Unveiling Professor Bhat's Sarakki Lake transformation

In 2011, spurred by community concern, two tech professionals joined me to inspect Sarakki Lake’s deteriorating state. This encounter propelled our mission to restore this once-pristine water body in Bengaluru. Forming the Sarakki Lake Area Improvement Trust (SLAIT), we initiated a transformative journey, engaging civic bodies, and fostering citizen collaboration.

This step-by-step guide outlines our rigorous efforts and crucial insights gained from navigating legal battles, redirecting sewage flow, and rebuilding the lake’s ecological balance.

Background: On a Sunday in November 2011, two young IT professionals, long-term residents near Sarakki Lake since the early 2000s, reached out to me. Their request: a reconnaissance mission around our neighbourhood lake. Aware of my role as President of Brigade Millennium RWA, they sought my guidance. Together, we ventured to the lake’s northeast corner behind Satya Ganapathi Temple. Their fervour to restore the lake’s pristine state mirrored my own dismay at its degradation—transformed into a cesspool for sewage, a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and a dumping site for construction waste from burgeoning layouts. As a senior citizen and a professor associated with rejuvenating Hussain Sagar Lake in Hyderabad in the 1980s, their enthusiasm sparked a collective determination. The tragic incident involving two young children drowning in the lake weeks earlier amplified our resolve to address the arduous challenges ahead.

Step 1: Bringing together like-minded individuals

Organising a group of like-minded individuals from the neighbourhood was our initial objective. Leveraging my role as the President of a Residents Welfare Association (RWA) and having set up an engaged senior citizen forum, I began discussing the matter with residents living in proximity to the lake. The response was spontaneous and encouraging. Consequently, we transitioned from an informal group to establish a formal Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) christened Sarakki Lake Area Improvement Trust (SLAIT). This nonprofit voluntary organisation was registered with the purpose of spearheading the tasks of Protecting, Restoring, and Preserving the lake, ensuring it serves the collective interests of the community.

  • Things to keep in mind while forming a Trust: The best practice we adopted involved establishing the Trust with members who were apolitical, shared common interests, and constituted a diverse yet harmonious group. We formed a board of 8 Trustees, each bringing extensive expertise in various domains such as Public Administration, Public Policy, Legal Affairs, Finance, Engineering, Geohydrology, Limnology, Wildlife, and IT. These individuals were highly regarded in their respective fields, spanning ages from 35 to 75 years, collectively contributing to the breadth of our initiatives.

Step 2: Getting to know your lake

Next, we embarked on a ‘Know Your Lake’ initiative, refining our short-term and long-term objectives to achieve our vision of restoring the lake and welcoming back 1000 birds, known as ‘Savira Hakki’ or Sarakki by the British. Each Trustee shouldered specific responsibilities, and I volunteered as the coordinator. SLAIT took on the role of a facilitator, working alongside various public agencies, acting as a watchdog to prevent misconduct, and functioning as a social entrepreneur to initiate necessary actions.

Findings from ‘Know Your Lake: During our exploration in the ‘Know Your Lake’ initiative, we uncovered significant findings about Sarakki Lake.

  • Sarakki Lake, situated at the apex of the K C Valley, spans five agricultural villages and originally covered an area of 82.50 acres
  • Encroachment by land developers, inflow of sewage from a 6-square-kilometre catchment, and consistent dumping of construction and demolition waste were identified as major contributors to the lake’s degradation
  • Recognising these factors as crucial, it became evident that rejuvenation efforts would remain futile without addressing these pressing issues.
  • Civic agencies such as KFD, LDA, BBMP, BDA, and BBMP lacked consistent custodianship, leading to a state of affairs where no entity was accountable for the lake’s sorry condition
  • Rapid urbanisation over a decade caused a seismic shift in the area’s geodemographic character, escalating the population from roughly 2500 to over 2 lakh residents
  • These findings formed the cornerstone for a comprehensive and sustainable rejuvenation plan spanning the next 5-6 years, moving away from arbitrary assumptions to a holistic approach

Step 3: Formulating an actionable plan

Starting from the assessment of these challenges, the transferable experience involves formulating an actionable plan that adopts a win-win strategy with civic agencies, beginning in 2013. This format and process hold immense transferable value.Here are the steps followed based on the plan:

  1. The land area of the lake was surveyed by persuading the highest authority, Commissioner SS&LR, and getting it authenticated. The survey revealed over 200 minor and major encroachments on lake land. Despite attempts to resolve this informally, we filed a PIL in the HC, a legal process that took over 6 months. Eventually, over 200 encroachments were removed under judicial direction in a landmark operation by the DC in 2015. This unbiased and fearless action by the trustees set a trend in Bangalore.
  2. Concurrently, while clearing the lake land, we engaged with BWSSB to halt and divert the flow of untreated sewage. This involved planning and laying trunk sewage lines around the lake, redirecting sewage downstream by setting up a pumping station. This process took almost 3 years and required about Rs 20 crores grant money under the 4A Scheme.
  3. Anticipating the lake drying up due to scanty stormwater unless treated water flowed in, we recommended BWSSB to establish a 5 MLD STP. This initiative, beginning in 2016 and commissioned in Oct 2019, involved releasing treated water into the lake, costing Rs 20 crores.
  4. Subsequently, the lake’s custodianship transferred to BBMP from BDA. Core civil works were executed, including chain link fencing to secure the lake boundary, installing silt traps, sedimentation tanks in wetlands, and strengthening lake bunds. Deweeding and draining pollutant sewage after rains in 2018 were part of this effort.
  5. Over 4 months, during nights between 9 pm-6 am, we desilted approximately 3 million cu ft of debris, sludge, sand, and silt. This involved employing 50 tippers and 10 earthmoving equipment, disposing of the waste in landfills 25 km away. The lake was dredged dry till it reached its optimum storage capacity based on a bathymetric survey, restoring a maximum depth of 5.6 metres. Engineering students from PES and Dayanand Sagar colleges actively participated in the survey work.
  6. With these operations completed, the stage was set to release treated water from the newly commissioned STP to fill the lake in Oct 2019.

Step 4: Spearheading ecological rejuvenation

Reengineering the ecological rejuvenation of the lake was a pioneering step in which SLAIT remained the driving force.

  1. Due to rapid urbanisation and significant changes in the agricultural, demographic, and geo topographical aspects of the catchment area, we acknowledged that fully restoring the lake’s pristine ecological conditions was unfeasible. Therefore, after extensive discussions with experts, we outlined a comprehensive plan for ecological preservation. Core initiatives included developing approximately 10% of the lake area at the two inlet points as shallow wetlands with silt traps and sedimentation facilities. Additionally, we preserved the central island with trees and constructed embankments fortified with stone pitching to prevent future erosion.
  2. Establishing a Biodiversity Park became essential to counterbalance the loss of vegetation and shorelines. In collaboration with an urban architectural team from the city’s BMS college, the BBMP, alongside SLAIT and scientific bodies such as TDU, UAS, and KFD officials, designed a tree park comprising 26 species of native trees. This meticulous selection aimed to maximise biodiversity, incorporating aromatic, flowering, medicinal, and fruit-bearing trees, primarily catering to bird-friendly species.
  3. Acknowledging the significance of sustaining avian and aquatic life as indicators of the lake’s health, we strategically incorporated bird towers/pyramids into our avian rehabilitation plan. This innovative initiative, led by our wildlife and bird experts, has already attracted numerous bird species to the lake, observed feeding on its fish.
  4. Rehabilitation focused on aquatic life was a primary aspect of the lake’s rejuvenation. Following the release of treated water, our team collaborated with limnologists and fishery experts to introduce 5-6 native species such as common Carps, Mrigal, etc., along with Turtle and Crabs. This initiative, facilitated by close cooperation with the State Department of Fisheries and Fishermen’s Cooperative, aims to provide fresh, high-quality fish to local residents. Additionally, ongoing studies will assess the annual fish production and its economic impact.
  5. Given the area’s population explosion and the reliance on borewells and tanker supplies due to inadequate Cauvery water, groundwater depletion has reached unprecedented levels. Groundwater recharge stands as a key objective. Our Geohydrologists, in association with experts from the Central Ground Water Board, are conducting studies using approximately a dozen observation wells around the catchment area to evaluate water percolation and recharge rates. These studies continue to assess the impact of the lake’s rejuvenation.
  6. While ecological restoration remains a priority in collaboration with BBMP, we’ve tactfully developed public facilities such as walking paths, children’s play areas, and utilities on a modest scale. These efforts emphasise enhancing public amenities without compromising the lake’s ecological integrity or commercialising its recreational aspects.

Step 5: Adaptable rejuvenation strategies for varied lake landscapes

While each lake, whether large or small, holds its unique characteristics, the plans for rejuvenation should be tailored individually. However, the various concepts and systems detailed above can be transferred and adapted by modifying their formats. In summary, here’s what is important to remember:

  1. Organising a multi-speciality citizen group, highly committed to the objective and tirelessly working as credible facilitators with multiple civic agencies, coordinating their actions towards a common goal [Avoiding zero-sum game], and insulating the project from political interference.
  2. Getting the lake boundary demarcated after authentication by the competent authority and fearlessly demolishing all illegal encroachments, securely fencing it to act as a deterrent for future encroachers.
  3. Ensuring diversion of all untreated sewage entering the lake and release of treated water from STP.
  4. Projectising core civil works like desilting, etc., to sustain optimum storage capacity.
  5. Prioritising ecological restoration to enrich biodiversity, Tree Park, Bird Aviary, aqua rehabilitation, groundwater recharge as thrust areas instead of recreational and aesthetic considerations.

Step 6: Key lessons in urban lake rejuvenation

If we are to refine the system, one could include a performance budgeting concept to integrate time targets, expenditure, physical progress, and avoid fruitless and time overruns. The greatest lesson is urban lake rejuvenation is a collective effort and a participatory venture involving stakeholders from the public and government custodial agencies. No individual Bhagiratha-like effort will succeed.