he decision to lease 26 lakes in and around
Bangalore to private operators has provoked a
flurry of protests, reports SHRUTHI JAGANNATH
THIRTY RUPEES to visit the Nagawara
Lake in Bangalore, and no guarantee that you will see a single bird. If
disappointment wells up, wash it back with a glass of something cold at the Café Coffee Day outlet, the star attraction of the new concrete paving that rims the lake. And, under the shade of a plastic tree that has sprouted nearby, you can pay to let your child play. If even that isn’t enough, a few rupees more can get you a ride on a water scooter or a motorboat. Welcome to Lumbini Gardens, at what once was Nagawara Lake.
For Bangalore’s Lake Development Authority (LDA), this is only the first step in its plans to similarly transform 25 other lakes in and around the city. It has already leased out three — Agara Lake, Hebbal Lake and Venkayanakere Lake — for an initial period of 15 years to private companies such as Biota Natural Systems, East India Hotels (the parent company of the Oberoi group) and ParC. The agreements, signed under
the public-private partnership (PPP) model, require the private entities to undertake desilting operations, diversion of sewage water and other processes required for the maintenance of the lakes. In return, the companies are allowed to set up kiosks, jetties, play areas, gift shops and eateries, and to make arrangements for water sports, boating, sport fishing etc. The LDA also grants
them the right to charge an entry fee.
The move has met with fierce opposition from the city’s environmental and citizens’ groups. Says Leo Saldanha of Environment Support Group (ESG), an NGO spearheading the protests, “We have Supreme Court guidelines which unambiguously state that spaces belonging to the public should remain with the public. Bangalore’s lakes clearly fall within the definition of common property, with the public having customary rights of use over them. The leases granted to private companies are then directly in contravention of the SC guidelines.”
ESG has filed a public interest litigation this January, challenging the validity of the leases. Their argument gains ground with a closer look at the LDA itself. Formed in July 2002, the LDA is a registered society and not a government agency, even though it was created following a government order. An autonomous body for conserving natural and man-made lakes in Karnataka, the LDA however has no jurisdiction to grant leases to private operators.
YET ANOTHER issue that protestors have raised is the denial of ordinary people’s rights when public spaces are commercialised. “There is a certain class privilege attached to the idea that only those who can pay can access the lakes,” says Rohan D’Souza, a campaigner with Hasiru Usiru, a citizens’ group involved with the campaign. “For years
before the commercialisation of Hebbal Lake, the local fishing communities fished there under licence from the Fisheries Department. All that stands cancelled now — they are denied access to lakes leased under the PPP model and their rights receive no recognition at all.” At the Nagawara Lake, fishing communities are allowed access to demarcated areas of the lake from 3 to 7 am.
Livelihood fishing is bound to be threatened since commercial activity is bound to destroy the ecology of the lakes. With this, the Karnataka State Forest Department concurs. In a status report filed with the High Court of Karnataka, the forest department has explicitly
recommended that the lakes be declared “nature or bird preserves”. Acknowledging the dependence of fishing communities and others on the lakes, the report argues for all yet-tobe- developed lakes to be preserved as “shining examples of ecologically wise integration of civic interest and biodiversity”. The report also takes a clear stand against commercial activities at such locations, recommending against the introduction of food courts, water sport facilities and other structural innovations, including artificial lighting. It, however, suggests charging a minimal entry fee towards meeting costs of maintenance.
At this point of time, the LDA is far from strapped for cash. In 1998, the state government had applied for and obtained grants from the Norwegian government to restore the city’s lakes. Under this programme, weeds were removed and the lakes were desilted and cleaned at huge costs. It took Rs 2.7 crore to restore Hebbal Lake, the Nagawara Lake cost Rs 5.19 crore while the Venkayanakere Lake was restored at a cost of Rs 2.55 crore. And yet the lake privatisation programme is presented as one that is essential if the lakes are to be managed and maintained.
Ask the CEO of the LDA, CS Vedant, about the organisation’s financial situation and he clarifies, “Under the National Lake Conservation Programme, the project proposals of the
LDA are appraised and funds are granted by the Central and state governments upon approval. So far, the LDA has received Rs 52 crore for the revival and rejuvenation of 14 lakes.” Clearly money is not the reason for the lakes being leased out. Says Vedant, “The LDA does not have adequate staff to manage the lakes. Also, it is
government policy not to create too many permanent jobs, as it would increase its expenditure. Hence, we have to find other means to get things done. The leases are one such way.”
There are problems with this argument, though. The private operators chosen have no expertise in lake management at all. As D’Souza points out, Lumbini Gardens, the leasee of Nagawara Lake, is a real estate group while the East India Hotels group is in the hospitality
industry. Their incompetence in lake conservation is already on display. At Hebbal
Lake, the dredging and removal of vegetation has permanently destroyed the wildlife habitat — a fact that is confirmed by the Forest Department in their June 2008 status report. Officials from Lumbini Gardens were not available for comment, while LDA CEO Vedant unceremoniously called the interview to a halt when questioned on the report.
Apart from inappropriate selection of private operators, there are more questions that remain to be asked. Has the LDA decision to privatise Bangalore’s lakes been taken in coordination with government agencies? Besides the Forest Department’s report condemning the proposal, the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) has identified the Nagawara
and the Venkayanakere lakes as sources of potable water for the city. To this end, the BWSSB is considering removing food courts from these sites, and putting a stop to boating activities there, so as to prevent pollution.
ESG has filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Karnataka High Court challenging the leasing of the lakes to private operators, which is now being heard. The question of privatising Bangalore’s lakes is only one part of a larger debate about rights to common property resources. In 2002, the Karnataka Industrial Areas Development Board forcibly acquired land from farmers around the Bellandur Lake in Bangalore to hand
over to Infosys. What was clearly private land was moved into the public resource category in order to be leased out to a private corporation. What really is different in the LDA’s decision to now lease entire lakes to private operators? Not
very much, it would appear. •