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Blaming ghosts of the past not productive in protecting Bengaluru lakes: Expert

A postdoctoral research associate at the Urban Institute, The University of Sheffield and a visiting faculty at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, Dr Hita Unnikrishnan has worked extensively on the lakes of Bengaluru, particularly from a historical perspective.

Dr. Hita Unnikrishnan

In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) quoted Dr Hita Unnikrishnan’s research and mentioned that urban development has taken a toll on the water tanks in Bengaluru which were managed traditionally by communities. A postdoctoral research associate at the Urban Institute, The University of Sheffield and a visiting faculty at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, Unnikrishnan has worked extensively on the lakes of Bengaluru, particularly from a historical perspective.

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For her work on Bengaluru, she has previously been awarded a British Academy funded Newton International Fellowship in 2018 and The Prof Elinor Ostrom Fellowship for Policy and Practice on the Commons in 2013. In an interaction with The Indian Express, she talks about the way forward.

Q: What is the historical significance of lakes in Bengaluru?

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The city of Bengaluru is both without a major river flowing through it and lies in a rain shadow. This means that the city is naturally semi-arid and very prone to having water shortages. However, as history tells us, the city has been in continuous occupation from prehistoric times. This is only possible if the water scarcity issue within the city was addressed in some way. That is where the lakes come in – none of the lakes are natural within the city. They are all part of an impressive feat of historical geo-engineering.

The natural elevation of the city as well as its undulating terrain provided the base for creating a series of rain fed reservoirs, connected to each other by channels – the rajakaluves. A system of flowing water was thus created where water from one lake would overflow via these rajakaluves into the next one across the elevation gradient, at the same time recharging shallow aquifers associated with them.

Because these lakes were seasonal and would dry up during the summer, these shallow aquifers were also tapped into through open wells, thus creating year-round supplies of water that enabled the flourishing of agrarian settlements and thus the growth of the early city. These lakes continued to provide water to the city for domestic, agricultural, and industrial purposes even into the colonial period until the city started getting water through long-distance transfers in the late nineteenth century.

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Q: How well managed were these lakes in the precolonial period?

We get some insights into the precolonial system of lake management through reading stone inscriptions that have been placed at various sites of significance to the communities that once lived there. Lakes in precolonial times seemed to have been owned by local rulers or chieftains who would then gift the water body and land adjoining it to communities in return for some service rendered – this could be victory in battle, or to establish places of learning etc.

Typically, the land around the lakes would consist of multiple villages, each of which would cooperate towards daily maintenance, use and access to the water body. Each village would thus have a neerganti or a water man who would operate the lake’s sluice gates in such a way as to deliver adequate amounts of water for agriculture. He would be compensated through a share in the produce from these farms.

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Other people, such as the village headman, village crier, accountant etc all had important roles in the management of the water body. Desilting, reinforcing the bunds, etc were often tasks enforced upon prisoners as a part of community service arrangements. Collected silt would then be used to make idols of deities or other forms of pottery. Villages would come together to celebrate the lake filling up and overflowing into the channels through annual festivals involving lighting lamps, animal sacrifices, and feasting. The bed of lakes was often used for cultivation of crops in drier months of the year. In a sense, pre-colonial lakes were managed through a bottom-up approach, was community based and very much driven by local occupations, dependencies, and requirements.

As nostalgic as these descriptions may seem, this is not to say that such management was in any way egalitarian or equitable. Caste hierarchies were very much in place dictating who could or could not access the lake or its associated wells. Similarly, inception stories of individual lakes often have an element of sacrifice – usually of pregnant women or children – associated with them.

Q: What changed in the postcolonial period?

The colonial period, beginning 1799, in the city after the fall of Tipu Sultan brought with it some big and complex changes. One of course was the partition of the city into the Cantonment and the Pete in 1885 which divided the city into two distinctive regions – an anglicised portion (with bungalows, boulevards, and gardens – the aesthetically developed city) and a native industrial one (agriculture, horticulture, and other livelihood dependencies on water still thrived in this region).

The second change was more to do with perceptions about water. The city was grappling with epidemics in the form of cholera and plague in the colonial period. Experiences with these diseases began to slowly encourage the idea that large open water bodies might in fact not be the best form of water delivery infrastructure in the city. Several lakes such as the Millers Tanks were covered up during this period, as were many open wells.

Electricity had reached Bengaluru at this point and with it the potential of harnessing electrical power to pump water across long distances. Urban planning began to greatly involve engineers – for example Sir M Visveswaraya, through projects such as big dams and of course large networks of pipes that would supply water directly to households – a system deemed safer and more hygienic than open tanks.

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Dependencies on lakes as sources of water decreased, thus changing perceptions about their utility. Lakes now began to be seen and valued for their aesthetic qualities – a place to rest, walk, or enjoy the sunset. This focus on aesthetics remains even today – the umpteen advertisements of lake front real estate stand testimony to it.

The third big change that occurred in the colonial period was the shift from bottom up and community-driven approaches to lake management to centralised and state-owned mechanisms that further alienated people from the resource that they once co-managed. This change also meant that lakes which fell into disuse could be easily reappropriated into other forms of public infrastructure – thus the wholesale conversion of lakes into bus stations or sports stadiums or residential layouts.

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Q: Should we blame the colonial legacy which we inherited for the mismanagement of lakes in Bengaluru?

The colonial period did bring in several changes in water management in Bengaluru, many of which we inherited post-independence. These include the piped water infrastructure, a continued focus on the aesthetics of a resource, large scale technological solutions (such as long-distance water transfers) and associated marginalisation of livelihoods and dependencies that do not conform to that vision of the urban we have created. Yet at the same time, newer forms of urban marginalities are constantly being created around lakes that are more reflective of changing times.

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For example, urban migrants who settle around lakes and are part of the construction industry. Or the people who come in with their livestock into the city because of drought elsewhere in the state and who continue to be marginalised as the city prioritises aesthetics or technocracies.

So, while yes, the colonial history of water management in Bengaluru certainly has played a significant role in this scenario, I am not sure that blaming only the ghosts of the past without taking responsibility for the present is neither right nor productive while moving forward. As someone told me recently, the past is not a window into the future – it merely provides useful instruction on the consequences of actions we have taken and should best be interpreted as such.

Q: There are several lakes which have been encroached or are sewage-fed. What is the way forward to reduce Bengaluru’s dependence on piped water?

The keyword here is reduce. I doubt (and perhaps hydrologists can correct me here) that we will be able to completely withdraw our dependence on piped water. However, rejuvenating our water bodies in ways that are socially just and ecologically sound could bring several benefits. It could provide a secondary source of water to the city, could recharge the shallow aquifers and thus some of the wells that drew from them.

Perhaps more energy could be devoted into local capacity building using traditional ecological knowledge as opposed to big ambitious, yet ecological and socially flawed schemes such as river water diversion – particularly with the objective of feeding the needs of large cities such as Bengaluru.

Q: Recently, hundred-year-old wells were rejuvenated in Cubbon Park. Should we go back to the open well system?

That is a fantastic initiative and each time I visit the Cubbon Park, I take great pleasure in peeking down those wells. We – Harini Nagendra and I — along with another colleague, had done a study of open wells. We looked at changes in distribution of these wells over time between 1885 and 2014. We found that while there were over 1,886 wells in 1885, the number had come down to about 49 wells within the jurisdiction of colonial Bengaluru – the central part of the city.

Many of these were derelict. The ones that were used served low-income communities, temples, dhobi ghats, or were secondary water sources for houses. The point being that there are wells, but not too many have survived. Not to mention the decreasing availability of land in the city to build new ones. “Going back” therefore seems to me a farfetched option – what we can do however is restore and rejuvenate the ones that do exist – both lakes and wells – such that they can act as secondary sources of water where applicable.

Q: Is there any change which the government should bring in as far as protecting the water bodies are concerned?

I would love to see a model of lake governance that relies less on enclosures and keeping people out and instead focuses on inclusivity and the idea of common resources. Lesser emphasis on the aesthetics of the water body and more on local contexts and ecologies would also be highly welcome.

First published on: 05-03-2022 at 15:08 IST
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