The story of Jakkur lake sets an example for inclusive rejuvenation projects

By Prachi Pinglay-PlumberonApr. 19, 2021inEnvironment and Ecology
  • The poor condition of lakes in Bengaluru and subsequent revival efforts have been under scrutiny and public discourse for several years now.
  • Jakkur Lake in north Bengaluru has received many accolades for creating and sustaining the rejuvenation and conservation initiative.
  • The lake supports and provides livelihoods for 70 fishermen families and their role has been crucial to the success of the lake rejuvenation project.
  • Jockim, a fisherman, and other members of his community rue the general attitude to keep local communities out of conservation plans and not recognise their contribution.

Morning walkers, residents of nearby residential complexes, vouch for the beauty and serenity of Jakkur Lake in Bengaluru and completely endorse and support the rejuvenation of the fairly large water body in their area. Administration and local agencies are mighty proud of the project – which involved fencing, cleaning of sewage and garbage and aiding biodiversity. Environmentalists and naturalists are enthused by the arrival and staying of birds. However, this much-documented success story has a crucial stakeholder, that has played an integral part in the success story – the fishing community.

Jockim is one of the leading members of the fishing community that depends on the lake for its livelihood and is also part of the conservation initiative. But it doesn’t stop at that. In fact, without the help, support and active participation of the community and without any major differences with other stakeholders, the management of the lake would have been impossible.

Jakkur is one of the 51 lakes in the city, artificially created in the 16th century. It is a crucial urban wetland for Bengaluru, in the absence of any other waterbodies such as rivers or the sea. The lake supports and provides livelihoods for 70 fishing families and 30 cattle owners/grass cutters and their role has been crucial to the success of the lake rejuvenation project.  The lake has been managed by a citizen’s group with Bengaluru’s municipal corporation (BBMP) since 2015. Prior to that, Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) had completed fencing and cleaning before handing it over.

Jakkur Lake, one of the many urban wetlands in Bengaluru city, sustains biodiversity and livelihood of the fisherfolk. Map from Google Earth.
Rejuvenating Jakkur

Jakkur Lake, constructed over 200 years ago, had become a site for sewage and garbage dumping, in recent decades, like most of the other lakes in the city. In 2005, the BDA took up the project to rejuvenate a few lakes, Jakkur was one of them. They worked on it for from 2008 till about 2010-11. The BDA took charge of desilting, fencing and sewage treatment and completed the revival of the lake. Once most of the work was done by 2012, they handed over the lake to Bengaluru’s municipal corporation (BBMP) and the citizen’s group. Post the handover, the lake has been managed by the BBMP with citizen’s group Jalaposhan since 2015.

The BBMP, as the custodian of the lake, has its various departments undertake different tasks of lake management such as sewage treatment, checking quality of water, water pollution, maintenance of biodiversity in the wetlands, construction of pathways and maintenance of bunds. The Fisheries department meanwhile, works with the fishing community for the formation of society, and monitoring of fishing, sales, cleaning of the lake, etc.

Around 197 species of birds are found at the lake. These include pelicans, who have made Jakkur their home and no longer migrate. There are nests of peacocks as well, indicating that the flora and fauna are in healthy condition now. The fishermen fish upto 500 kg of fish on good days during the fishing season from the lake.

The fishing community has been a proactive stakeholder among all the others. It is primarily responsible for the maintenance and conservation of water in the lake. Though the community’s livelihoods depend on it and hence it is invested in the lake’s upkeep, the people are also on board for eco-friendly practices and working as a multiple-stakeholder community to enable conversation of biodiversity and upkeep of the lake in the best possible way. For example, at the moment they are busy cleaning up the rampant growth of water hyacinth, which is detrimental to the overall health of the lake.

Jakkur lake champion Illustration - ShriyaSingh_Mongabay
Jockim and other members of his fishing community helped revive Jakkur Lake in Bengaluru. The rejuvenation project involved a local NGO, municipal authorities and other residents, but the fishing community’s role in protecting and maintaining the lake is crucial due to their knowledge and dependency on the wetland for livelihood. Illustration by Sriya Singh for Mongabay.
The quiet do-ers

Jockim, 45, has a quiet, confident presence. He takes a long time to open up and even after that, he speaks little. He is well aware of the role he and his people play in keeping Jakkur Lake as beautiful and ecologically thriving. However, he is also deeply aware of the fact that the urban idea of conservation often seeks to keep traditional dwellers out.

“Fishermen are the main people for a lake to thrive,” he says. “If fishermen are there, the birds will come. We are the only people entering the water and we understand it from generations.” His family, like many others in the vicinity, has always depended on fishing. They lived nearby and fished in Rachenahalli lake, very close to Jakkur lake (it gets its water from Jakkur too) and moved to Jakkur sometime in 2006.

Jockim witnessed the lake’s degeneration and the subsequent efforts of Bangalore Development Authority to clean and rejuvenate it. He has been part of the community initiative to maintain the lake from the very beginning and brought with him the entire fishing community.

The BBMP website about the lake says, “Jakkur Lake is an example of collective action – the implementation of a node for social and scientific innovation to help improve the lake ecosystem and social relations among stakeholders.”

Jakkur Lake is one of the largest lakes in the grid of man-made lakes in the city and is located in the north eastern part of Bengaluru.

Unplanned development in the area surrounding the lake had led to solid waste filling its feeder channels. This choked the natural watershed so much that the lake resembled a dumping yard. Jakkur Lake interestingly has a very well-designed wetland system. According to the BBMP website, a wetland is a complex assemblage of water, substrate, plants (vascular and algae), litter (primarily fallen plant material), invertebrates and an array of micro-organisms (most importantly bacteria), as defined by the US Environmental Protection Agency.”

Annapurna Kamath, of Jalaposhan, the NGO that was registered to partner officially with BBMP to manage the lake, says the primary goal of conservation has to be inclusive. “You cannot assume that you have some privilege because you are environmentally inclined and the rest of the world is not interested. Fishermen community have been here much before us, they know the lake very well.  Initially, some people said fishermen community are a threat, birds get threatened by fishing and all that. But we believed they had a role because fishing community understands water the best and the ecosystem as well. They need to be supplemented but they have the base knowledge of what a lake should be and how to take care of it. It’s innate. Moreover, we shouldn’t think of disturbing social eco-system,” she told Mongabay-India.

Annapurna Kamath of Jalaposhan, the NGO that partnered with the municipal authorities to create a citizen-led initiative to conserve Jakkur lake. Photo by Prachi Pinglay-Plumber.

Jockim, on his own, has always tried to improve and learn the best practices for fishing as well as preserving the biodiversity of the lake. “The fisheries department people help us and guide us on what to do to maintain the biodiversity. Along with our traditional methods, we also get scientific advice. We don’t fish when the fish are small. We understand when to stop,” says Jockim, who has studied up to Class 8 but makes all efforts to understand the environmental issues, guidelines from the fisheries department and legal issues as well. He said at least 70 families directly depend on Jakkur Lake for their livelihoods.

He is right when he says that having healthy fish in the water body is a sign of good health of the overall wetland ecosystem. Nagendra Babu, Assistant Director in the Fisheries Department says, “If fishes are there in the water, it will be clean. If not, the rampant growth of plankton leads to bacteria, it dies and settles in water, becomes algae. All urban lakes are flooded with sewage, which leads to rampant growth. Secondly, birds will come, if the fishes are there. It maintains the food chain. Livelihood for fishermen is also useful to balance the ecosystem.”

Though it sounds logical and plausible in theory, it is easily possible to alienate and have differences between various stakeholders – administration, scientists, citizens’ groups and local communities. Especially, when there is a popular perception that removing all activity from a distressed waterbody will actually help its conservation. Because of that, there have been instances of indifference or even conflict between citizen-environmentalists and local communities. Add to that, if the administration is not effective, it can make the situation worse.

T.V. Ramachandra from the Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc) in Bengaluru has studied various wetlands management systems. “It doesn’t work where people have disassociated themselves. People are actively involved and it worked at Putanehalli and Jakkur lakes. If there is a sense of belonging, no one will abuse it. Moreover, many families who are below poverty line depend on common property.”

Jockim near coracles on the banks of Jakkur Lake. The lake supports and provides livelihoods for 70 fishing families who played a crucial role in reviving the lake. Photo by Madhusudhan.

S. Vishwanath, urban planner and water conservationist, emphasises the need to recognise local communities. “Acknowledging the grass cutters and fishermen will go a long way. Middle-class attitude is to exclude in the name of protection. We have to reinvent the conservation of the lake with the current urban context. Lake is a complete wetland by itself if we allow biodiversity, the flora and fauna to develop by itself. However, the real question is are the citizens ready to pay the true cost of their sewage?”

Ramachandra adds, “Those who live away from the lake, pollute and contaminate. Raw sewage, industrial effluent are resulting in falling health standards, air and water quality. Vegetables, fish, grass – all had heavy metal. It is getting reflected higher instances of cancer and kidney failures in the city. Innocent people are paying for the irresponsible behaviour of bureaucracy and state and management strategies.” He says many lakes in the city are in need of urgent attention but the initiatives are not working the way they worked at Jakkur.

Kamath says there is no alternative to an integrated approach. “Everyone understands conservation in their own language. We can’t be extreme. The existing ecosystem is native intelligence. We can’t work with superficial intelligence. Jockim knows if sewage comes, what happens, if fish is dying, what is happening. Grass cutters and fishermen are the first responders. All of us have the same passion. They feel it’s “my own lake” they have an attachment to the lake. I don’t know if it’s special to Jakkur but it should be the model because it works.”

Kamath speaks of Jockim as a spiritual person who has the ability to take everyone along with him. “I always tell people that we never had any conflict with the fishing community. In fact, I even suggested that Jockim should train other fishermen near other lakes where similar efforts are going on.”

When asked if he has faced any resistance from the community or outside of it, while taking up these activities apart from fishing, Jockim simply says, “My reputation is good. They are with me.” One of the reasons why Jockim is respected and almost indispensable is his integrity and honesty. He has maintained the water body from their own expense and does not seek funds from the NGO or the administration.

Fisherfolk clearing the layer of water hyacinth, a plant that threatens the lake ecology. Photo by Jockim.

However, the past year hasn’t been easy. First, the pandemic and the lockdown affected their business. And now they are witnessing rampant growth of water hyacinth. For Jockim and his fishermen partners, the lack of funds to clean the hyacinth is a challenge. Sewage also continues to be a problem.

What truly bothers him are different rules and regulations that try to put them out. While Supreme Court doesn’t allow fishermen to live near the water bodies, Jockim says at least facilities like sheds to mend the equipment, boat, and to rest while working should be allowed. “Community initiatives would be failures without fishermen. But nobody writes or recognises us,” he says wistfully. Ironically, he points out that they get unnecessary attention from social media when walkers post their pictures. “They don’t ask or talk to us about what we are doing but take photos.”

He doesn’t talk much about family members. He says he doesn’t want his children to follow this vocation. “People aren’t good. The younger generation will not be able to manage. It is not a peaceful profession,” he says requesting to highlight their problems and their contribution as a community and not as an individual.

Spot-billed pelicans nest on the vegetation in Jakkur lake. The wetland hosts around 197 bird species. Photo by T.R. Shankar Raman/Wikimedia Commons.

First published by Mongabay India on 05 Apr. 2021

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