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To Save a Lake or a Forest: Controversy Dogs Karnataka’s Plan to Redevelop Lake by Felling 6,623 Trees

Environmentalists have raised concerns over how as many as 6,623 trees were arbitrarily identified for felling. (Special Arrangement/Vijay Nishanth)

Environmentalists have raised concerns over how as many as 6,623 trees were arbitrarily identified for felling. (Special Arrangement/Vijay Nishanth)

The government believes it has to bring down all 6,623 trees for the lake to be revived, while activists say there has to be a way to revive it while preserving the biodiversity that has taken over.

Time is ticking for a lake redevelopment project for which over 6,000 trees have been identified to be cut down in Bengaluru.

Environmentalists have raised concerns over how as many as 6,623 trees were arbitrarily identified for felling, and how approvals were given to speed up the process amid worries that this could severely impact the fragile biodiversity of the lake area.

The project relates to the Singanayakanahalli lake in the Yelahanka suburb of Bengaluru, which falls in the Hebbal-Nagavara valley and is a critical water body for the network of lakes that is expected to recharge groundwater in villages around the region, all the way up to the neighbouring Chikkaballapura district.

It is a lake that spans over 262 acres, except that there is no water in it. The area is overgrown with trees of all kinds, acacia, Pongamia, neem, fruit trees and ordinary overgrown brush trees.

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The hitch, though, is that the Minor Irrigation Department wants to enable the filling up of the lake this monsoon since other lakes in the network like the Tamisandra lake are already holding a lot of water.

The lake is over a hundred years old, while the trees have taken over it over the last 30 to 40 years. The government believes it has to bring down all 6,623 trees for the lake to be revived, while activists say there has to be a way to revive it while preserving the (relatively new) biodiversity that has taken over.

Over the last few years, this area has become a hub for wild animals and many kinds of birds, which also nest in the area, says activist Vijay Nishanth, who is also a member of the State Biodiversity Committee.

“The forest department wants to straightaway cut all the trees rather than look at the holistic environment. We see scheduled species like peacocks, fox, all roaming around. So we feel they must consult with lake conservationists to find a way to keep the biodiversity intact and revive the lake," Nishanth says.

After the public outcry and campaigns by environmentalists, the forest department has decided to defer the cutting of trees by another 20 days within which more public objections can be considered. The previous attempt to seek public opinion was just a ten-day window, which ended last week.

The local MLA, who is also the chairman of the Bangalore Development Authority, says the entire region is home to many peacocks and foxes, but it is important to revive the lake soon to get water for the surrounding villages.

“There are peacocks in every village, they are there in this lake and outside. Foxes also roam around. My effort is to fill the lake with water so that eight to ten villages around will all benefit. Underground water will be recharged, fisheries can be taken up, drinking water will be better in my constituency. And wherever in my constituency we find space, we will plant more trees," Vishwanath told News18.

He says the plan is to leave the trees in the periphery of the lake to form a natural boundary but to clear all the trees in the middle of it. About Rs 2 crore have already been spent to de-weed and desilt parts of it, and form a tank bund around the lake.

Local villagers are divided on how the government executes its plan. They say they would oppose the cutting of fruit trees and others trees that will help animals and birds but see no point in allowing brush trees to exist since these will anyway not survive once water is channelised into the lake.

“Some of these trees only consume too much water and are of no use. If the government removes those it will help a better recharge of underground water," says Mohan Kumar of Muddanahalli that adjoins the lake.

Narayan Rao, a resident of Singanayakanahalli, says he doesn’t understand what the fuss is about bringing down a few brush trees that are “useless". “It is the first time I’m seeing activists fight for worthless trees," he says.

While no one denies the need to revive the lake, the question is about how the government goes about this and would really require the axing of over 6,000 trees.

“Everything has a value. If you look at the biodiversity here, the water-holding capacity has increased. The villagers use part of it as grazing land, the peacocks nest here. All that is developed around here may not be of use to you and me, but you cannot say it is of no use to anybody.

“For 30 years, these trees have provided groundwater recharge. They took care of the people. Suddenly to develop the lake, you cannot destroy all trees. They also have a right to live, that is the simplest thing we are asking, that take the help of lake conservationists before you start on a sudden plan,” he said.

But the trees spread over a good 150 acres of the 262-acre lake.

“Water can be channelled into the lake almost immediately, the inlet canals are ready. But before we do that, these useless trees must be cut, because you cannot cut them after the water fills up. At least 50 per cent of the trees are of no use to animals or birds or humans and will die anyway once water fills in. How can a forest come inside a lake? A lake must be a lake. My interest is to fill in water. We can plant trees later," says Vishwanath.

Bengaluru and surrounding districts like Kolar and Chikkaballapur are known for their network of lakes which are key to storing excess monsoon water and keeping the underground water levels high and ensured good water availability through the year for drinking and farming. But encroachments, by way of construction, on lake beds, have over the last couple of decades, meant that lakes have dwindled in size and number.

A forest, however, is a different kind of ‘encroachment’ and therein lies a tough choice for the government to make. In 20 days, the forest department will have to take a call on whether it will go ahead with cutting down thousands of trees, and if so, how many of them.

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first published:June 28, 2021, 20:31 IST