Nearly a century ago, no farmer in Bengaluru would give his daughter in marriage to a boy who didn’t have a lake in his village. Tanks and wells built by the common people were for the community and travellers. This transition from waterbodies being integral to the life and people, to becoming a singular flow in a tap in an individual household has meant many things. With a looming water crisis, it’s important to note how these ancient public spaces were lost, forgotten, and remembered by people once again.
Tanks and lakes that met the water needs of the locals had to make way for piped water infrastructure, making them the privilege of a few. Urbanisation did its bit to worsen ground water levels. While our cities have master plans, they don’t have competent water plans. “We’ve forgotten what’s below our feet. Aquifers and wells have been feeding us for years. But, today, sewage enters these waterbodies and they’re closed and converted into land. So, we need to find public spaces for recharging them. One such experiment was in Cubbon Park in Bengaluru last year. With India Cares Foundation and Friends of Lakes, an environmental group, and traditional well-diggers, we helped revive seven existing wells on the premises,” says rainwater-harvesting expert S Vishwanath. With the focus on planting, ponds were revived and rainwater trenches created. While this led to people’s participation, its criticism has been that it has excluded the lesser-privileged locals from entering the park.
However, this experiment in Cubbon Park, was initiated by a change in the two-centuries-old Jakkur Lake, Bengaluru, which flows downstream into Rachenahalli Lake. By constructing wetlands and managing sewage flow, Jakkur Lake has become a community space for livelihood, recreation, learning and ecology. “It’s rearranged the way we interact with the space. The grass that grows in the periphery feeds cows, fishermen cooperatives come here to fish, and vegetables and herbs feed local villagers,” says Vishwanath.
“By building basements, we have cut off our connect with our waterbodies and aquifers. Delhi’s Agrasen ki Baoli will always be dry because of the underground Delhi Metro construction. The water crisis in the country points to our dissociation with water and rain. Catchment areas in sensitive zones such as Kabini and Wayanad need to be protected,” says Vishwanath.
With the “One Million Wells” project for his city, Vishwanath, Advisor, Biome Environmental Trust, says, “These water bodies are becoming the new public spaces. It’s building new communities of joggers, birders, and ecologists. There are examples of wetland revival in Delhi and East Kolkata, stepwells are being revived in Jodhpur, and youngsters are stepping forward to clean up tanks and lakes in Salem and Mumbai’s beaches. Water is our natural heritage and we should, collectively as a community, find ways to revive it.”
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline: Building Blocks: Reclaiming Water Bodies