Puttenahalli Puttakere in south Bengaluru stands as a shining example of how committed residents can make a real difference in the upkeep of our lakes. Usha Rajagopalan has championed the cause of rejuvenating this lake, and her efforts and leadership have become a model well worth emulating not only in Bengaluru, but elsewhere too.
Here, she speaks to Dr. S Subramanya on what it takes to revive a lake, and more.
Among the many lakes that have been adopted by resident lake protection groups in Bengaluru, Puttenahalli Puttakere stands as a shining example of how committed residents can really make a difference in the upkeep of our lakes. In that, you have been a champion in bringing about such a change with Puttenhalli Puttakere. How did it all start?
When my family shifted residence to Bengaluru in 2006, my intent was to become a full-time creative writer. This was threatened by a dying lake visible from my new apartment. It had pools of sewage, mounds of construction debris, burning trash piles and a slum on the embankment which was steadily usurping more land. Given my childhood exposure to nature from my father, a forest official, this pathetic sight weighed on my conscience. Therefore, in 2008, I mooted a campaign to get the municipality, Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), to rehabilitate the encroachers and rejuvenate the lake. Frustrated by unrealised promises of elected representatives and bureaucrats, I approached a neighbour who used his clout and got BBMP to include Puttakere in their list for rejuvenation.
How did Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust (PNLIT) happen?
The development process triggered a great deal of interest in our neighbourhood. To allay the rumours, we celebrated Earth Day in April 2010 to which we invited residents from surrounding areas. That was how I met Prasanna Vynatheya and Arathi Manay. They joined me to monitor the progress at the lake and send updates to BBMP. We did not want the lake to relapse so, in order to assist BBMP, we registered a non-profit trust in June 2010 with another resident, O.P. Ramaswamy. With the help of BBMP, we held a tree plantation drive in July when residents from the area planted trees and gave donations to PNLIT with which we hired a gardener and a security guard. When BBMP invited us to become official custodians of the lake in May 2011, we grabbed the opportunity. Our partnership with BBMP, Lakes, began in 2009 and continues as strong as ever. On our request they even became a respondent to the writ filed by the slum dwellers in 2015. From our side, I think it was based on understanding their constraints and trying to resolve issues together. On their part, they perhaps appreciated our total commitment to protect and nurture the lake voluntarily.
The present day lake development model is more of a civil engineering one that destroys the centuries-old lake structure by turning them into soup-bowl shaped structures. It totally alters their ecology, from seasonal wetlands that were being inundated by clean monsoon run-off, to perennial water bodies filled with sewage or domestic waste-water. Under this scenario, what measures have you taken to reverse the process?
Puttakere, fortunately, has shallow and deep areas. During the monsoon these higher reaches had just a few inches of water which evaporated quickly. The only water left would be in the deep areas. In order to harvest more rainwater, we got BBMP to divert surface runoff from an adjacent avenue. This helped a little but with the lake remaining dry most of the year, we found it difficult to stop trespassers, poachers, children, even adults, using the basin as a playground. In order to protect the lake, we decided to augment rainwater with treated waste water from the STP at my apartment complex. This enabled us to draw water from the lake for the plants, and run an aerator fountain installed at the deepest point. With increase in the depth of water, more bird species like Spot-billed Pelicans, Indian Darters, and cormorants started visiting the lake.
The present day lake development model has transformed what were once “Village Irrigation Tanks” to “Urban Lakes”. These urban lakes have their own set of problems. How have you tackled some of them?
The biggest challenges for all water bodies are sewage inflow and encroachment. Our lake was free of sewage till 2017. When it arose, it was interlinked with the encroachment issue which made it even more difficult to resolve. To divert sewage, Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) needed to replace the existing drain pipes with a bigger one but some of the slum houses were built right above it. They had to compromise by laying that section on the water side. Sewage influx has stopped but on the pathway above the new underground drainage pipes, there are small signs of seepage. As BWSSB will be able to do a thorough job only when the houses are removed, we have been trying to get the slum dwellers rehabilitated from 2008 and had even got them alternate housing. They had rejected this because they wanted individual plots of land. We had no option but to file a writ petition in March 2021 seeking time bound direction to the authorities to rehabilitate the slum dwellers and for the sewage entry to be stopped permanently.
How have you tackled the growth of invasive weeds both inside the lake waters and outside it?
We controlled parthenium and wild castor, which used to be rampant, by uprooting them even before they flowered and by removing small shoots regularly. Likewise, for invasive aquatic weeds like the Alligator weed, Alternanthera philoxeroides. When the water quality improved, the growth rate of the weeds reduced.
PNLIT is a fine example where you have rallied support from different quarters. How did you garner the support of people or residents living around the lake and get them to come together and work for the lake?
As Jane Goodall says, “Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, we will help…” Our objective is to ultimately make the neighbourhood assume responsibility for the lake. Hence, we seek CSR grants for projects and raise donations from individual well-wishers for recurring expenses. This forces us to work hard to win and retain their goodwill. We organise various events from volunteer-based gardening sessions for the family to educational ones like photography, nature journaling workshops, storytelling and origami workshops for children. Through our apartment networks, email groups and social media we send regular updates, with photographs, about happenings at the lake, the good and the bad. We write important announcements on the exterior wall of our office which has been painted black. This came in very handy last year when visitors and regular walkers called the number written on our ‘black wall’ and complained directly to the BWSSB ward office about sewage polluting the lake.
What are the other struggles that you had to shoulder?
Our intent to nurture the lake as an avian habitat suffered a setback when the Fisheries Department auctioned it for commercial fishing. The fisherman introduced species like Carp which would get him good returns but which were not suitable for the birds. This, and the constant presence of the fishermen affected the bird population. We have requested the Fisheries Department to give us the lake on lease when the fisherman’s contract expires in June, 2022.
What biodiversity do the lake support and what steps you have taken to document the same?
A surprising range it turned out, when we began mapping the species recently. Following the advice of naturalist Dr. Kaustubh Rao, and you, Dr. S. Subramanya, a renowned ornithologist, we are documenting the data in iNaturalist. Dr. Kaustubh Rao led the first BioBlitz in July 2021 with 15 participants aged 8 to 60. Thanks to them, we realised that after ten years the Pterygota alata had started fruiting. Another of our naturalists, Mr. Satishchandra Karanth, spotted a pair of Chrysilla volupe, a rare spider species.
What steps have you taken to educate people to learn about your lake and nature?
The lake teaches us, trustees, something new each day which we share with the neighbourhood. While our events which promote environment awareness are becoming increasingly popular, the revival of the lake is in itself a big learning for all. More people have begun to realise the benefits and pure joy from the pristine environment. We are touched when they tell us how they regained balance in their lives from spending time at the lake. Last year, someone chose to release an Indian Star Tortoise at the premises knowing that we will take care of it. We did. We handed it over to the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre at Bannerghatta National Park.
Amidst all the chaos, struggles and despair, I am sure you have had your moments of joy. What are those unforgettable moments or incidents?
Way too many! Seeing a Bay-backed Shrike sitting on our bird perch, watching a Spot-billed Pelican gliding, the clusters of the Thunbergia coccinea hanging from the pergola, the Pied Kingfisher diving into the water, masses of butterflies and dragonflies flitting across my path are some. I’d also like to add seeing visitors dispose waste in the dustbins and a drastic reduction in the number of Plaster of Paris idols brought for immersion in the water-filled bins we keep specifically for this purpose. They have given way to small clay idols.
What does the future hold for Puttenahalli Puttakere and PNLIT: the way forward or the milestones that you want to see happen?
I am fortunate to have a wonderful team who will surely continue to take good care of our Puttakere when I’m no longer around. I hope when their time comes, they will be able to pass on the responsibility to the next generation of citizen trustees as good as them, or even better, to nurture our Puttenahalli Lake.
All photographs courtesy of PNLIT