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Medium_marthe_derkzen Living at the margins of Bengaluru's lakes: Untold stories of change, loss and hope

03 Dec 13:43

Marthe Derkzen

Marthe Derkzen (WP4) brought TURAS to India with a photo exhibition on urban lakes and people’s resilience to local environmental change.

Waterfront – Madivala Lake Photo by: Arati Kumar-Rao

Before becoming India’s IT hub, Bengaluru was known for its numerous lakes and green spaces. Rapid urbanization has led to the disappearance of many of these ecosystems. Those that remain face a range of challenges: residential and commercial construction, pollution and waste dumping, privatization, and so on. Today, Bengaluru’s lakes are principally seen as garbage dumps and sewage ponds that can have either of two fates: one, be transformed into recreational oases to suit the needs of wealthy residential neighbourhoods, or two, be encroached upon until none of the original shapes and functions can be traced back. But how does this affect the lives of the people living at the very margins of Bengaluru’s beloved yet contested lakes?

Through a series of short stories of individuals, we explore the vulnerable, fast changing relationships between lake residents and their environment. People’s dependency on natural resources has become constrained by contamination of their surroundings and restrictions in terms of accessibility, and for some the constant threat of eviction. While those at the margins of lakes are often blamed for the degradation of these lake ecosystems, they are also preserving and often increasing native biodiversity and open space – something quite uncommon in a present time metropolis like Bengaluru. These hitherto untold stories provide a glimpse of how these dynamics of ecosystem pollution, loss and change following urbanization translate into everyday life for those at the margins of India’s urban explosion.

Lake residents
Saraswathamma is “over 30 years old” and was born at Bhattarahalli Lake. Back in the day, she and her neighbours enjoyed eating fish from the lake, but today the lake is so polluted she does not dare to touch its fish. She receives Rs.24 for each litre of milk her three cows produce. Grazing lands are becoming increasingly hard to find. Her cooking takes place on a kerosene stove, until she runs out of fuel received from her supply of monthly ration, usually after 15 days. She copes by collecting firewood from cut road side trees, or by foraging from her surroundings. Soon Saraswathamma will need to rethink her livelihood strategies as a demolition order demands her to leave her home ground for rehabilitation elsewhere, because the lake will undergo a ‘cleanup’: beautifying the area by turning it into a neat looking park.
Saraswathamma – Bhattarahalli Lake Photo by: Arati Kumar-Rao
For decades, Madivala has has a working Dhobi Ghat (washer place). Dhobis (launderers) used to wash their loads in a canal next to the lake until about 20 years ago when the water became too polluted, and they resorted to bore well water. The canal turned into a bubbling and reeking sewage drain which is an eyesore for the entire Dhobi Ghat. Concurrently, the disappearance of open lands and grazing fields has led their donkeys to the garbage dump in search of food. After so many years, their deteriorating environment has made the dhobis lose sight of a bright future.

Dhobi Ghat – Madivala Lake Photo by: Arati Kumar-Rao
When these men were younger, they would fish together with their fathers in Madivala Lake. Now that all fishing has become contracted they are only allowed to fish outside of official lake borders, which has led to a tradition of fishing in the canal northeast of the lake. This fishing technique can be seen only a few times a year when the canal at the lake outflow fills with water. It is a collaborative effort by a group of men who build a structure of nets, mud and dams made of coconut trunks to create ponds that ensure that the fish cannot escape and grow big. After some weeks or months, the fishermen organize themselves and start emptying the ponds with buckets, removing weeds, locating the fish hiding in the mud, and catching them by hand – sometimes slinging a water snake over their shoulder. The catch is divided among them, while the exciting event entertains dozens of neighbours and by-passers.
Fishermen – Madivala Lake
Photo by: Anoop Bhaskar

Many of Bengaluru’s lakes used to be larger, and would flood after heavy rains. Old time residents remember how brick factory labourers would drink lake water during their lunch break, and how they themselves crossed finger millet fields on their way to school. But the most rewarding trips were eastbound to the guava groves behind the paddy fields at the lake’s outflow. Today, the lakes’ floodplains are encroached by settlements, and cows are the only ones to enrich their diets here. Some of the lakes, after being fenced and cleaned up, have also seen a new set of visitors; joggers and walkers from surrounding apartments and offices.

Raichur Colony – Vibhutipura Lake Photo by: Anoop Bhaskar
Another set of newcomers are the city’s migrants, living in settlements of blue tarpaulin shacks. Together with their families they migrated from rural Karnataka to Bengaluru city, fleeing the drought. Here, their fathers work as construction labours building apartments, while their mothers work as domestic help. Their houses do not have electricity or toilets. On days when they have no water supply, they wash their clothes and vessels in the lake outflow, which is not fenced off like the rest of the lake. They cook on firewood but cannot grow their own vegetables because it is not their land. They do not know where they will be living at the start of next school year.

Tarpaulin shacks at Rachenahalli Lake Photo by: Marthe Derkzen
Urban transitions
As a result of rapid urbanization and environmental change, people’s reliance on local natural resources, in this case lakes, has decreased substantially. Bengaluru is witnessing a transition from a livelihood dependent on the use of these open spaces for activities such as fishing, cattle grazing, and domestic purposes, to a cultural uses relating of recreation and visual beauty. Another trend is from communal organization, for example taking turns to work on each other’s rice fields, maintaining the village grove, and shared irrigation and lake management, to private organization when tending to one’s home garden or carrying out religious rituals. These trends are taking shape in line with a shift in lake accessibility. It becomes harder to gain access to these ecosystems, either because of regulations (only contracted fishing is allowed), physical barriers (lake fencing), or distance to adequate natural resources. Societal pressures also influence trends, cooking on firewood is considered old-fashioned for example. Livelihoods have become less location-bound for the ones that can afford it, while the ones who cannot need to find ways to cope with an increasingly inaccessible degrading environment. As happens elsewhere, urban open spaces, or urban commons, are being taken over by the elite and middle classes. As a young resident put it: “I do not wish for a park to be constructed, because that means that our houses will be demolished”.
Patchwork – Madivala Lake. Photo by: Anoop Bhaskar
A platform for unheard voices
These stories represent the casualties of rapid urban growth witnessed by the city, whose voices often remain unheard. To bring back these voices into the debate, we organized a bilingual (English and Kannada) photo exhibition titled “Living at the margins of Bengaluru’s lakes: Untold stories of change, loss and hope” in Rangoli Metro Art Centre in Bengaluru, India. A diverse audience of 900-1000 visitors visited the art gallery on 31st October and 1st November 2015 and people were in awe of the photographs and accompanying stories. “This really is an eye opener for people like us who live in the urban area. I was unaware of how lakes in the city were used by the city’s marginalized, and how severely they are impacted by the pollution of these lakes,” said Priya Dileep, an IT professional in the city. A significant feature of the exhibition was the presence of residents from the lakes, individuals who were the subjects of the photographs displayed. They were astonished and proud to see their portrait on the gallery wall. The photo exhibition will be shown in a few other locations across Bengaluru in the coming months, starting in January at the INSEE conference and the Kaikondrahalli lake festival.
The underlying research was carried out between May and October 2015 by Marthe Derkzen from VU University Amsterdam (TURAS WP4) in collaboration with Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli from the Sustainability initiative at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.
Press coverage
The exhibition made it to all major newspapers including Times of India and a local TV station.

times of india

Keywords: lake living in Bengaluru, conversation in resilience, exhibition tells untold story,