At Bengaluru's Byramangala lake, amid pollution and lack of structural support, a novel farming system flourishes
Removed from the urban dialogue on climate change as well as the media gaze, farmers and herders around Bengaluru's Byramangala lake tackle pollution and landlessness.
In 2017, images of a frothing Bellandur lake — Bengaluru’s largest water body — were widely broadcast. Incredulous viewers saw giant clouds of foam drifting and accumulating through the city. As citizens complained of the unbearable stench rising from the water, environmental groups came down hard on the industries responsible, even taking the matter to the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which initiated a rejuvenation process. It is a different matter that the approach towards the revival of the lake faces severe criticism from environmentalists, activists, and academics alike.
A couple of years on, with the desilting of Bellandur lake underway, tucked some 50 kilometers away in Bidadi Taluk, Byramangala lake confronts a similar reality. However, removed from the oft simplistic urban dialogue on climate change as well as the media gaze, farmers and herders from neighbouring villages push on even as toxic froth from the 1018-acre reservoir spills along the shoreline, impacting their drinking water sources and exposing them to vector-borne issues. In the midst of all this though, filmmaker Bharat Mirle and Quicksand Studio’s six-minute short film, Stories of Resilience, puts forth glimpses of their incredible adaptability.
Every winter as pastures go dry, local farmers throng the lake to secure fodder for their animals. How they totter down the wetland, while balancing bundles of grass weighing 30 to 40 kg, is explained by one such farmer: “The water has great manure in it, so the grass grows well. The grass has formed a thick layer and floats on the surface of the water. You can walk on it. We reel in using a rope that’s tied down [to a rock; sic].”
And while experts say that the grass from the wetland may not be completely devoid of heavy metals, the way in which it’s accessed is still a fully thought-out process. “The farmers have, on their own, adopted a risk management approach which gives them multiple solutions to work around the issue. They may not be ideal but they are practical and doable. So even though there is a risk, it’s managed appropriately — the cows eat that fodder only during the coldest months,” notes urban planner, civil engineer, and member of the Bengaluru Sustainability Forum S Vishwanath.
While 85 percent of Bengaluru’s water bodies are severely polluted, the contamination of Byramangala lake has meant a greater shift in the lives who probably contributed least to it – the farmers. The biggest task has come as reorienting cropping patterns based on irrigational potential, made possible with the Indian agricultural sector’s 2000 years’ experience in managing soil. “It’s been a tremendous change to adapt to, and that’s what they have done. 40 percent of the farmers in the area are growing mulberry leaves now, for silk,” adds Vishwanath.
Interestingly, the film too is careful to counterbalance troubling images of a frothing source of water by the humanisation of the experience of living near one. “The camaraderie among the farmers was something that struck us and we wanted to capture their idiosyncrasies just as much. It was almost as if the lake had brought them together,” recounts Mirle. Similarly, Babitha George, partner at Quicksand, remembers meeting the farmers on a trip last year, and coming back later to hear more of their stories. “There are more nuances to this debate than just pollution — such as nature and humans' relationship with it — which are pushed to the back of our minds to make space for the images and statistics thrown our way.”
That’s not to say farmers around the reservoir have not been completely left out of the climate change dialogue. At the moment, the regulatory framework does not incentivise local livelihoods and in the absence of structural support, civil society’s nostalgia for lakes will not help assimilate farmers into the conversation, experts say. It is precisely due to this exclusion from the loop of water usage that farmers in this part of rural Bengaluru continue managing a problem that has been thrust upon them. And while installing a sewage treatment plant at Byramangala lake could take up to six months, an effective partnership between them, the state, and institutions could catalyse remediation. “The farmers do need to organise, but given the extreme challenges they face just to survive on a day to day basis, it is very difficult for them to do so. The state must step in and enforce the regulations that already exist, but which they fail to monitor or sanction,” adds Dr Harini Nagendra, ecologist and professor of sustainability at Azim Premji University.
Moreover, once the farmers are organised enough to identify the source of pollution, they will be more likely to demand accountability from the small and middle-scale industries which operate with impunity, without effluent treatment plants. “Closing the loop in terms of usage is very important to apply pressure on the system, and we can only rely on civil society groups to make that connection clearer,” Vishwanath adds, citing a farmer-led coup around the Dakshina Pinakini basin. “The moment they spotted synthetic dye in the water, they were able to identify where these industrial units were. They then marched to the tehsildar’s office, got them to come to the illegal unit and put an end to operations.”
While the industries involved may or may not invest in effluent treatment systems, both Nagendra and Vishwanath maintain that an approach which borrows from an outdated visioning of what a lake should be is a ‘frivolous waste of energy’. “We do not have the money to invest in pollution control measures. There is no point conserving lakes without protecting the upstream wetlands,” warns Nagendra, adding, “With industrial pollution, the water, soil and air will become contaminated – people will face health issues while agriculture, fishing and livestock rearing will collapse, and in the end, communities will be forced to sell their land and migrate out of the area.”
Interestingly, a quick look at the numbers seems to put citizens in a spot: It costs Rs 95 for 1,000 litres of water to be supplied to a household, and collected and treated appropriately after usage. But in Bengaluru, residents end up paying an unbelievably subsidised amount of Rs 7 a kilolitre for domestic supply of water. “Are people willing to pay Rs 88 per kilolitre more to stop pollution? Because the laws are clear — polluter pays. But while the state is complicit in not telling the people the real cost of sewage treatment, the citizens are as complicit in not asking those questions,” states Vishwanath, unspooling our empty, urban narratives of pollution and our ironic clamour for rights.
— All images courtesy Bharat Mirle
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