Not many months ago, the neighbouring Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu yet again engaged in a long-standing, intense strife and conflict over sharing the waters of the river Cauvery. With rapidly increasing populations in both the states, it has become a greater challenge to meet the water demands of its masses, especially in the context of their relying so significantly upon the waters of one seasonal river that flows through both of their lands.

This ongoing conflict has only reinforced one critical characteristic of water – that it is, and has always been, an intensely contested for ecological commons. As time has shown, resolving these conflicts is not an easy task. In the Cauvery issue for instance, a complete resolution of the matter has not yet been achieved to the satisfaction of both the states, even though the problem is a deeply historical one.  Neither have these temporary solutions alleviated concerns of equity posed by such strife, nor do they ensure sustainable allocation of resources.

One of the cities impacted by the Cauvery water issue is Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka. Bengaluru has been an urban settlement since the mid 16th century, though settlements have existed even prior to this period as evidenced by inscriptions dating as far back as the 8th century AD. This long history of occupation is indeed remarkable for a city that has no major water source connecting it. Its success as an urban landmark is in part owing to the impressively engineered system of lakes (or tanks) that exploited its naturally undulating terrain, forming a tight cascading network, thus ensuring water supply to the entire city.

Apart from being critical drinking water sources, lakes also occupied a very important space as livelihood enhancers for farmers, pastoralists and washer-men, to name a few. Water from lakes was used for various domestic purposes such as bathing and cleaning vessels. Given that the lives of people were intertwined with healthy water-bodies, it is not surprising that a lot of importance was attached to their maintenance and upkeep. Lake waters were held sacred, and annual festivals celebrated this sacredness. 

An old temple tank (kalyani) in Central Bengaluru survives until today, albeit used for other community purposes.

As the city expanded, it started to look for larger sources of water, eventually settling on pumping upstream, water from the river Cauvery, 100 kms away. Most city residents stopped depending upon lakes as a source of water, and the lakes themselves became polluted with sewage and other industrial runoff, or became vulnerable to threats in the form of encroachments and reclamation. At the same time, the city is now ill-equipped to deal effectively with issues of water scarcity, should the availability of water from the river Cauvery be stopped or even reduced.

The problem of water being a conflicted resource is an old one – therefore, can we look to the past to obtain some insights on their resolution? Can we see what patterns have been repeated in history and how they have exerted their influence on present day landscapes? Here, we present one such story – that of Sampangi Lake.

Today, almost completely reclaimed and converted into the state-of-the-art Sri Kanteerava Stadium, this terrain recalls its former identity as a water body only during times of intense rainfall, when the stadium floods over.  This is a story about this lake’s past. Bengaluru, in about 1885, had two distinct zones – the British occupied Cantonment and the largely native City or pete. These two zones, though under the larger umbrella of the British crown, were dually governed on a day-to-day basis. The location of this lake at the edge of the two zones of the city was responsible for many struggles over its use and management.

A view of the Sri Kanteerava Stadium, which today occupies most of the former lake bed.

Sampangi Lake, as mentioned earlier, was an important source of drinking water at least until the late 1800s, when Bengaluru began obtaining its water from other sources. In addition to being a source of drinking water, the lake also supported a number of traditional horticulturists called the Vanhikula Kshatriyas. This community came into the city around the early 16th century, and since then, have celebrated the city’s oldest extant festival – the Karaga ­– whose rituals revolve around important water-bodies across the city. Rituals performed at the Sampangi Lake mark the beginning of these annual festivities, and it is only because of this that a tiny vestige of the lake remains. Besides horticulturists, the lake supported various traditional livelihoods such as fishing, brick making, clothes laundering, and pastoralism. To celebrate the sacredness of lake waters, a second annual festival called Gange Pooja was held. This festival quite picturesquely involved setting numerous lit oil lamps (diyas) afloat on the water-body towards the evening, with the requisite rituals and accompanying feasts. It is not hard to imagine the shimmering surface of water beautifully gleaming yellow-gold with the reflected light of the numerous diyas floating on it!

The small, square water-body, which is all that remains of a former ecological commons.

Another group of users too found this lake valuable. These were connoisseurs of aesthetic sensibilities and recreationalists – mostly Europeans – and owners of lakeside bungalows, polo players, and those for whom walking besides the lake and being ‘close to nature’ had become a part of their daily routines. Conflicts soon arose between these stakeholders and the native users, who then petitioned to their ruler against these European recreationalists, whose case was taken up by the British Residency. This naturally meant that the two governing bodies too rose against each other over the use and management of the water body. Of these two powers, it was clear that the group favouring aesthetics and recreation was politically dominant, and it was their view on the lake’s utility which prevailed. A part of the lake was reclaimed and converted into a polo ground for recreational pursuits of resting military troops. Traditional activities such as the making of bricks were banned, citing aesthetic grounds. Peons were employed to guard the approaches to the lake, resulting in the migration of traditional communities such as fishermen and washer-men away from the locality. Petitions for increased water supply to the horticultural farms were largely ignored.

With traditional users largely migrating away from the lake, and new populations settling in, the lake began to be perceived as a social hazard. This loss of value and change in perceptions surrounding the utility of the lake catalysed its reclamation and conversion into a built-up space. Only that small rectangular tank of water remains, rising to prominence in the city’s collective memory exactly once annually – during the Karaga festival.

Present day Sampangi tank with the stadium in the background.

Conflicts around this lake were framed around the ability of lake water to stay confined within its limits, and fears of inundation if it did not. Viewed in this manner, resolution mechanisms extended their focus on repairing bunds and deepening the channels of the lake. This interplay of a technically driven framing of the shared waters-cape conflict, dominant perceptions, and the political bargaining power of its stakeholders led to the transformation of the water-body into a reflection of those ideals, in the process destroying the deeply ecological character of a former urban commons.

This narrative is of change is not unique to the past; many contemporary trends of lake governance within the city follow the same pattern of prioritising aesthetics and recreation, and the exclusion and isolation of traditional user groups. Technical solutions abound in these cases as well, with undue focus given on methods of lake dredging, silt removal, landscaping, and rejuvenation, while keeping stakeholder involvement to a bare minimum until after the restorations have been completed. This has inadvertently favoured early-morning recreationalists and nature enthusiasts, while keeping out the unappreciated and those considered unclean: the fodder collector, the pastoralist, and the washer-man, to name a few.  What is needed is greater inclusivity and context specificity in policy directives governing lakes. On a broader level too, such participatory efforts can go a long way in enhancing the water security of the city, reducing its dependency on the river Cauvery, and probably playing a small but significant role in alleviating larger conflicts over shared water resources.