The lakes of Bangalore, as they are more popularly known, are very really tanks which are part of an intricate man made system which took centuries to develop. This system displayed man’s ingenuity at tapping rainwater in a place where there was no river. The tanks or to use the more appropriate local term, kere, are a series of water overflows guided and reconfigured into a chain of interconnected water bodies. These interfaced with each other through wetlands and canals or rajakaluves allowing for a controlled and guided descent of rainwater down the three valleys in Bangalore. Through this, one of the older rainwater harvesting systems was put into practice.
A socio-economic system developed around these keres which utilised the different parts of the kere and merged social systems with maintenance of these water bodies. The water from the kere itself was used for various purposes such as household needs, irrigation, washing clothes and cattle. Among the economic activities that subsisted around the keres were fishing and agriculture. The latter primarily happened in the ‘wetlands’ downstream of the kere. A bund was built to give birth to the kere so that flowing streams of water were stopped and a water body developed around that. The wetlands downstream of the bund benefitted from the overflow. This happened through sluice mechanisms built into the bund. These helped regulate the flow of water into the wetlands.
The canals or rajakaluves captured the overflows from the ends of the bunds and transported the water to the next kere in the chain of keres and so on. They also helped channel water into the wetlands for irrigation. The wetlands were primarily used to grow water intensive crops such as rice or sugarcane in some cases. The keres and associated land such as the wetlands also nurtured a range of flora and fauna, ranging from a wide variety of birds to aquatic creatures.
A community management system developed around these keres which involved various communities to perform specific functions in maintaining the keres. This included the ‘Neergunti’ community which maintained the rajakaluves. Other communities were responsible for de-silting the kere; still others were involved in maintaining the bunds. This was of course juxtaposed over the existing caste systems in each of the villages where the keres were located. An Inam system which rewarded maintenance tasks with the grant of land also existed. Who was granted what type of land; productive and fertile wetlands or relatively infertile dry lands, also to some extent depended on one’s location in the caste hierarchy.
As Bangalore urbanised, two factors started kicking in which rang a death knell to this complex tank system. One was the demand for land in a quickly sprawling and populating city and the other was the corresponding increased demand for potable water. The latter was met to some extent by tapping of water sources such as the Cauvery River, located over 100 kilometres from Bangalore, at high costs of transportation (pumping). As both these factors started playing out gradually from the late 1970s onwards, when Bangalore started receiving Cauvery water, and in a more accelerated manner from the 1990s onwards when the Information Technology boom happened, keres started shrinking in size or disappearing altogether to be replaced by bus stands, stadiums, layouts, commercial complexes.
The connecting system of Kere – Wetlands/Rajakaluve – Kere started being replaced by Kere – Built up land – Kere. Thus the interconnectedness of the keres started diminishing and the ‘containment’ of keres became the focus. This was accompanied by the increased dumping of mostly untreated sewerage and industrial effluents into the water bodies, polluting them and also converting them from seasonal water bodies into perennial ones.
This containment was largely done by the various civic agencies such as Bangalore City Corporation (now the BBMP), the municipal corporation, Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), the land use zoning authority, Lake Development Authority (LDA), entrusted with the development and maintenance of the keres. This containment went hand in hand with a repositioning of these keres. What were once socio-economic-ecological systems with a well-defined community management system now began being converted to mostly social, primarily recreation/entertainment focused systems, catering to newer user groups. Thus the keres of Bangalore started being converted into lakes. The Forest Department which was involved in maintenance of some of the keres for sometime from the 1980s to early 2000s were also responsible to some extent in the change of this discourse. The new label, lake, was here to stay!
After that introduction, which is based on several years of research that I have done involving several keres, I will attempt to present the structural transformation of keres visually. For this, I will focus on one particular kere, Rachenahalli located in north Bangalore.
Rachenahalli kere is located in Thanisandara ward of the BBMP and is 148 acres in size. It is located in the Hebbal Valley and is part of the Yellamallappa Chetty lake series.
Rachenahalli kere was ‘developed’ by the BDA at a cost of 19 crores
I have taken photos of the kere and wetlands at four different periods – May 2009, December 2009, April 2010 and May 2014. By presenting visuals of the different parts of the kere in these four different periods, corresponding to when the BDA developed the kere, I will attempt to draw your attention to the structural containment of this kere.
In May 2009, the kere was still a kere with the linear bund visible.
The wetlands were also fairly clearly visible. Agriculture already ceased to be practised here.
The rajakaluve from the overflow located at the eastern end of the bund which carried the water to the next kere in the chain of keres. In this case, the Kalkere kere.
In December 2009, BDA had already breached the bund and emptied the water body.
This gave me a chance to get into the tank bed and take pictures including of the sluice mechanism from the tank bed side. This helped record an image of a system for posterity, which was going to be demolished shortly as the bund was being reworked.
On the wetland side of the bund, was the other part of the sluice mechanism through which kere water entered and irrigated these lands.
The kere bed was mostly dry now apart from few pools of water. In this interim period, several people and flora and fauna that depended on the kere were left stranded. The former included people who washed clothes, bathed, fished and the latter included several aquatic plants, animals and birds.
The only people who seemed to benefit at this point of the kere re-engineering, apart from of course the BDA, were those engaged in sand mining from the kere bed.
In April 2010, the redesign work was in full swing. That gave me a chance to document much of the ongoing work including creation of a walking path around the kere. This of course is in the tank bed, thus eating into the water spread area.
The diminishing of the water spread area can be clearly seen when contrasted with a similar view of the kere from December 2009. The house which just about oversaw the water body was now a walking path away from it.
The bund was reworked and widened.
This resulted in a loss of structures from a former system such as the sluice mechanism. This added to the containment of the overflowing nature of the kere system. The photo below shows where one of the sluice mechanisms of the kere was located.
The bed of the kere by now had dried up completely causing further difficulty to those who survived on it, namely locals dependent on it for washing needs, fishermen and flora and fauna.
BDA put into practise what has been critically called its water bowl engineering, visible from this sloping granite reinforced wall all around the kere. This was done by converting a linear bund, which was located only downstream of the kere to a ring bund running all around the kere.
Artificial islands were being created which are meant to be habitats for birds primarily. However these eat into the water spread area of the kere and are also in a way containment of birds by keeping them in that restricted area as opposed to them being able to treat the kere and surrounding areas as their habitat.
The reworking of the bund was taking place which resulted in it becoming wide…
Wider than earlier…
The direction the work was heading in 2010 seemed that it will result in the kere becoming a water bowl that collects water in a circular structure as opposed to a sloping bed with differing depths. This is done with the help of a ring bund all around the water body. This would replace a linear bund, where the role of the bund was to dam the stream of water and manage the overflow. Stretches of kere-wetland-kere will get broken so that land is freed up between and around the keres for development. Was all this just my speculation, assumption or just plain paranoia?
To check this, I made yet another trip to the kere, this time in April 2014, by when the kere development was over and the water body would have hopefully been filled. This is what I discovered.
The bund was now circular and curled all around the kere.
The previous linear bund has now become a part of the new ring bund now and can’t be differentiated from the rest of the bund. There were no signs of the sluice mechanisms which have been built over and relegated to posterity by particular notions of development.
The rajakaluve now has been fenced, just like the rest of the kere.
The kere was now securely ‘bunded’and fenced all around. While some would argue that fencing prevents encroachment, one could also say that fencing limits the water spread area of what are meant to be water bodies whose boundaries fluctuate based on the amount of rainfall and season. This of course has changed now with the perennial nature of the keres with sewage and other waste water flowing into them through the year. Therefore a new fixity has come to their boundaries and thus the need to fence them in?
A peek from the bund onto the wetlands showed that most part of the wetlands remained as they were in 2009-2010 but many new buildings seemed to have come up and are closing in on the wetlands and the kere.
As compared to 2009
A view of the western shore of the kere also shows growing number and density of structures. This could mean a depletion of groundwater as well increased discharge of sewage into keres.
This one would say is inevitable in a growing city like Bangalore. True, but what are the implications on traditional and useful social-ecological systems such as the kere system of Bangalore? Should they be conserved, as far as possible, as what they were or should they be re-engineered into ‘lakes’ and thus be contained? Should keres be ringed, fenced and converted into water bowls so that land around them is freed for such real estate growth? This in turn disrupting ecological logic and leading to flooding on the one hand and depletion of groundwater on the other as well as the loss of urban biodiversity.
Can we not look at urban conservation more creatively and see the possibilities that such systems can offer, such as that of urban agriculture in the wetlands? Is retention of the overflow system possible so that there are stretches of water bodies linked to each other through open unbuilt land within a concreted landscape, thus encouraging biodiversity and also helping water sustainability? The possibilities of urban agriculture offer not just crops with lower food footprints but also livelihood options. However, the tug of real estate and the monetary windfalls it offers in Bangalore can be hard to resist, especially given that agriculture is increasing becoming unsustainable and unprofitable for small land holders.
Is this model of development that is so much in vogue now across the country, the only way ahead? Are centralised management systems of natural resources the best way to conserve and preserve them? Can the social and the ecological coexist in a fast changing urban landscape in a manner which benefits both?
Plenty of questions swirl in my head as I exit Rachenahalli.