Urban Water Bodies

CITIZEN’S AGENDA FOR BELLANDUR-VARTHUR CATCHMENT

Guest Blog by MS. NIRMALA GOWDA

Following the trail of Bellandur and Varthur lakes rejuvenation, we discovered the rejuvenation process of the infamous burning lake of Bengaluru to be ad-hoc , illogical and not supported by well documented data and scientific facts. We published a report, “Citizen’s Agenda for Bellandur/Varthur Catchment”, which is a critical review of the works done by the Karnataka state government based on its submissions to NGT and our own site investigations over a period of time. In-depth analysis revealed continued wanton neglect of responsibilities, eluding courts with inaccurate facts and escaping public scrutiny with non-transparent operations.   

Our analysis identified 31 agenda points on which urgent government action is needed. Some of them are summarized below:

CONTROVERSIAL ALLOCATIONS OF TREATED WASTEWATER

Treated wastewater is a precious commodity in today’s times. Envisaged utilization of treated wastewater as submitted to NGT by Justice Hedge, Chairman of NGT appointed Monitoring Committee, dated 06 Mar 2020,  using which Figure 1 has been tabulated. When the current capacities of the lakes are unknown and the monsoon run-off in specific storm water drains leading to the lakes are also unknown – On what basis did the government make the allocations of treated wastewater?  It is recommended by Justice Hegde to maintain the full water level of the lakes. In the absence of treated wastewater policy and the necessary data to make informed decisions, injudicious and controversial allocation of treated wastewater to Minor irrigation, for pumping to lakes outside of Bengaluru, can leave the Bellandur and Varthur lakes with scant or no water, turning these large lakes into small ponds.

The government must prepare treated wastewater utilization plan for Bellandur/Varthur catchment, with a very clear policy decision to use the treated waste water to maintain the lakes of Bengaluru up to its brim.

BENGALURU WATER SUPPLY AND SEWERAGE BOARD (BWSSB)

BWSSB is using Cherry picking data to show compliance to NGT. It must stop doing that.  The four MLD Madivala STP, so far excluded, must be included. Important transparency and accountability metrics like STP operating capacities, wastewater treatment efficiencies, flow levels in the storm water drains and sewer trunk lines, sewage transportation efficiencies, most of which is generated but not used, must be used for decision making and compliance monitoring.

BRUHAT BENGALURU MAHANAGARA PALIKE (BBMP)

BBMP’s epic negligence is palpable from its inability in putting simple interventions like waste and silt trapping structures in the drains. Despite being flogged from many sides – High Court, NGT, Public – it is unable to clean up solid waste in the drains and clear encroachments. Appropriate silt and waste trapping structures at regular distances as shown in Figure 6 , with daily removal and disposal of solid waste, must be immediately done in accordance with law. Solid waste and excreta, enters the drains daily but gets cleaned, when BBMP wishes, which may or may not be even once a year. BBMP’s current maintenance plan has to be reviewed, weekly maintenance plans for storm water drains has to be put in place. The storm water drains must be cleaned with a goal of maintaining them in the continuous state of ‘Zero Solid Waste’ .

KARNATAKA STATE POLLUTION CONTROL BOARD (KSPCB)

KSPCB has self-diminished its role to issuing notices and has not provided any technical or scientific reports on the nature and magnitude of pollution. The debate on hazardous nature of the slush and silt has continued for years till today while KSPCB should have put that to rest a long time ago. The report delineates the hazardous nature of the slush and silt, recommending KSPCB to put an end to that debate.

The real time monitor installed as per NGT orders show wide fluctuations in water quality parameter – Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD). This is an unequivocal indicator of frequent episodic industrial discharges. It is the mandate of KSPCB under water act to investigate these and find the sources of pollution so prevention can happen at source. Nothing has moved. It is business as usual. There is a need for speed in stopping these toxic discharges.

The nature and kind of pollutants entering the waterbodies have changed the chemistry of wastewater. New chemicals are constantly released into the environment as technological advances are made. Unfortunately, water quality monitoring has not kept pace to meet the new age chemical challenge. Emerging contaminants like Triclosan, Dioxins, Furans, PCB’s, pharmaceutical residues etc remain unaddressed.

The case is the same for the biological pathogens as well. Monitoring the waterways (storm water drains) and other waterbodies for biological pathogens like Covid-19, Cholera, Polio, Tuberculosis etc. is the need of the hour. CPCB and KSPCB have not caught up with it. This data is crucial for pollution prevention measures. In the absence of such data, pollution prevention becomes ad-hoc, uneventful, miscalculated, as is the case. The risks to bystander populations only increases because of all this.

BANGALORE DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY (BDA)

BDA’s one-time rejuvenation is a complete mess. It’s ad-hoc , piecemeal and impractical nature of work has worsened pollution of the lakebed and  resulted in infructuous expenses. Ground truthing reveals that dredged muck waiting for disposal, is dumped in mounds, rotting on the lakebed polluting the lake and creating a hazard to the people around. Until the disposal plan is finalized, the dredging must stop. In the case of NGT case O.A. 804/2017, Bellandur lake is designated as a probable contaminated site and the plan for dredging and disposal will need to follow the guidelines established under that O.A.

In terms of muck disposal, an astounding 77% of the rejuvenation cost (i.e., 131 crores) is allocated for disposal of the dredged muck to a quarry 25 kms away. A cost-benefit analysis must be done to determine if the disposal costs are justified. Perhaps desilting the drains leading to the lakes, is a better alternative.

Is it merely about one-time rejuvenation? Certainly not.

More important than the one-time rejuvenation is the lake specific maintenance policy. One of the many reasons why the lakes are in such state of neglect and pollution is because of the conspicuous absence of maintenance activities. The one-time rejuvenated lakes are falling into a state of neglect due to lack of maintenance. Maintenance plan for Bellandur, Varthur and Agara must be developed at the earliest, clearly documenting the execution of maintenance activities with proper timing and with adequate resources esp. budget.

NO END IN SIGHT POLLUTION CONTINUES UNABATED

BET has been continuously observing the activities on the ground.  The diversion channels created to bypass the wastewater entering the lake had to be breached as the floods drowned Ambedkarnagar and the KC valley STP’s.  This resulted in copious amounts of raw sewage, solid waste and wastewater entering the now dewatered lake. BDA is now pumping water from the lake, incurring infructuous expenses. This has also stalled the de-silting work.

Fire started on 19 Feb 2020 , raged for more than 4 days on the south-west end of the lake. What caught on fire were the massive mounds of solid waste on the lakebed, that was to have been cleared years ago as per the directions of Hon’ble NGT. Negligence of the responsible government bodies has resulted in (completely preventable) open burning of the waste on the lakebed that dumps copious amounts of carcinogenic dioxins and furans into the air and onto the lakebed.

CONCLUSION The government, political and public mindset is mainly focused on beautification not restoration, definitely not pollution prevention. It is ironic, because the main reason for restoration is pollution. Pollution is highly complex and inter-disciplinary in nature, which needs through investigations and research, to peel the layers. It is extensive and continuous, needs constant vigilance.

To address this behemoth, we need ‘intent’. Mainly, the intent of the government and the political class. There is none. The government is this recalcitrant child that judiciary and civil societies have to deal with today. With this uncooperative attitude, comes deliberately misdiagnosed problems and misguided solutions. With this uncooperative attitude, comes evading courts with inaccurate facts and escaping public scrutiny with opaque operations.

How can anyone have faith in public institutions and laws, when all this is happening. We feel embittered at the state of affairs and helpless, at times. But pollution doesn’t stop and citizen efforts must continue. Perseverance is key.

Our analysis has identified 31 agenda points on which government action is needed. We hope that the government sheds its slumber and gets into action. We also hope civil societies will empower themselves with the necessary data and insights presented in this document, so as to change the current discourse from beautification to restoration.

The Complete BET report can be found here.

MS. NIRMALA GOWDA (nirmalagow@gmail.com), TRUSTEE, BANGALORE ENVIRONMENT TRUST (BET)
(The author was a Software Engineer, who last worked for Novartis Pharmaceuticals in the US. Returned to India, after spending more than a decade in the US, with the intention of natural farming and working on environmental issues. She has volunteered with environmental organizations like Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy in the US and has a M.Sc. in Environmental Management from University of San Francisco. She practices natural farming and works on water pollution and livelihood related issues.)

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