How did an extremely well planned Bengaluru get to where it is now?

The Ulsoor fish deaths are only the latest in a succession of events that reveal the state of pollution


Residents woke up Monday to see the lake’s fish dead, floating on the surface of the Ulsoor lake in the middle of Bengaluru. Ulsoor is one of Bengaluru’s largest and oldest lakes. Even two days after the incident that grabbed headlines, the lake stinks. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Residents woke up Monday to see the lake’s fish dead, floating on the surface of the Ulsoor lake in the middle of Bengaluru. Ulsoor is one of Bengaluru’s largest and oldest lakes. Even two days after the incident that grabbed headlines, the lake stinks. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Bengaluru: The Bible refers to dead fish floating up as a harbinger of the end of the world. Well, that happened in Bengaluru this week.

The mass fish deaths of Monday are part of a narrative in the past decade that included multiple instances of foam forming on the city’s lakes and catching fire.

But why are the fish dying? Why are we more likely to see headlines on lakes foaming and frothing, about that froth catching fire, than about the city’s IT industry, its famous gardens and parks?

You may find an answer in Bangalore’s growth.

In 1941, Bangalore had a little over 410,000 people. By the time of independent India’s first census in 1951, it had almost doubled to 780,000, coinciding with a change in capital of what was then Mysore state from the imperial city of Mysore to Bangalore. It nearly doubled again in the 70s to 2.9 million in 1981 from 1.6 million in 1971.

The problem started when urbanization became so rapid and unstoppable that the city and its margins started getting dense and congested without anyone planning for it, according to a study by V. Ravichandar, an urban expert who was brought in by the government last July to suggest ways to improve the city’s governance.

More people moved to Bengaluru than any other Indian city in the last decade, according to the 2011 census data. Buildings cropped up without accessibility, every inch on the road became priceless because of traffic gridlocks and garbage piles became more visible than ever.

Until roughly three decades ago, the city’s lakes were so bountiful that they were the perennial resource for supplying water to the entire city, Ravichandar said.

But as more people moved, they had less space. Some of the lakes got converted into public spaces or residential apartments, says Ravichandran.

The city’s main bus stand, known popularly as Majestic (after a cinema hall in the area), was once Dharmabudhi Lake. The Karnataka Golf Association was Challaghatta Lake. Kanteerava stadium, Asian games village, all of them used to be lakes before.

Consequently, a governmental panel probe recently noted, during these high growth years, the city’s lakes reduced from 900 to some 150. In the remaining lakes, there is more sewage than water, they noted.

It is a classic case of leadership failure, says Ravichandar.

The Fish Deaths

Residents woke up Monday to see the lake’s fish dead, floating on the surface of the Ulsoor lake in the middle of Bengaluru.

Ulsoor is one of Bengaluru’s largest and oldest lakes. Even two days after the incident that grabbed headlines, the lake stinks.

Area residents say this was waiting to happen, that the neglect of infrastructure in the area—like a dam meant to check sewage inflows that had been broken for two years—would take a toll.

Although an official explanation has not come, scientists have suggested that the fate of those fish were decided by tonnes of raw sewage entering the lake.

Algae growth in waters, common during the summer season, could be a reason for the decline in the water’s oxygen that might have caused fish deaths, said Helen R. Kennedy, an environmental professor at Mount Carmel College in Bengaluru.

But the huge number of dead fish should raise alarm bells about the toxic materials entering the lake, said Kennedy, who had tested water samples from the lake as recently as three months ago.

The Ulsoor fish deaths are only the latest in a succession of events that reveal the state of pollution. Bellandur, the city’s largest lake, was so polluted that it caught fire twice last year and has been frothing and foaming ever since.

The need for cleaning of these lakes has been something repeatedly pointed out by experts. “It’s no rocket science. The lakes don’t have a self-cleaning mechanism. Someone has to do it manually,” says Leo Saldana, convenor at Environment Support Group, a green outfit.

The rising pollution levels in Ulsoor Lake was even well documented and presented to chief minister Siddharamaiah last July, thanks to a man called Zaffar Sait.

Sait, who lives in Richards Town, was baffled after photographing what goes into Ulsoor lake. He first saw sewage mixed with water going to the drain at one point. Then he saw plastic mixing with the water . Then thermocol. Then clothes. Then blood from slaughterhouses. Then fecal matter. Then dry waste and more sewage.

With the screening mechanism to separate solid waste ill maintained, all of this directly reaches Ulsoor lake, he found.

Did the photographs make the administration wake up to realize the importance of making cities liveable as more population flocks to it?

There’s little to suggest they did.

“We couldn’t sleep on Sunday night. As early as 7am on Monday morning, we had to send a request to the authorities to at least remove the dead fishes from the area. But they came only in the evening,” says Purushottam.

“And so far, we haven’t given an official explanation for the dead fishes. But we know the reason, the fishes couldn’t fly to some other place so they are dead,” he said.