In a quiet neighbourhood in Koramangala, we arrive at the given address on a hot April evening. We ring the bell, a bespectacled man comes to the gate and lets us in.
As we wait in his basement, R Ram Murthy takes out two briefcases. He asks us to hold one of them. “Do you see how heavy that is? And that’s not even half of the material I have,” he says.
Known to be the first person to fight a legal battle against the pollution in Bengaluru’s Bellandur lake, Ram Murthy is skeptical if the heavily polluted lake can actually be revived. And he has his reasons.
It takes some time, and after some reluctance, he begins to tell his story.
Getting acquainted with Bellandur
“Getting involved with Bellandur was an accident,” Ram Murthy says.
After spending a decade working in Saudi Arabia, Ram Murthy returned to Bengaluru in 1996. Originally from Tamil Nadu, he chose to settle down here, and was also involved with social work.
One day in 1997, someone approached him to speak to a man who was near the Bellandur lake. “He spoke Tamil, so the locals approached me, and asked me to enquire about what he was doing,” Ram Murthy narrates.
Ram Murthy found out that the man who was surveying the lake, Vasan, was sent by one of the commissioners at that time to gauge whether water sports could be held in the lake for that year’s National Games. The lake was covered in water hyacinth and its the length and depth could not be ascertained.
The commissioner said that water sports were not possible, but Vasan was determined. He designed a boat called ‘swamp rat’ to clear the water hyacinth, and also to spray the lake to get rid of the mosquito infestation.
Vasan approached Ram Murthy, and asked for his help in surveying the lake.
“So, I went one Sunday and spent the whole day going from east to west, south to north… all 10-15 points in the corners of the lake, and to three middle portions of the lake,” Ram Murthy narrates, “I realised it was a superficial lake of three feet water in the periphery, and maybe 4-5 feet water in the centre. The depth of the lake was hardly 15 feet, because it’s all very, very solid. The sediments had become like rocks. So much of sewage had been let into the lake already.”
They even took a video as they surveyed the lake. You can see one of the local men on the boat, pushing a paddle into the water. As it comes up, perched on it is a whole lot of muck and sludge. Watch the video here:
Filing the case
Finding the lake in such a deplorable and unsustainable state, Ram Murthy, along with a few other petitioners, decided to take the matter to court.
Towards the end of 1998, a PIL was filed in the Karnataka High Court against the dumping of untreated sewage into the lake. “We just filed it… We never thought the hearing would happen, let alone winning the case,” he smiles.
When the first hearing happened in 1999, Ram Murthy says that the government denied all allegations. “They said that the water polluting the lake was not 'theirs', but that from slums. They said, ‘our’ Bellandur has a beautiful treatment plant, these slums are destroying the lake,” he alleges.
Ram Murthy and his fellow petitioners were not entirely sure how they would prove their case. “But then, one miracle happened," he says with a twinkle in his eye.
They were able to procure a piece of evidence, which Ram Murthy believes, cliched the case in their favour.
There was a patch of land which was supposed to be irrigated with treated sewage water so that grass could grow on it, and cows from a military facility could graze. However, this land never got the water, because the sewage did not reach the treatment plant – it had been diverted into a storm water drain which led to the Bellandur lake.
On July 27, 1999, the Karnataka High Court mandated relevant government bodies including the Bengaluru Water Supply and Sewage Board, the Pollution Control Board and Slum Clearance Board to look into the matter. They were directed to construct proper drainage systems, not “allow any polluted water or underground drainage to flow into tanks” in Bengaluru, and to divert this water for treatment and recycling, among other things.
A committee was also formed to look into the matter and submit a report to the court by October 31, 1999.
Has the court order helped?
Despite the court order following his petition, Ram Murthy claims that not much has changed and dumping of untreated sewage into the lake has only increased over the years.
"Untreated sewage has been let into Bellandur 365 days for 20 years: that’s some 10 lakh MLD (million litres per day). And this is after the court order. Around 3 lakh MLD sewage entered the lake before the court order and that's because at that point the city had not grown so much," he says.
It is clear that Ram Murthy feels strongly about the issue. However, it wasn’t until 2015 that he got involved again. "[I took a step back because] I thought there is no way to solve it. The smaller lakes were getting clean water because of the 1999 court order, I am happy about that," he shares.
It was only after the Namma Bengaluru Foundation came forward to revive Bellandur lake a few years ago that he came on board to give another push to the long pending project.
While most major cities are struggling with pollution, what makes Bengaluru's problem more severe, Ramamurthy says, is that it is landlocked.
“Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata - they are located by the sea. They straightaway put their waste into the sea through a canal. They hardly treat their sewage and don't have any problem disposing it. This is not the case with Bengaluru, Delhi and Hyderabad,” he argues.
One of the ways we could improve Bengaluru’s condition, according to him, is if a canal was made to carry the city's untreated waste about 100 kilometres away where it could be treated and recycled.
In fact, a similar proposal was made by the Karnataka government in 2015. It wanted to channel the city's treated sewage water to the parched tanks of Kolar and Chikkaballapur districts for agricultural use. The project was hit by several delays and finally in July 2017, the cabinet approved work on three STPs that will treat the city's sewage water before it is sent to the neighbouring districts.
He also feels that private organisation can better manage the running of STPs than what the government is doing now.
Despite all his cynicism, it appears that the sexagenarian has some hope in the revival of Bellandur lake. He does not believe that it can happen in his lifetime, but hopes that the government focuses on long-term measures.
“They are doing a lot of short-term measures like cleaning the water hyacinth, installing aerators, etc. But we have to first see how they stop untreated sewage from entering the lake. I have my reservations about the methods they are adopting, but we will have to wait and watch,” he says.
(Newspaper clippings courtesy Ram Murthy)