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The Kaikondrahalli lake initiative

Dr Harini Nagendra, Adjunct Fellow, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore, and Asia Research Coordinator, Centre for the Study of Institutions and Environmental Change, Indiana University, Bloomington, talks to Rohan D’Souza about Bangalore’s tank system and a unique community-based initiative to maintain Kaikondrahalli tank located south of the city

The tank system in Bangalore is formed by a network of small and large check-dams, originally charged by rainwater and used for irrigation, drinking and domestic purposes. This network of tanks was linked through a web of canals, connected to the surrounding agricultural wetlands. There were numerous small and medium seasonal tanks, and a few large perennial tanks which collected water from the smaller tanks. Since most lakes were seasonal, and pollution levels low, siltation was easy to control; the silt was extracted every few years. The wetland agricultural grazing orchard landscape surrounding the lake acted as a natural watershed basin, recharging the lake with fresh water. During the rains, the water overflowed into adjacent agricultural lands; during the dry season, cattle grazed on these wetlands which were largely designated as gomala or common property wetlands where community grazing took place.

The lakes supported activities such as fishing, and constituted important sacred spaces for local communities, acting as sites for important religious festivals, temples, and idol immersion at specific times of the year. Some lakes, like Agara lake, have inscriptions that document their maintenance as far back as several centuries. The lakes also formed important green spaces and lung spaces in the city, supporting a rich diversity of birds, insects and wildlife.

With urbanisation, much of the landscape around the lakes has been covered by impervious surfaces. A number of lakes were converted to urban land use, and most of the connecting canals encroached upon. Instead of rainwater, sewage and effluents fill the lakes, changing them from seasonal to perennial ecosystems and drastically altering their biodiversity. In low-rainfall years, the lakes are dry and choked with sewage; in high-rainfall years they overflow into blocked canals causing floods in the city.

There has also been a change in lake management and administration, from lakes managed by village communities living in their vicinity to formal governance structures imposed by city municipal authorities. This abruptly disengaged and alienated local communities whose lives were intertwined with the lake for generations.

Bangalore’s lakes have changed considerably over the past few decades, transforming from community-managed spaces used primarily for livelihood activities to urban ecosystems managed and governed by the state, largely for purposes of conservation and urban recreation.

In recent years there have been efforts to implement the public-private-partnership approach to lake management. The attempt to enclose and privatise common spaces was an extremely controversial one and was met with widespread resistance from civil society, environmentalists and activist groups, resulting in several public interest litigations that halted the move. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) and the Bangalore Development Authority have taken over management of most of the city’s lakes.

Kaikondrahalli lake and the maintenance initiative

Kaikondrahalli lake is a unique example where a range of citizens including original inhabitants of villages around the lake and resident welfare associations from wealthier apartment complexes have worked with the BBMP to design an ecologically meaningful, socially sustainable lake-restoration programme. The lake has been excellently restored, with clean water flowing in and over 1,000 trees planted. Around 37 bird species, including migrant birds, have been spotted at the lake.

Kaikondrahalli lake was restored using a socially inclusive model. Provision was made for local residents to wash cattle, and a play area and facilities are being planned in such a way that they can be used by visitors to the lake as well as schoolchildren at a nearby low-income government-aided school.

Challenges in implementing the scheme

The approach was an extremely challenging one, and took time to implement. In Kaikondrahalli lake, it worked because of the dedication of a few talented and committed individuals. Also, sustained efforts were made to engage with the administrative and political setup. One of the biggest challenges in the urban context is getting diverse groups of people together, getting them to talk to and listen to each other, and working to solve common problems. Citizens’ groups, resident welfare associations, organisations working with vulnerable sections of society, corporate groups, activist groups, green organisations, political organisations, educational institutions, government agencies -- all have very different ideologies, agendas, and issues that they consider important. Also, in a busy city, people do not have much time to devote to common challenges. But when they do come together, a strong sense of community is built and a lot can be achieved.

The role of academicians in supporting initiatives to protect and preserve the commons

Academicians can learn a lot about the practical and theoretical aspects of making the commons work, by simply getting involved. They can also provide significant inputs to management practices by ensuring that simple yet critical principles associated with successful and enduring commons -- such as monitoring to ensure there are no free riders or abusers of the system -- are incorporated into the design of commons governance systems. Another area where academicians could play an important role is ensuring that there is reliable information on the state of natural resources and the system. Often, people who manage natural resources lack information that helps them reliably assess the state of the system and gauge whether they can continue to harvest resources or whether further protection is required. Academicians should work with communities to provide this information, and help train communities to do their own monitoring. Of course this works both ways: local communities use subtle yet important clues as a guide to the condition of the resource; academicians can learn a lot from these traditional ways of assessment. Finally, academicians need to take up the role of advocates in talking more widely to policymakers, administrators, educationists, students and the wider public, to spread awareness on the ability of local communities to govern common resources well, and sustainably. Despite increasing recognition of this, following Elinor Ostrom’s 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for work on governance of the commons, governments and policymakers still do not have an adequate appreciation of the issue. Academicians can and must play a bigger role in increasing this awareness.

Infochange News & Features, March 2011