Water-stressed in India: Experts unfazed over Bengaluru’s dismal JSA ranking

Bengaluru’s water woes and rapidly-depleting groundwater reserves led to it getting an abysmal 200th rank

By Shreeshan Venkatesh
Published: Thursday 19 March 2020

It is no surprise that Karnataka’s capital Bengaluru — high on the list of India’s water-stressed districts — is a cause of concern for the Union government’s Jal Shakti Abhiyaan (JSA) initiative.

The initiative addresses the water and irrigation needs of 255 water-stressed districts across the country.

Bengaluru received an abysmal 200th rank in terms of water conservation work done under JSA, with a score of a mere 11 percentage.

Despite laws in place since 2008 that mandate construction of rainwater harvesting structures in all public spaces and residence buildings — including those for the treatment and reuse of waste water — the city has been under considerable stress over depleting water sources and immense pollution in its several lakes.

Apart from city rules, Karnataka’s 2017 wastewater policy also advocates for interventions similar to those described under JSA and allocates a 20 per cent reuse target.

None of these, however, was reflected in the Bengaluru district’s scorecard that gave it a zero on all fields except for uploading details of five conservation sites.

Experts also disagree with the JSA's findings.

“In my opinion, the scorecard of the JSA does not provide much in terms of valid information. There were disagreements between the centre and state regarding the criteria and methods of assessment that seem to show in the final scorecard,” said Biswadeep Ghosh, programme director at non-profit Arghyam.

“While it is a welcome step that now all water-related commands have been consolidated under a single roof, the JSA itself was sketchy and patchy in terms of execution and implementation. There were disagreements between the centre and state regarding the criteria and methods of assessment that seem to show in the final scorecard,” he added.

The implementation of laws on rainwater harvesting and treatment and reuse of waste water were criticised in the past.

The JSA scorecard, however, seemingly disregards the existence of policy measures that were put in place to improve the city’s water security.

The city is on course to set up a 1,440 millions of litres per day (MLD) capacity wastewater treatment plant, apart from the 270 MLD wastewater already expected to be treated through decentralised units in apartment complexes, according to S Vishwanath, director of design firm Biome Environmental Solutions.

Of this, 900 MLD is to be transferred for agricultural purposes to neighbouring districts in one of the largest such projects in the world, said Vishwanath.

“This does not feature in the JSA ranking. Neither does the fact that Bengaluru has the second highest number of installed rainwater harvesting structures and a functioning rainwater harvesting cell. The 90 lakes that were rejuvenated by the BBMP and the BDA are also not featured,” he said.

Vishwanath arranged for the Union government’s representatives visit to Jakkur lake: The sole bright spot in JSA’s assessment of the city.

The problem with scoring the city was the lack of communication between representatives of the union government and the local authorities, according to him.

“The central inspection committee that visited Bengaluru seemed more interested in what was happening in Bengaluru (Rural) even though they had come to inspect Bengaluru (Urban), and had practically no communication with crucial urban local bodies who are responsible water and wastewater management in the city,” he said.

The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) was a stakeholder for the JSA in Bengaluru and it attended review meetings and workshops for the mission, said Mohan Krishna, head of the authority’s lakes division.

“As for reporting, we were asked to submit the details of a few lakes which we did but did not hear much about it beyond that,” he said.

A similar reaction echoed from the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) offices.

“There seems to be no regard for the massive steps we took in rainwater harvesting and wastewater management over the past 10 years. I cannot think of reasons other than misreporting or lack of communication for this low rank,” said BM Manjunath, BWSSB’s public relations officer.

The reason for the inaccuracy in the scorecard when it came to Bengaluru (Urban) is not lack of communication but rather the format to report findings, according to Rajiv Manjhi, joint secretary in the Department of Health and Welfare and the Union government representative overseeing JSA in Bengaluru (Urban).

“This has been a problem when assessing a number of cities, especially metros. We had raised the issue with the ministry at the time but there was no change in the reporting format,” said Manjhi, who admitted that the JSA scorecard did not paint an accurate picture of Bengaluru’s situation regarding conservation and management of water.

“The cluelessness and lack of communication is reflected in the scorecard. It is ridiculous to suggest that Bengaluru is 200th in the country in terms of water conservation,” said Vishwanath.

The city’s lakes have often been a part of the news cycle for being polluted enough to literally catch fire sometimes. The BBMP — that has 205 lakes under its purview — has, however, forged some successful partnerships with citizen groups over the past decade for the maintenance and upkeep of the lakes.

Jakkur lake, in Bengauluru’s northern suburb with the same name, is one such success story.

Jalaposhan is a citizen’s group involved in the lake’s upkeep since 2015. It entered into an MoU with the BBMP, through which the group is responsible for regular monitoring and upkeep of the lake, with BBMP as the authority responsible for major engineering works.

“As citizens and regular patrons of the lake, we have a more robust monitoring capacity than any centralised agency. Over time our platform started serving as the hub where efforts of different departments and agencies working on the lake coalesce,” said Annapurna Kamath, a trustee of the group.

The rejuvenation of the lake from 2008 to 2010 involved two novel measures that set the ball rolling for citizens’ involvement with the group, said Kamath.

One of these was the assurance of a constant inflow to the lake, with a connection to a 15 MLD capacity sewage treatment plant (STP) at the Jakkur area. The construction of a wetland within the lake premises to aid filtration of grey water and for shock absorption, was another rejuvenation measure.

“Our first few years were focused on biodiversity and water quality. During this time, we created a medicinal and herbal zone and introduced native wild flora, which in turn attracted fauna,” said Kamath.

Community participation, which is increasing in Bengaluru, can only be a short-term approach, according to Kamath.

“Funds are collected through voluntary donations from the community and the meagre BBMP budget for lake development. Citizen involvement and community donations can, however, only work for a short time and not be depended upon as a permanent solution. Lakes should be budgeted as a standard cost and not as an extra as is currently being done,” she said.

Funds drying up is not the only challenge for the long-term success of the Jakkur lake project.

Interestingly, while the Jakkur lake was felicitated by the JSA for ‘promotion of citizen and state action for water conservation, augmentation and preservation’, a different intervention promoted under the JSA could put the future of the lake in danger.

The JSA called for urban local bodies to facilitate the use of recycled water for industry and construction, among other areas, under its guidelines.

The lake stands to be greatly affected if a proposed transfer of 10 MLD to the Karnataka Power Transmission Corporation Limited thermal power plant comes through.

“KPTCL funded the expansion of the STP from 10 MLD to 15 MLD and as a part of the agreement, will receive upto 15 MLD from the plant. This would mean that the inflow to the lake would be reduced to possibly zero which would of course kill the lake,” said Kamath.

“We currently receive raw sewage during peak times because of which we are petitioning the government to set up new STPs,” she added.

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