This March, when 26 year-old IT engineer Manjunath MP formed the Sarakki Lake Area Improvement Trust (SLAIT) trust in Bengaluru, people wondered what he was trying to save in the first place. The 60-acre area — Sarakki Lake — in south Bengaluru doesn’t have a drop of water.
“You cannot see the water because of the weeds and the sewage collected,” says Manjunath over the phone. Manjunath has been living close to Sarakki lake, at JP Nagar in Bengaluru, since 2004.
For six years, for him, all Sarakki Lake meant was a patch of land suffering due to the newly-constructed housing societies around it. Ideally, the societies were supposed to have a sewage treatment plant, but they didn’t, and the sewage, was dumped into what was supposed to be a lake, he says. “Every day, on my way to work and back, I would glance at this large piece of land — a barren lake — and look the other way.”
In November 2011, Manjunath came across something on the Internet on the Puttenahalli Lake, which is close to Sarakki lake. He mixed up their names and wrote to Bengaluru’s municipal corporation, Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP).
Soon, he heard about the Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust (PNLIT) and met the trustees. “It was a group of residents who, I later learnt, had managed to transform Puttenahalli Lake over two years. When I requested them to take up Sarakki Lake’s work, too, one of the trustees looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you take it up? It is difficult, but citizens like you can make all the difference’.”
Today, Manjunath is closer to his dream of seeing Sarakki Lake restored to its former shape. After forming SLAIT, he shot out 20 letters to various government agencies across Karnataka, local civic authorities, corporators and MLAs. Three weeks ago, the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), the body in charge of site allotment in the city, sent an official letter about the lake’s restoration plan.
“The lake will be restored in three phases, and they will deal with three major issues — encroachments, sewage and construction debris. The first phase will include putting a fence around the lake, employing a security guard to ensure the fencing isn’t destroyed and surveying the area. The last was done four years ago and revealed that the original of Sarakki Lake was 86 acres — not just 60 acres,” says an incredulous Manjunath.
Sarakki Lake is home to many. “Thanks to political backing, there’s a mud road around the lake, homes, and streetlights on the ‘lake’, too!” Recently, Manjunath met a local who said he faces frequent illnesses because he pumps water from the borewell near the lake.
Taking a leaf out of the PNLIT, Manjunath has begun designing activities around the lake. “We’ve printed banners and posters and chosen a big departmental store to display it. A company, as part of its CSR, held a rally. Volunteers have approached us, too. It is the just the beginning. We await the time when it will be handed over to us locals, like Puttenahalli Lake was,” says Manjunath.
Arathi Manay, a 42 year-old trustee of the PNLIT, agrees with Manjunath on all counts — that it will be a long, time-consuming process, and also that the largest lake in Bengaluru will be in the safe hands of locals who care.
Manay, who recently shifted from Bengaluru to Mumbai, says she misses the Puttenahalli Lake after fighting for it for over two years. “But distance from something you love helps in its own way, too,” she smiles. Manay now manages online activities designed around the lake — the blog and the website, and recently participated in a corporate event which won her money for Puttenahalli Lake.
In June 2009, Manay, along with four friends, founded PNLIT and began the battle for Puttenahalli Lake. Encroachments had reduced the area from 13 to 12 acres, and the ‘lake’ was a shadow of its former self — a bunch of meek, scattered puddles. After the BBMP decided to restore the lake on PNLIT’s insistence, over two years, Manay and her friends spent hours at the lake overseeing the cleaning and construction processes.
“For two years, my life was about bringing up my two children and waiting at the lake while they were away at school. Even the contractors didn’t mess with us by, say, not turning up at the site because one of us would immediately notice and call the civic authorities and report negligence,” smiles Manay. It was Manay and her friends who spoke up against the initial plan of the gazebo that was being constructed near the lake. “The idea was great, but the contractors chose a site with loose soil, so we insisted that they construct the gazebo at an alternate place. They had to give in,” she says.
In May 2011, the BBMP handed over the lake to PNLIT — the first time a water body has ever been handed to locals in the country — and the lake is flourishing, says Manay. SLAIT has numerous activities planned around the lake — gardening, composting, nature walks, and so on.
The lake, she says, is famous for holding birthday parties for children who want to understand nature better. “We have also employed local women from nearby villages, who make cloth bags which are later distributed to shops in the city. We are trying to design activities which can include the encroachers, because they feel left out of the lake.”
Puttenahalli Lake, which hadn’t seen birds in decades, is now home to over 50 bird species and is a hotspot for bird photographers. “At a bird race in January this year, it was the only area in Bengaluru where the participants found the Garganey ducks that migrate from Europe and West Asia.”
PNLIT is currently trying to gather funds to construct water inlets in the lake, which can be connected to storm water drains in the city, so the water level in the lake can be restored to its optimum level. A 1.1 km-long walking track has been constructed around the lake, too. Manjunath, on the other hand, has grander plans. “Puttenahalli has a walking track — but we’ll build a cycling track around Sarakki Lake when it’s restored,” he smiles.