharge groundwater since there are no other water sources for places in the city that cannot access Cauvery river water. She is already working on ways to maintain the lake water quality despite the fact that the lake may have to depend on treated wastewater. “We are planning a constructed wetland and floating islands made of environment-friendly materials to keep the water clean. We will also monitor water and shore health at all times,” Devy said.
Read more: A to Z guide to Bengaluru’s lakes
Banner image: Citizen groups in Bengaluru are looking after the city’s lakes. Photo by Abhishek N. Chinnappa/Mongabay.