Initial thoughts on lake management

( Initial thoughts that came to my mind when I did some preliminary reading on Bangalore lakes, it eventually culminated in a newspaper oped coauthored with Shrimoyee Bhattacharya when I was interning at CSTEP  )


A brief literature review of depletion of lakes and other water bodies in Bangalore informs us that this topic has been in popular discourse for quite some time now. Starting with Lakshman Rau Committee report in 1986, AT Ramaswamy Committee Report in 2007, NK Patil Report to the High Court in 2011 and BV Balasubramanian task force report of 2011, all of them expressed the ground realities, catalogued specific incidents of crimes and exposed governance faultlines. While these make for interesting and depressing read, they are significant due to the fact that they were commissioned by the state machinery (I am including Judiciary to be part of the state), there are also handful of high court rulings and plenty of reports from civil society organizations and academia, the latest being the doomsday scenario predicted by researchers from the Indian Institute of Science. One wonders, how is it that we are still discussing the same problem?

The basic premise behind each of these painstaking studies on top of the previous one is that government is intending to implement the findings. But what we fail to understand is that government is not a monolithic black box. It needs to be uncovered to understand why very few of the findings make it to policies in a piecemeal fashion. In addition to the understanding of governance machinery and its intricacies, there is a greater need to understand other agents in this demand of lakes which we hold so dearly.

For the sake of convenience and simplicity, I will unpack this system in an economic sense of supply-demand and introduce dynamics through causal linkages. The product we are interested in is lakes and its associated natural drainage system.  Since, it is essentially a public good, the supplier of this product to be the government. A starting point of supply side analysis would be to ask ourselves the question, which government?

This is where the first set of issues begin. There are no clear property rights assigned to a government department or a level of government. Currently, the agencies impacting lakes are – BBMP, BDA, LDA, KSPCB, BWSSB and KFD (There can also be additions – KIADB and KHB). This unclear demarcation while some might argue is a necessary instrument of the state to maximize rent seeking adds additional difficulties in our simple supply demand model – information asymmetry. This is the information asymmetry between government agency and the demand side agents – the citizens. Even a law-abiding citizen concerned about lakes often does not know who is the custodian of the neighbourhood lake easily. There is also information asymmetry within departments on the action one can or supposed to take due to unclear assignment of property rights.

If we were to relax this proposition of information asymmetry between departments, a reading of legislations and the reports commissioned by the government convinces any reader that there are sufficient legal powers to ensure protection of lakes, storm water drains from encroachments and its pollution.  There are twin problems with implementation that come to the fore – priorities and principal-agent problem. Regarding the former, Government has to tackle tradeoff between housing for new urban migrants and lakes. This would mean despite laws, government machinery at the top of the ladder does not care about the implementation relating to the protection of the lakes. The latter is the converse of the former problem, government machinery at the top is benevolent towards lakes and implementing new legislations to protect the lakes, but the low rung machinery or the agents are resisting these changes for reasons ranging from conflicting command-control messages or self-interest.

There may be truth in both and one might concede that public goods like lakes cannot be protected by the government at all and be inclined to privatize these by assigning property rights to private developers like in the case of Hebbal Lake by the then toothless LDA. Government may also occasionally blame the users of services – citizens of the city who need behavioural change. Political functionaries may not see merit in protecting lakes as it may not bring in any political currency i.e. votes. This brings us to the important question of citizens. Are citizens a monolithic block? Do Bangaloreans really want to protect lakes?

Is there a demand for lakes in Bangalore?  Real estate as an investment instrument has meant, constantly try to purchase multiple properties and if this leads to lock in land, then this reinforces property price increase and other agents will mimic behaviour. Alienation is common in urban lives where there is no real stakeholdership unlike rural areas and commons typically fall victim in this setting. It is also possible that migration and temporary residentship would reduce the stake of citizens in this cause. Sometimes, it is possible that minimal exposure can lead to lack of conceptualization of how a city should grow. While these are behavioral, there are two systemic effects – hysteresis of corruption and lack of information. First, there is a good possibility that most of us are living in an illegal dwelling. The system perpetuated this behavior making us easy targets for discretionary state power. Lack of information can be handicap for an urban citizen. We take water for granted as if we have a piped water connection. We find alternatives like water tankers run by the mafia when we do not have access to it. We expect low prices without wondering about the cost of the service. The same goes for sewerage disposal, sometimes into lakes, tanks and storm water drainage.

The last point is pertinent and can act as an important signaling mechanism to the demand side agents. Pricing of water supply might be incorporating cost of pumping either from underground or Cauvery, but does it incorporate the risks of drought, opportunity cost and future impact of lake depletion due to occupying the tank bed? Does it make sense to legalize more groundwater pumping by tanker companies which are anyway operating in black market, but ensure the pricing? These questions are worth pondering when there is a clear case of widespread governance failure. The signaling can have far reaching consequences. It will be interesting to test the hypothesis that water usage when delivered by tankers is more restricting and conserving compared to piped connections. This should not discard the equity considerations. But a true pricing can remain a precursor to other schemes. This will be an attempt at driving the point about the acute water issues facing the city. True demand of water when priced appropriately makes citizens stakeholders and not free-ride on public resource. This also places citizens as stakeholders as opposed to lake or environment. Compared to other systemic changes for governance models which are elaborated in detail in various reports, this does not require multi-agency rejigs, but accurate accounting and political will which in my opinion is less than other recommendations. At the very least, accounting and measurement of this is a necessity before implementation.

To summarize, there are three major verticals along which the fight for lakes should be rerouted:

  • Information relating to agencies responsible for water bodies etc., regulations, violations.
  • Assignment of property rights of water bodies, water networks, associated extended perimeter and its maintenance (including treatment of polluted sewage, desilting etc.) to single agency which is supplier, maintainer and regulator.
  • Accounting for unsustainable path of water supply, lake management, sewerage, drainage and disclosure of the costs. Pricing water on the basis of the same.

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