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Nature's revenge: Bengaluru's lake on fire, yet again!
It was a wakeup call both for the municipal authorities and the citizens of Bengaluru, India's bustling Silicon Valley. On February 16, 2017, the city's largest lake Bellandur caught fire again and suffocated people in the vicinity.

The lake is full of toxic chemical sludge and was belching out toxic fumes, apart from the toxic frothing foam. 'Lake on fire' – a contradiction in terms, is a metaphor in practically all religions since ancient times. It is the place where all evil doers are condemned to be dumped into! This extreme event in Bengaluru should in fact wake up the entire country. Life should be lived responsibly by all citizens, as far as our scarce resources are concerned. Our environment should be strained only within set limits, so that Mother Earth can recoup itself, on an ongoing basis.

A quick recap:

While water covers two thirds of our globe, it is mostly saline. Fresh water suitable for consumption of humans, animals and for agriculture is only 3 per cent on the planet. Even most of this is locked up in polar ice caps, mountain tops and glaciers or is underground. So ready availability of freshwater for any civilisation is scarce and the sources are rivers, lakes and smaller water bodies. No wonder, that our ancestors held our rivers, water bodies and springs as sacred and revered them as divinity.

Where ever a place of worship came up in a village or a city, the rulers endowed a water tank and a grove of trees. The trees provided shade to the weary pilgrims, purified the air, kept the temperature down and checked soil erosion. During the rains, the tree roots retained substantial rain water. The worshippers had their dip in the water tank, before entering the temple. But the greater purpose of the tanks was for them to be filled up with excess rain water during monsoon, something which we call as water harvesting today.

After retirement, two decades of struggle for retaining our water bodies and preventing their abuse, has been our team's mission. In Mumbai we live close to the Powai lake. This is one of the ten water bodies, which come under the National Lake Preservation Plan. There is a Joint Parliamentary Commission to oversee that these lakes are not abused or even purposely dried out. Mumbai has had hundreds of water tanks, big and small since time immemorial. These acted as storages of excess rain water and helped in dry seasons. They also helped to raise the underground water table.

Over the years, builders in connivance with the municipal engineers filled these tanks with rubble and built fancy residences and malls over the reclaimed lands. This led to water shortages and flooding in these very same areas. As the new suburb of Powai was coming up, illegally the builders were dumping all their construction rubble in the lake at night. They were drawing the lake water illegally for construction activities.

Untreated sewage was also being dumped into the lake. The fish started dying, and the lake became full of hyacinth weeds and froth. As the public opinion mobilised, the matter came up in the Parliament and the JPC members visited the lake and met us too. They pronounced that the lake will die in 15 years. Central funds were sanctioned and detailed vital steps to be taken were specified, to restore the lake. The funds came and they were mysteriously spent only on those items, where maximum opacity of expenses was possible. The lake continued to be enveloped with weeds and because of contaminated water, the deda fish died and their carcasses were seen floating on the water.

Since then we have learned that public vigil and involvement/confrontation on an ongoing basis with the lake authorities is necessary, to save our water bodies from abuse or extinction. Checking the lake maintenance budgeting and on spot inspection of work carried out, can all be done by regularly submitting Right to Information and visiting their offices in large numbers. When necessary, Public Interest Litigations should be filed, as has been done by one of the local NGOs.

Husbanding of scarce natural resources cannot be left to governments and municipalities, for they only mouth platitudes and indulge only in tokenism. Active involvement of the citizenry is vital. We have seen that thousands of crores have been spent on Clean Ganga project right from Rajiv Gandhi's days, but hardly anything has been achieved!

The Bengaluru lake episode happened because a lot of untreated toxic industrial effluents had been allowed to pollute the lake. A highly irresponsible and punishable act! The lake had enough of combustible substances to catch fire and smother people. How the Karnataka government, the municipality and the people of Bengaluru will team up for a common cause, is something the rest of the nation should be watching! From childhood we have been hearing:'Paani mein aag lagna, Bhagwan ka prakop hai!'

We still have to hear something from the authorities, which reflects their sense of concern and sincerity of purpose. Of course, the usual probes have been ordered. Hardly reassuring!

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