Bengaluru lakes burn again, old woes resurface

Updated on Jan 26, 2019 08:20 AM IST

According to Professor TV Ramachandra of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, the problem is one of lack of awareness.

Smoke billows from a fire in middle of the wetlands of the severely polluted Bellandur Lake in January 2018.(PTI File Photo)
Smoke billows from a fire in middle of the wetlands of the severely polluted Bellandur Lake in January 2018.(PTI File Photo)
Hindustan Times, Bengaluru | BySibi Arasu

For the eighth time since 2015, two of Bengaluru’s lakes broke into flames earlier this week fuelled by high levels of toxic chemicals in their waters. Sunday saw Varthur lake, a 180-hectare water body on Bengaluru’s periphery, up in flames. On Monday, flames were seen flickering on Bellandur lake, not very far away. Both incidents were a pointer that repeated efforts to clean up the lakes had largely come to naught.

On December 6, 2018, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) imposed a ?50-crore fine on Karnataka for poor maintenance of its lakes. A committee it set up to oversee the action plan for clean-up of Bengaluru’s lakes also directed the state government to deposit ?500 crore into an escrow account for use in the maintenance and upkeep of Bellandur lake. But little action appears to have been taken.

According to Professor TV Ramachandra of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, the problem is one of lack of awareness. “The biggest issue is officials and bureaucrats do not realise the importance of lakes in urban ecosystems,” said Ramachandra, who is part of the committee set up by the NGT. “Lakes help in groundwater restoration, bio-remediation and provide a host of other ecological services, apart from their aesthetic and recreational value,” he added.

Raising a stink

Although the city has 24 sewage treatment plants (STP) set up by civic bodies such as the Bengaluru Water Supply and Sewerage Board, Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike and Bengaluru Development Authority, untreated sewage entering water bodies are a major cause for concern. About 40% of the city’s untreated sewage is said to flow into its lake daily.

“The chief pollutants are domestic sewage and some amount of industrial pollution. Historically, there has been no concept of treating sewage and even the city’s oldest drainage systems such as the Ejipura drain is just meant to take the sewage out. This drain is now the biggest contributor to untreated sewage to Bellandur,” Sharachchandra Lele, from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, said.

It is estimated that with a population density of 10,000 people per sq km, the city generates 1,440 million litres per day of sewage.

“Even though there have been successful lake restorations such as that of Jakkur Lake, in many cases, the sewage is just diverted downstream and the cumulative effect of sewage diversion is that the lakes farthest downstream such as Bellandur and Varthur bear the bulk of this pollution. To manage these water bodies, we need to have decentralised STPs,” said Ramachandra. Added to this are issues such as encroachments on the city’s water bodies, the canals that feed them and their buffer zones.

Implementation

While multiple solutions have been offered by research organisations as well as previously constituted NGT committees, implementation has been a hurdle.

“We need to make administrators accountable for the status of the lakes... They have neither removed encroachments nor prevented pollutants getting into the lakes but they consistently resort to avoidance tactics and keep insisting that there is no pollution or it is under control,” said Ramachandra. Another issue has been the lack of an institutional mechanism to deal with water pollution.

Justice Santhosh Hegde, who is overseeing the NGT committee, said: “We are focusing on protecting and reviving the water bodies that remain. We are trying to make sure pollutants don’t continue to flow into lakes like Varthur and Bellandur and that none of the lakes is further encroached upon for commercial or residential purposes.”

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