(Download the pdf version of this report here)
A webinar on Lake Conservation was conducted by ESG on 20th December 2022. This session was mainly organised to benefit activists, researchers, public officials and also concerned citizens to explain how to use judicial orders, government orders and various other laws relating to lakes for the protection, conservation and rehabilitation of tank/lakes, ponds, raja kaluves, and such other water commons.
Bhargavi S. Rao, a Senior Fellow and Trustee at Environment Support Group (ESG), began the session by shedding some light on ESG’s campaigns related to lakes and also contextualised the events that led to ESG’s PIL in 2008. She highlighted that all lakes in southern India are built, thus are not natural. The lack of naturally existing lakes in the region encouraged local people to create such lakes, and with great effort and understanding of the local ecosystem. Lakes are vital not only for their natural beauty and aesthetics, but also for sustaining a plethora of livelihoods.
Initially in Karnataka, lakes were being managed and protected by a multitude of agencies, including the Minor Irrigation Department, Forest Department, etc. However, in July 2002, the Lake Development Authority (LDA) was set up and their first step was to lease out lakes (Nagavara, Hebbal, Agara, Vengaihnakere) to corporate companies, who then built restaurants, theme parks and hotels, making the commoner pay to access it while making it inaccessible to those whose livelihoods depended on the lake.
ESG and other activists worked tirelessly to warn people about the threat of privatisation, which is detrimental for citizens, traditional livelihoods associated with it, as well as wild flora and fauna, particularly migratory birds. Their effort to reach out to the LDA was in vain, and were thus constrained to mobilise the common people to fight for this cause. “Government is the custodian of the commons, not the owner” was the important message that was used to remind the public of their legal rights. Candlelight vigils were held, human chains were created around lakes, and several campaigns were organised to spread awareness. Even after all these public events, the LDA failed to budge, which is when ESG eventually filed a PIL in the High Court of Karnataka challenging the legality of lake privatisation and also seeking a direction to the State to evolve a scheme to protect and rehabilitate all lakes and such other water commons in ecologically wise and socially inclusive ways (WP 817/2008).
Bhargavi concluded that PIL resulted in a detailed order on 11th April 2012, which included directions to the State to constitute District/Municipal level Lake Protection Committees to assist communities in rehabilitating lakes and also resolve any disputes that arose. Besides, the Court incorporated in its final orders the guidelines of Justice N K Patil Committee which submitted two reports: one proposing comprehensive guidelines for lake protection and rehabilitation, and the second on why the policy of privatisation of lakes should not be persisted with. (Justice Patil, then a Judge of the Court and Chairman of the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority, had been invited by the Court to evolve such recommendations). She highlighted that ESG’s submissions to the Justice Patil Committee were received very positively and incorporated in the recommendatory report.
Leo Saldanha of ESG then explored typical reasons for the poor state of lakes as well as kaluves in Karnataka today: they are widely encroached and severely polluted. The encroachments are particularly high from real estate developers in urbanised contexts, and the pollution is from cities and towns, and includes industrial effluents. It is no wonder, therefore, he said, that lakes are at risk of catching fire due to chemical flows and buildup of methane. He emphasised how essential it is to make communities care about their commons and collectively act to protect it.
For restoration of lakes, he explained that watersheds should not be disturbed as far as possible, canals must not be encroached, and that lakes must receive an uninterrupted flow of clear and clean surface and groundwater flows. But since most watersheds are heavily disturbed, it is critical that canals must be rehabilitated and receive clear waters if lakes have to survive. Ingenious traditional structures and techniques that have perfected water collection must guide this effort. He reinforced that building of walking paths and parks inside lakes are a sure way of destroying their environmental health and reducing their water holding capacities. The lakes are best surrounded by endemic vegetative patches. Lake foreshores must also be gently sloping to ensure there is water flows from all around, that the vegetative patches serve to filter out muck and silt, will serving as niche spaces for waterfowl. In fact, the abundance and diversity of flora and fauna is the best eco-indicator of toxics-free water.
He further discussed how the gains from previous litigations can be operationalised in protecting lakes. The court set up various committees at different jurisdictional levels to entertain complaints such as the Municipal/District Lake Protection Committee and an Apex Committee headed by the Revenue Secretary to review functioning of District/Municipal Committees, and also help resolve disputes not attended at lower levels. Additionally, a Lake Warden can also be appointed to ensure public oversight. A significant outcome of ESG’s PIL efforts was that all minor water bodies would now be governed by local bodies with oversight from the Karnataka Tank Conservation and Development Authority, established as a consequence of a law passed as an outcome of the case. ESG has also worked through the PIL of Citizen Action Group (WP 38401/2014) with several significant outcomes. The Court in one of its recent orders in this case has ensured that designated officers are appointed for each and every lake across the state.
While concluding, he clarified that lakes do not need to be filled with water at all times to be considered as a lake under statute and executive orders. It has been made abundantly clear, including by a special order, that lakes that are dry and don’t receive water for several years, must continue to remain without encroachment and pollution, that they should not be diverted for any other purpose, and they shall remain well maintained to serve as buffers during floods. Most critically, he emphasised, lakes can only be protected if the network of kaluves are also rehabilitated and protected from encroachment and pollution. He invited the participants to imagine the quality of Bangalore, for instance, if all lakes and raja kaluves (about 840 kms of kaluves in Bangalore) were so rehabilitated and governed with local community action in collaboration with local governments, ensuring that all lakes are accessible to all, as Dr. Ambedkar demonstrated by drinking water from the Chowdar Lake as part of the Mahad Sathyagraha in 1927, despite resistance from upper castes to him touching the tank water – as he was a Dalit.
Amrita Menon, an ecologist associated with ESG, explained how maps can be useful while trying to understand a lake ecosystem and its transformation over time. She shared examples of several open-source resources that could be accessed to collect aerial views of lakes including Revenue Maps, Google Earth, Dishank mobile app, BBMP’s Raja Kaluve maps, EMPRI Reports, Bhuvan website and Survey of India topographical maps. She threw light on software (QGIS and Locus map) that could be used to overlay maps and identify potential threats and disturbances – a significant resource in empowering citizen action to protect and rehabilitate lakes ground up.
During the interactive Q&A session, participants raised concerns about their neighbourhood lakes and the roadblocks they were facing. Leo explained how one can write to relevant Panchayat Development Officers, Tahsildhar, Designated Officers and Zonal Officers (in case of BBMP or such other cities) to establish jurisdiction for follow up action. Leo suggested referring to relevant court orders which have ensured an in-depth procedure to ascertain the legal status of lakes and also the agencies responsible for them.
Further, a participant raised an issue of disparity between the survey record and on-site demarcations for which Leo said that any individual can now reach out to the Amicus curiae who has been appointed in WP 38401/2014 and seek his help. A representation letter was shown to depict how the matter can be written, marking it to all relevant authorities.
The last query was to understand a preferred approach to protect lakes: a resource-driven approach or legal approach. Bhargavi suggested that it is helpful to rely on the court orders, the laws, and the lake committees, utilising a resource driven approach. In effect, it is really situational, the remedy. But the objective must be to ensure lakes and kaluves, and such other water commons are all rehabilitated to protect present and future generations from the exigencies of climate change impacts.
[This report was prepared by Kirthana Shivakumar, a law student from Maharashtra National Law University Mumbai interning at ESG]
 High Court of Karnataka at Bangalore, Environment Support Groups and Ors. v. State of Karnataka and Ors., W.P. No. 817/2008, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/esgwritpetition
 Committee constituted by the Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka to examine the ground realities and prepare an Action Plan for preservation of lakes in the city of Bangalore (N.K. Patil Committee), Preservation of Lakes in City of Bangalore, 26th February 2011, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/nkpatilreport
 Committee appointed by Hon’ble High Court in W.P. No. 817/2008 (PIL) and connected cases, Private Participation in the process of rejuvenation of lakes & tanks in & around the City of Bangalore, 10th October, 2011, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/privateparticipationreport
 Leo F. Saldanha, Submission of wise use practices for the protection, management and rehabilitation of lakes in Karnataka with special emphasis on Bangalore and other urban areas, February 2011, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/bestlakepractices
 Government of Karnataka, Orders of the Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka on 15.06.2021 in W.P. No.817/2008, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/gov-order
 Government of Karnataka, Constitution of an Apex Committee at State Level to oversee and supervise the maintenance and development of lakes/tanks, 18th December, 2013, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/apex-committee
 Karnataka Tank Conservation & Development Authority, Government of India, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/tank-conservation
 Parliamentary Affairs Secretariat, Karnataka Tank Conservation & Development Authority Act, 2014, Amended in 2018, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/KTCDA-Act
 Karnataka Lake Conservation and Development Authority, Designated Officers for lakes under minor irrigation, 6th August 2022, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/designated-officer
 Changdeo Khairmode, Rameshchandra Sirkar, Dr. Ambedkar’s Speech at Mahad, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/Ambedkar-speech
 Karnataka Land Records, Revenue Maps Online, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/land-records
 Google, Google Earth, 11th June 2001, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/Google-earth-map
 Government of Karnataka, Dishank Mobile App, Survey Settlement and Land Records, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/Dishank-app
 Maps Bangalore, BBMP Raja Kaulve Map, August 2014, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/bbmpmap
 Environmental Management and Policy Research Institute, EMPRI Annual Reports, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/emprimap
 Bhuvan: Indian Geo-Platform of ISRO, Maps & OGC Services, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/bhuvan-maps
 Survey of India, Ministry of Science & Technology, OnlineMaps Portal, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/survey-of-india-map
 Karnataka Act No. 25 of 2011, The Karnataka Ground Water (Regulation and Control of Development and Management) Act, 2011, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/karnataka-water-acts; Parliamentary Affairs Secretariat, The Karnataka Lake Conservation and Development Authority Act, 2014, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/karnataka-water-acts; Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2016, 31st March 2016, Available at: https://tinyurl.com/karnataka-water-acts
 High Court of Karnataka, Order Appointing Amicus Curiae, 22nd December, 2022, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/Amicus-curiae
 High Court of Karnataka in Bangalore, Citizen Action Group v. State of Karnataka and Ors., W.P. No. 38401/2014, Available at : https://tinyurl.com/citizen-petition