Lease and lose

By Deepa Kozhisseri
Published: Sunday 31 August 2008

Karnataka forest department critiques model to save lakes

the Karnataka forest department has recently come out with its assessment of the impact of leasing lakes to private players in Bangalore. Saying that the lakes were being destroyed, the department has come down heavily on the activities of private players. The assessment comes after the High Court of Karnataka directed the department to report on the status of four lakes in Bangalore. The judgment was given following a petition filed by the ngo Environment Support Group (esg) earlier this year. esg had challenged the legality of lake privatization (see 'Bangalore lakes leased out', Down To Earth, May 15, 2007). The petitioners appear pleased with the department's report and want a policy in place. They hope that the state will cancel the contracts. The matter is awaiting a hearing in the court.

"The model followed in the lda (lake development authority) programme of private lease ... seems to be taking all the ills of modern ... life into these hitherto natural spaces which will result in further degradation ... of natural beauty and ecological richness and contribute to further deterioration of physical and mental health of the people living around them,'' the report said. In a reaction to food courts in the "leased" lakes, the report says, "There are enough eateries and shops in the city to cater to the recreational needs of tourists so that the remaining few open spaces need not be sacrificed further." The report further states that food courts generate edible garbage, which attracts crows and kites. This poses a threat to breeding water birds. It has recommended that such commercial tourism activities should not be envisaged in the lakes' development plans.

While assessing the Hebbal lake, the team found that the shoreline had been disturbed. The water was made deeper at the shoreline, which disturbed the habitat of aquatic birds that need gentle-sloping shorelines and mud flats and aquatic vegetation for their feeding, breeding and resting. Removal of weeds was also going on, which would affect wild fowls. It also included pictures of sewage in the wetland. The state of the other lakes was no different. There was no shoreline vegetation left in the Nagavara lake and deweeding was rampant in the Vengaiyankere lake. The report has emphasized that the lakes that have not been developed so far could be declared nature or bird preserves.

Welcome step
Lauding the move, Leo Saldanah of esg says, "This is the first time that a forest department has endorsed lakes as commons and urban wildlife refuges." Lakes are common property resources. Once states realize that they can make money out of lakes, our lakes are in danger, he adds. But D S Umesh, assistant executive engineer, lda, says they are looking at more innovative ways of maintenance. "The National water policy clearly says that public private partnership model is allowed. The state water policy also speaks of such model.''

Citizens groups don't agree. They say it will cost a few lakhs of rupees to keep the area clean and reduce growth of weeds. Entry fee of Rs 2 could be collected and with grants from government and contributions from corporations, the lakes could be managed without them falling into the hands of profit making bodies. Even the political mood seems to gel with theirs. "Why should lakes become the property of star hotels? The common man will cease to have access to lakes if they are handed over to star hotels," said B K Chandrasekhar, chairperson of the legislative council. Even Bangalore North's minister in-charge had said in the legislative council that the government would not privatize lakes in Bangalore.

Real estate has encroached on several lakes in Bangalore. According to the lda there are 127 lakes in Bangalore, of which 81 are said to be live. Satellite imagery in 2003, however, showed only 33 lakes. The lda's plans are two-fold: one, to give the lakes for adoption to various agencies for no commercial interest for five years, and two, to give it to private agencies for 15 years with a profit motive. But Saldanha says there should be a policy to protect the lakes involving local people and if corporates are involved, there should be no profit motive. "The state should be under the local ward committee under the Nagarpalika Act and nobody should have exclusive rights on it,'' he added.

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