How Citizens Came Together To Save Bengaluru's Puttenahalli Lake

It was serendipity that made me a lake conservationist. We shifted residence to Bengaluru in July 2006, to an apartment that overlooked an open space. Its depth and scattered puddles of water betrayed its identity as a lake. It must have once teemed with life forms, but now other than a few pond herons, what it had were mounds of construction debris and piles of trash which were invariably set on fire. The people living on the bund would push the debris further into the lake bed and raise its height. Their living space was increasing while the lake was shrinking. Ironically, the newspapers were full of reports about dying lakes, water shortage in summer and flooding during monsoon. It seemed logical that lakes needed to become catchment basins once again. They had to be saved and nurtured as reservoirs. At the very least, this little Puttenahalli Lake should not be allowed to die, we thought.

 Puttenahalli Lake before restoration in December 2009

Puttenahalli Lake before restoration in December 2009

Four of us got together to start a 'Save the Lake' campaign. We met our MLA, wrote letters and articles in the press, but nothing seemed to work. Finally Mr. Ashwin Mahesh, then a member of ABIDe, got the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) to include Puttenahalli Lake in their list of lakes to be rejuvenated. BBMP began by marking the lake boundary and fencing it off. Seeing the concrete poles being put up in August 2009 was the first sign for me that citizens can make a difference, our voices can be heard. 

Work began in earnest from February 2010. In order to inform the neighbourhood about the rejuvenation of the lake and to involve them in its maintenance,  we celebrated Earth Day in our apartment complex in April. We got to meet several people from the locality including Arathi Manay, O P Ramaswamy and Prasanna Vynatheya with whom I got together to register a Trust to oversee the maintenance of the lake - the Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust (PNLIT).

Our first activity was a tree planting event at the lake in July 2010. Many residents from South City Apartment along with others from the locality came forward to plant 125 saplings. Several of them donated money to PNLIT with which we hired a gardener and a security guard. In May 2011, we signed an MoU with the BBMP and became official custodians of the lake, the first of its kind in Bengaluru.

 Citizens planting a stake to attract birds to the lake

Citizens planting a stake to attract birds to the lake

Some of the measures we took to make Puttenahalli Lake a secure avian habitat and a rich ecological haven for the neighbourhood were:

  • Finding new sources of water. By getting BBMP to divert surface runoff from Brigade Millennium Avenue into the lake.
  • Feeding the lake with excess water from South City STP, a KSPCB pilot project.
  • Planting trees, shrubs and climbers to attract birds and butterflies.
  • Artificial perches in the water for birds.
  • Improving the quality of the water. Installing Artificial Floating Islands with free floating plants that absorb nutrients from the water and grow.
  • To monitor the quality of the water, samples are sent to the BMS College of Engineering for testing every month.
  • Taking a weekly count of birds at the lake. The number of species spotted at the lake by different birders so far is 103.
 Puttenahalli Lake after rejuvenation on February 2017

Puttenahalli Lake after rejuvenation on February 2017

On the anvil are two tasks to finish by December 2017:

  1. Rejuvenate the wetland such that it becomes easy to maintain the plants. Going by the success of our Artificial Floating Islands, we intend to install more of these platforms with different species of bio-filter plants in each.
  2. Stray dogs enter the water and attack the birds. To keep them out, we will weld a mesh at the base of the grill separating the water from the walking track.
 Artificial Floating Islands clean the lake

Artificial Floating Islands clean the lake

Setting a Trend

What began as a neighbourhood initiative in 2008 has led to the formation of over 30 citizen groups following the Puttenahalli Lake Model. This number will increase with the Government of Karnataka’s order (G.O No. FEE 99 ENV 2016 dated 19.05.2016) for the appointment of Lake Wardens from citizens to assist the Karnataka Lake Conservation and Development Authority to nurture  lakes and promote awareness among the people.

The lake being a public space open day and night, we face challenges all the time but there are a few that seem a little more difficult than others to resolve:

Slum relocation: This is the first challenge we began with in 2008. Some progress has finally been made in getting alternate housing for the residents elsewhere. Once they have been rehabilitated and the area is reclaimed, we will develop it into a proper community space.

Strengthening PNLIT team: It is a matter of great pride that donations from the neighbourhood enable PNLIT to maintain the lake to date. However, we need more residents to strengthen our team, to shoulder some of our responsibilities.

Building a corpus fund: PNLIT has been launching an annual donation drive among residents to raise money to meet our operating expenses. This is clearly not sustainable in the long run. We therefore need to build a corpus fund. With the annual collection barely meeting our target, we are not able to set aside anything for the corpus fund.

 An egret and cormorant on a perch in the lake Image: Shivu Clicks

An egret and cormorant on a perch in the lake Image: Shivu Clicks

It was a singular honour when at the PNLIT fund raiser concert on 25th February, 2017, Carnatic vocalist and Padmabhushan awardee Smt. Sudha Ragunathan rendered a lake song in Tamil specially composed by Saraswathi and set to music by the singer herself.  

PNLIT has received several awards and honours including the Prakruti Mitra Award, 2015. Instituted jointly by BNM Institute of Technology, Bangalore and Heritage, a non-profit NGO, the Namma Bengaluru Award, 2012, an initiative to thank ordinary citizens for their extraordinary contributions to the city by the Namma Bengaluru Foundation. But, the biggest award for us and indeed, for the neighbourhood will be for the Puttenahalli Lake to thrive. This can happen only if it becomes a community responsibility with people living in the vicinity coming forward to nurture it. For, to quote Dame Jane Goodall, 'The greatest danger to our future is apathy.'

Learn more about the rejuvenation of Puttenhalli Lake here.

Usha Rajagopalan is a writer by choice and conservationist by chance. She is the author of three novels and a collection of short stories. She has also translated two volumes of Subramania Bharati’s poetry into English and edited a writer’s manual. She led the campaign for the restoration of Puttenahalli Lake which she now nurtures with volunteers and her friends at PNLIT.