Once in a long while, you come across someone driven by a selfless mission, a drive and zeal to do the right thing. Only sometimes, you see that someone not just persevering in their effort, but having the skill and intelligence to undertake seemingly impossible tasks. And very rarely, does one have the pleasure of witnessing such people actually succeeding - in many small incremental steps - in what they set out to do.
We are lucky to have our very own fighter-for-justice in Mahesh Bhat, a conservationist, activist, artist-photographer, teacher and negotiator-of-the-labyrinth-that-is-government, all rolled into one. He is also a dear friend and neighbour, and what follows is an account of his fight to save the Hesaraghatta catchment, a rare piece of natural beauty and ecology, which we would probably have lost had it not been for him and his tireless efforts, which continue unabated. Thank you Mahesh, for being who you are.
Text and photos by Mahesh Bhat.
It was in the late 90s when Hesaraghatta dawned on my horizon. Later on when I got married and moved to Hesaraghatta in 2001, the reservoir was an everyday sight. In 2004 after successive drought years the lake dried up completely. Water tables had started to plummet. It was disconcerting. I was wondering what could be done to mitigate the situation. I chanced upon few banners in Hesaraghatta village which were announcing an effort by a group of villagers to revive the lake. It was still a village then.. Over the last 15 years, it has been trying very hard to become a town or part of the burgeoning Bangalore city.
I went and met the peoples’ group and volunteered to work with them. We decided to walk around the area to get a good feel of the ground conditions. The lake itself is over 1500 acres and the catchment is much larger – at least another 5000-6000 acres. The walk was long and educative. That’s when I realised that the reservoir was created by building small dam across river Arkavathy in 1895 to provide drinking water to Bangalore city. Later the 500 years' old stone inscription at the Chandramoulishwara temple told me that the foundation of the present dam was laid by Achyutha Raya, the last king of the Vijayanagar Empire in late 15th century. He got a small check dam built across river Arkavathy (Hesaraghatta was then called Shivasamudra Agrahara), set up a colony of Brahmins and built the Chandramoulishawara temple. Diwan Sheshadri Iyer increased the size of the bund and the storage area.
After our recce walk, we decided to open up a completely silted up western channel. It started as a community effort. People pitched in and work began with gusto. A well-known chartered accountant of the city, Mr. Devaraj who owns a farm nearby saw us working and got us an earth mover free of cost for a month. That speeded up the work even more. We opened up the channel for several kilometres. Rain was plentiful in 2005 and Hesaraghatta lake received a lot of water. The deepest point was 15 ft.
Soon Madras Engineer Group (MEG) of the Indian army approached us and offered to help desilt the lake. The work would help them to train their staff in earth moving. They worked for few months and helped build two islands.
By 2005, several citizen groups along the river basin had begun to work on desilting the canals and stopping polluting industries. We all got together to form a trust to work on a larger scale and engage with the government and press upon the need to start a large-scale rejuvenation programme. Finally government of Karnataka called for bids for a Rs.23 Crore tender to open up the canals and de-silt the ponds along the basins of Arkavathy and Kumudvathy. However the work was not done well.. money of course was spent.
In the 90s it was all about getting water from Cauvery and the entire Arkavathy catchment area was neglected. No one thought of recharging bore wells, but they drilled the earth rampantly for water. Arkavathy gave up, she disappeared. In 2002, Bangalore Metropolitan Region Development Authority (BMRDA) commissioned ISRO to study the reasons for the lessening inflow into Tippegondanahalli (TG Halli) reservoir. The wonderful study made several recommendations. Based on this a Government Order (GO – FEE215ENV2002) was brought about and a list of dos and don’ts for the river basin was drawn up. Sadly the GO gathered dust.
Catchment of Hesaraghatta reservoir/Arkavathy at Hesaraghatta is about 5000 + acres. Most of this land is owned by the government of Karnataka. A parcel of this land –measuring 345 acres is a grassland. In fact it is the last remaining piece of grassland around Bangalore. If you went back in time to about 200 years ago, most of the area that now is Bangalore city was grassland/scrub jungle. Government of Karnataka had leased this land to Mysore Film Development Corporation in 1972 to build a film city. However it didn’t materialise. MFDC was renamed to Karnataka Film Development Corporation (KFDC) later on and sometime in early 21st century it closed down. The rights of this land were temporarily vested with Kanteerava studios which used to rent out the area for Kannada film shootings. Almost all the units used to shoot in the area and destroy and damage the area. We the local people had to go and clean up their mess. By 2012, few people in the Kannada film industry started for clamouring for the film city again. GOK opened tenders for the detailed project report on developing the area as a film city.
Apart from being the last remaining grassland and catchment of Arkavathy, the area is also the wintering ground for the birds of prey from Northern India and Central Asia. A biodiversity survey commissioned by the Karnatak biodiversity board revealed found over 130 species of birds, many mammals, and butterflies. And millions of insects of course. Some of the birds, mammals and insects found in the area are on the verge of extinction or critically endangered.
So, in December of 2012, I filed a PIL in the High Court of Karnataka to save this land. It went on for 3 years and then the GOK gave an undertaking that they would protect the land till the cabinet decided the fate of the land. The honourable court also said that
“It is needless to clarify that the petitioner or any other person having a genuine public interest in mind, will have the liberty to approach the Court as and when decision in respect of utilization of the land in question is taken.”
The 345 acres were given back to the department of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Services and it remains as it is..
Sometime in 2012, I also started seeing the entire catchment as a unique habitat and that it needed to be protected from ‘development’. So in collaboration with conservationist Ramki Srinivasan, biologist K S Sheshadri and Ornithologist M B Krishna a detailed proposal to declare 5000 acres including the lake bed as ‘Conservation Reserve’ under section 36A of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 was drafted. We submitted it to Karnataka Forest Department sometime in 2013/4. The department carried out a survey and fixed the boundaries of the proposed reserve. It needs to go to the State Wildlife Board for approval. Well, this step hasn’t happened. The proposal has remained as a proposal till today.
Section 36A in The Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972
1[36A. Declaration and management of a conservation reserve.—
The State Government may, after having consultations with the local communities, declare any area owned by the Government, particularly the areas adjacent to National Parks and sanctuaries and those areas which link one protected area with another, as a conservation reserve for protecting landscapes, seascapes, flora and fauna and their habitat: Provided that where the conservation reserve includes any land owned by the Central Government, its prior concurrence shall be obtained before making such declaration.
Government is now building a chain link fence around the lake as it is expecting water from Yethinahole project to land there.
The entire 5000 (more actually if you add adjacent Kakolu and Byatha lakes) acres is important for the water security and ground water recharge. It is a large carbon sink. It is a refuge for endangered wildlife. It also is a grazing area for local cattle. Bio security is an important issue for the department of Animal Husbandry. Yet the government isn’t acting to project the area using the existing law.
The total aggregate rainfall in 2017 in the catchment area was 1012mm. Hesaraghatta received quite a bit of water. It was just 666mm in 2018 and the lake dried up. In 2019 as of now there has been 880mm of rainfall and there is some amount of water in the lake. I am proud to say that almost all the water has come through the channel we opened up in 2004.