Save lakes from the sins of humanity

  • 30/12/1993

THERE is something very beautiful about lakes -- not just aesthetically, but also intellectually. Lakes do not just mirror their environment. They also mirror the society around them.

Clean water in a lake is either the result of an absence of humanity or the presence of very disciplined human beings who care. Like fish that accumulate and concentrate toxins -- mercury, for example -- lakes accumulate all the sins of humanity.

Deforestation in the watershed leads to siltation and if it continues, can result in the very disappearance of the lake. Indiscriminate urbanisation and careless industrialisation lead to pollution and if they continue, can lead to eutrophication and ultimately, the death of all life forms. Just as certain forms of air pollution can lead to acid rain and give the lake a deadly shine. Construction of roads and embankments without careful planning and due precaution can cut off drainage channels, create waterlogging and floods in the wrong places and destroy the lake itself by reducing its water supply. Overfishing or the introduction of exotic fish can destroy the key resource that lakes usually provide to people.

India's lakes are dying. Many have already died and disappeared and many await the same fate. It's simply a matter of time. Will India's policy makers wake up in time to avert this catastrophe?

In this issue of Down To Earth, we present a tale of two lakes -- Kolleru and Pulicat. Everything possible that can happen to lakes is indeed happening to them. They are being polluted, their catchments are being denuded, their fisheries are being destroyed and their drainage channels are being obstructed. This is the state of not just these two lakes, but of all lakes. The state of lakes and tanks situated inside towns and cities is even more pitiable. Numerous Indian cities were built around tanks, but today most of these tanks have been covered up or are in a badly polluted condition. How can such multifaceted destruction be prevented?

Can the state undertake such a task? We do not think so. It will call for comprehensive planning and superhuman, cross-sectoral policing. In addition, the state would have to allocate fishery rights in a way that is considered just and acceptable. The state has proved itself singularly incapable of such tasks. Politicians, bureaucrats and local interests invariably collude to make hay while the sun shines and the people remain ignorant.

We believe that this is a task that should be best left to the people. The role of the state should be to create and empower people's institutions to take up this task themselves. The reports we have published show that both Kolleru and Pulicat had elaborate people's organisations to decide on fishing rights and deal with conflicts. None of these organisational systems has received any respect from the state. The authority of these people's institutions has got eroded steadily and they are dying a slow death.

Managing a large lake with several fishing settlements around it is not as easy a task as, say, managing a forest. A forest is a fixed, land-based resource and even if it has several villages around it, parts of it can be parcelled off to specific villages to manage, use and take care of. But in a lake, the key resource -- fish -- moves around. Therefore, several tiers of people's organisations will be needed. While fishing rights over specific areas of a lake can be handed over to specific villages, an institutional mechanism will nonetheless be needed at the level of the lake to deal with, negotiate and develop a consensus on lake-wide issues. Thus, apart from village-level panchayats, there is a need for a lake-level panchayat, too.

But, because what happens in the watershed also affects the lake, there is a need also for a watershed-level panchayat. District councils or block-level panchayats or councils have little meaning for natural resource management in this particular context. And, what is amazing is that the people of these lakes, too, had developed multi-level institutions.

These proposed institutions should be sufficiently empowered to intervene in any development that is likely to affect the lake adversely and economic developments should be permitted only with the permission of the lake people. The people will undoubtedly decide on the trade-offs between environment and development and sometimes they may even get it wrong. But because they themselves will suffer the consequences of their mistakes, they will also learn fast and rectify their past deeds.

It is time the government thought of enacting a Lakes Conservation Act that empowers local institutions to manage the country's lakes. India's wetlands are too precious to be allowed to waste any further. The role of the state should be to support these people's institutions with technical assistance, ecological advice and, wherever necessary, financial assistance. If even a few cities can show how they can protect and manage their lakes, they will have shown a way forward to the country.