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Frothing With Fury: Why The Toxic Foam Of Bangalore's Bellandur Lake Should Worry Us

23/11/2015 10:59 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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MANJUNATH KIRAN via Getty Images
A canal which once carried water from Bellandur Lake to Varthur Lake is filled with froth emanating from sewage in east Bangalore on May 1, 2015. The innocuous-looking foam, which from a distance, looks like snow is nothing but toxic effluent caused by the polluted sewage water overflowing from nearby Bellandur Lake. The foam is a result of the water in the lake having high content of ammonia and phosphate and very low dissolved oxygen. Sewage from many parts of the Bangalore is released into lakes, leaving it extremely polluted. The foam during heavy rains spill onto the road, causing a traffic pile besides spreading unbearable stench in the air in the neighbourhood. AFP PHOTO/Manjunath KIRAN (Photo credit should read MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

From a distance it's as mesmerising as waking up to an expanse of snow. White, light and fluffy, stretching as far as the eye can see. Closer up, these flakes sting.

This is no white winter but the frothing fury of one of Bangalore's last remaining lakes -- Bellandur Lake.

Covering nearly 4km this is the city's largest lake. It can be developed as a public open space. Instead it is increasingly being enveloped and inched in by housing complexes due to cloudy land conversion permissions.

But apart with the concretisation along the river periphery there is another problem that is not so obvious. The fact is that Bellandur Lake is being used as a sewage dump.

Bangalore pumps out more a billion litres of sewage every day. Close to 70% of this sewage goes untreated and nearly half of that, or 400 MLD (mega litres per day) finds its way into Bellandur lake.

"Bellandur Lake in many ways is archetypical of the fate of our water bodies in major metros and several smaller cities and towns that have outgrown themselves."

So as Bellandur Lake swelled yet again in these sudden rains and its acidic froth spilled over to the footpaths and streets, leading to skin rashes, red eyes and nausea among those who came in contact with it, should this bizarre phenomenon have come as a surprise? The lake has, after all, churned what was fed to it -- untreated sewage, detergents and toxic waste from unchecked small industries -- for decades.

Bellandur Lake in many ways is archetypical of the fate of our water bodies in major metros and several smaller cities and towns that have outgrown themselves. And without the necessary planned infrastructure to keep pace, lakes, streams and rivers become the first available targets in which to dump the residues of "development".

Remember 26 July 2005? Torrential rain and high tides inundated Mumbai. More than a thousand lives were lost and thousands more displaced. Mumbai was rudely reminded that it once had a flowing river and mangrove cover. The reality hit hard and too late. Large tracts of the mangroves, that act as a bulwark, had been swallowed by concrete and the Mithi River had turned into a thick, grimy, sewage cesspool, choked by plastic and toxins.

Post 26 July, public anger manifested itself everywhere. The alarming deterioration of the city was debated to its last penny, committees were formed and promises were made to change for the better.

The Mithi River Development and Protection Authority was set up with the Chief Minister as its Chair. The press was invited each time a neta visited the banks of river to see "the extent of the problem". That was in 2005. Exactly 10 years have passed since. Despite 500 crore pumped into Mithi, an RTI query reveals not a single meeting has taken place in the last five years. The change, or the lack of it, is evident in the tonnes of garbage, toxic waste and plastic bags that float, sink and reappear with the ebb and flow of the thick black waters.

In fact, the problem has only gotten worse. In the last decade, roads that historically did not flood are now water-logged each monsoon. Thanks to technology, text messages are sent out warning citizens to be alert each monsoon. But the root cause it forgotten, until the city sees another deluge.

bangalore lake pollution

What Mumbai faced a decade ago is replaying in Chennai. The city was inundated all week, disintegrating under the downpour. The civic body was forced to call National Disaster Response Force for help. Boats navigated into the city as cars stood submerged. A taxi company even introduced a boat service on its mobile app to ferry stranded residents. Helpless citizens waded through waist deep water or waved from terraces just to survive the storm. Once again blind growth, choking the city's water bodies and catchment areas, has come back to haunt it.

Over the years we've gotten accustomed to seeing images of the utter helplessness of the citizenry. Our anger at the system is usually momentary. But as the collapse of a civic system plays out again and again, perhaps we need to ask if we can really continue to exist in this manner.

By 2050 66% of the global population will be living in cities predicts a UN study. Delhi and Mumbai will be among the world's five most crowded cities; 404 million more Indians will live in cities.

Internationally, cities are working hard to be future ready, while at the same time emphasising the importance of clean air, sustainable infrastructure, open spaces, recyclable waste management and a robust drainage and water system. Master plans are being redrawn to make cities smarter and more liveable.

In India, too, 98 cities have been earmarked for the government's Smart City project.

Among the criteria are energy efficiency, an integrated transport system, social infrastructure and, importantly, waste management and water conservation.

But can the administrators of this mega-ambitious plan pull it off? And where do they start?

Most of our cities are plagued by jurisdictional and departmental inefficiencies and overlaps. With a few exceptions, by and large no two civic departments work in tandem, leave alone local versus state versus central bodies.

Take Bellandur Lake itself. Whose responsibility is it to decontaminate the lake, and who will ensure toxic effluents and untreated waste not dumped into it anymore? Is it BWSSB (water and sewage board), BDA (Bangalore Development Authority), BBMP (Civic Body), KSPCB (state pollution board) or the Urban Development Ministry? No one knows for sure. And no one is quite aware who will give the approval and be accountable for this mammoth task. So, predictably, any effort will be piecemeal.

A few months ago the civic administration of Mumbai came up with a 20-year Development Plan, with 2034 as its goal year. The draft plan was scrapped sooner than it was made public. Labelled "builder-centric" by citizen groups, the plan sought to reduce open spaces to 2 square metres per person even in the suburbs. It reportedly ignored the slums of Mumbai - which that house half its population -- with no mention of settlements and industries in areas like Dharavi and Bandra Kurla Complex. These are areas that line the Mithi River. This is where the river chokes. And we are back to square one, if not a few steps back.

The Modi government has earmarked Rs 48,000 crore for its Smart City project. Experts believe one of the main concerns is not just transforming the city technologically but addressing the pressing problems of water supply, sanitation, waste management and sewage treatment.

The observation by Nobel laureate Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, "Water is life's mater and matrix, mother and medium," couldn't hold truer today. If we annihilate our lakes and rivers and all that grows in them, how will we, as a people, survive?

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