A lake is rejuvenated for people and nature

In Bangalore, lakes often lay trapped under layers of water hyacinth, a sure sign of how polluted they are. But in Jakkur lake, weeds and algae signify cleanliness; these have been ‘constructed’ here, to purify water entering the lake. The 200-year-old lake is now spread across a majestic 160 acres, clean and teeming with birds.

Government officials from outside Karnataka have visited the lake to study this model. The lake also has the distinction of being maintained by a citizens’ collective named Jalaposhan Trust.

In the Jakkur model, a secondary STP (sewage treatment plant), and a constructed wetland – comprising aquatic plants and an algae pond – are integrated with the lake. The STP has capacity of 10 MLD (million litres per day). Treated effluent from the STP is released into the wetland spread across 11 acres, and then into the lake.

While secondary STPs remove microbes, suspended matter etc., they cannot remove nutrients like nitrates and phosphates. Despite this, treated effluent from STPs is usually let directly into lakes. The result is that, nutrient content in the water is absorbed by aquatic weeds rapidly, causing them to multiply. Soon the oxygen content of the lake depletes, and aquatic life dies. Nutrients also seep into the ground, and contaminate groundwater. Nitrate, which is harmful to health, is the biggest contaminant of groundwater in Bangalore.

In the Jakkur model, the nutrient-absorbing ability of wetlands is put to good use. Wetlands absorb nutrients and pathogens in the effluent, and the resulting water is good enough to drink after sun exposure and nominal filtering. Hence, not only is the lake protected, residents nearby get good water too.

IISc professor Dr T V Ramachandra, who had designed the model, says the water quantity and quality around the lake has improved. “We recently tested water quality of 300 borewells within half km radius of the lake. We found that water levels in borewells had increased, and nitrate levels had become very low,” he says.

Dr Ramachandra’s model was implemented by BDA (Bangalore Development Authority), based on recommendations of its Lake Rejuvenation Advisory Committee. Dr Ramachandra was part of the four-member committee. “Getting this model approved was easy, since all committee members were like-minded,” he says.

The Jakkur model is ideal for Bangalore, which has a major sewage treatment problem. The model is also natural and self-sustainable. The only maintenance it needs is routine harvesting of wetland. Dr Ramachandra has already proposed the model to be replicated at the severely polluted Bellandur-Varthur lakes in the city.

Along with wetland construction, other rejuvenation works of Jakkur lake was done in 2009-11. Before this, the lake was receiving not just STP effluent, but also raw sewage from Yelahanka and Kogilu. It was also heavily silted and encroached. During rejuvenation, the raw sewage was diverted into the STP. The lake was also fenced, and de-silted to improve capacity. Walkways, islands for migratory birds, a boat jetty and a kalyani for idol immersion were built, and trees were planted. The works cost Rs 21 crore.

But after all this effort, no authority took over lake maintenance or deployed security personnel at the lake. Once again, the lake was starting to be a dumping ground for garbage. This is when Annapurna Kamath, Managing Trustee of the NGO Satya Foundation that works for community development, got involved. Annapurna kept informing BBMP and BDA officials about the lake’s issues, and requested action. But when it came to maintenance, she found that the BDA did not have a maintenance fund for the lake, and that BBMP suffered from staff shortage. However, BBMP was open to Satya Foundation itself taking over lake maintenance.

Already, citizen groups had formally taken over the maintenance of Puttenahalli and Kaikondarahalli lakes, and BBMP encouraged similar arrangements. “Since I work on community development, I felt that the community itself should take care of the lake,” says Annapurna. But around 2010, Jakkur was still a rural area, and local residents were protesting against BDA about takeover of their land for Arkavathi layout development. “They were unwilling to work with authorities at the time,” says Annapurna.

Around 2014, as the area become more urbanised and had a bigger migrant community, Annapurna started reaching out to them. The Foundation distributed pamphlets to apartments within a 10 km radius, and reached out to visitors to the lake. Annapurna also set up a Facebook page about the lake. In October 2014, a group of 50 people met, to talk about the lake. Water expert S Vishwanath and ornithologist Dr S Subramanya also spoke at the meeting.

While some residents opined that lake maintenance was BBMP’s responsibility, others felt they were personally responsible, being beneficiaries of the lake. This was the genesis of the community that would later maintain the lake. The former group was ready to volunteer and had started to organise themselves. Today, the lake has a volunteer group of 200 people. The core group of 30 contribute effort and money, and also make decisions about the lake.

All of this work began with cleanliness drives after the first meeting. But the residents soon found that their efforts were futile – every Sunday they would find the lake as dirty as the previous week; waste was still getting dumped in and around it. “We realised that ours was a pointless exercise, and that the lake can be maintained only if we had control over it,” says Annapurna.

But there were some hurdles – first, the lake had to be transferred from BDA to BBMP, then the residents had to sign an MoU with BBMP. So the community got Jalaposhan Trust registered, and got BDA to transfer the lake to BBMP. The very next day after the lake transfer, the Trust and Satya Foundation jointly signed the MoU with BBMP. The Foundation got involved since BBMP wanted assurance that maintenance would continue even if the Trust withdrew, says Annapurna.


Where does the money come from?

Having adopted the lake, the community had to find its own funds for maintenance and small infrastructure works. To start off, core group members contributed Rs 12,000 or lesser. This came to Rs 2 lakh, which became the corpus fund. The Trust then managed to receive CSR funds or donations from corporates, mostly those located nearby. “These companies could see the benefits of our work. Sometimes our community members connected us to their companies. It has not been a struggle as such, but has taken effort,” says Annapurna.

Donations from the public were collected through fundraising events, such as Vanamahotsav, where the public could plant a sapling and pay Rs 500 for its maintenance. The Trust collects funds on a need basis. Annapurna says that Satya Foundation does some hand-holding for the Trust. While security guards are employed and paid by BBMP, the Foundation employs the 10 cleaning staff and monitors their work. “The Trust would be fully self-reliant in a couple of years, and then the Foundation can withdraw completely,” says Annapurna.


Everyone is a decision-maker

Jalaposhan Trust has only five members, but any community member – either from volunteer or core group – is a ‘Jalaposhak’. Every Jalaposhak is free to initiate her own project and run it, after informing the Trust. Projects like creating an organic garden and butterfly park are on now. “The teams approach us only when we are needed. We did not want the community to be mired in politics. So the Trust only does paperwork, and Jalaposhaks do all activities,” says Annapurna.

Jalaposhaks also organise events at the lake that are free and open to public. For example, a yoga trainer gives yoga classes here, a runner trains running groups, an NGO Trustee initiated music concerts. Events like school educational trips, storytelling sessions and citizen science projects are also held. These events are opportunities to create awareness about the lake, and to build the community further. Research organisations like IISc and ATREE hold conservation and research projects also here.

Area around the lake is split into the community area where anyone can spend time, and the conservation area where various animal species, including reptiles, live. Surveys of flora and fauna are done frequently.

Resolving urban-rural conflict

One of the five Jalaposhan Trustees is a farmer-environmentalist from Jakkur village. Annapurna says that the village residents had resisted the Trust’s work initially, but are starting to participate now, especially the youth. The initial resistance was because of restrictions on their routine activities at the lake, such as bathing, washing cattle etc. “The lake had always belonged to them, so they used to ask how we could set these rules. We resolved these through discussions,” says Annapurna.

Regarding bathing, a consensus was reached that bathing was prohibited as per rules itself, since the lake was deep. Villagers could wash cattle outside the lake, using water collected from the kalyani. Those who collect grass from around the lake were given ID cards. In 2015 villagers were not ready to immerse Ganesha idols in the kalyani, but after discussions, did so in 2016. During the 2016 Ganeshotsav, they also cooperated with the lake community that was segregating waste from religious offerings at the lake. “We said that we wanted the culture to be preserved, but also wanted to avoid activities that harm the lake. We complain to authorities only as a last resort,” says Annapurna.

A similar positive approach was effective with the authorities too, says Annapurna. “We sometimes had to push authorities to act on something. If we had to call 10 times for any action to be taken, we would do so. But we did not get into activist mode.” She says that officials of all agencies now respond when an issue is raised over the phone.

Jalaposhaks demonstrate how a small group of people can maintain a common property like a lake, by working with authorities and balancing the interests of multiple stakeholders.