As In­dian city grows, a lake ig­nites

Illegal con­struc­tion and waste dump­ing in Ban­ga­lore have en­vi­ron­men­tal costs.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - Shashank.ben­gali By Shashank Ben­gali

BAN­GA­LORE, In­dia — Mo­hamed At­taulla Khan won’t for­get the night the lake he used to fish on as a boy caught fire.

The pol­lu­tion in Bel­lan­dur Lake was well-known: Ev­ery sum­mer for more than a decade, a white froth as thick as shav­ing cream had car­peted the wa­ter, a chem­i­cal re­ac­tion caused by un­treated waste.

But stand­ing on a bridge one evening last month, Khan, a 56-year-old high school prin­ci­pal, saw small or­ange f lames f lick­er­ing at the lake’s sur­face amid the toxic suds.

As he leaned over the rail­ing, a breeze slammed into his face with fumes from the wa­ter. It felt hot and smelled of sul­fur, Khan re­called, and within min­utes, his left eye be­gan to itch and swell. Doc­tors di­ag­nosed him with a rup­tured cornea, re­lated to the fumes.

The fires caused no struc­tural dam­age and sub­sided af­ter a few days, but they un­der­scored the en­vi­ron­men­tal costs of the ex­plo­sive growth in Ban­ga­lore, In­dia’s high-tech hub, which, like many In­dian cities, is chok­ing from illegal con­struc­tion, un­reg­u­lated dump­ing, of­fi­cial mis­man- age­ment and mount­ing waste.

Some have drawn com­par­isons to Cleve­land’s Cuya­hoga River, which was so thick with oil slicks and in­dus­trial pol­lu­tion that it caught fire mul­ti­ple times in the 1960s — and as a re­sult, is cred­ited with help­ing in­spire the U.S. en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment.

Green ac­tivists in In­dia hope the Bel­lan­dur fire will prompt a sim­i­lar reck­on­ing.

“It’s not ev­ery day that a lake catches fire,” Khan said. “This should make peo­ple wake up and re­al­ize that we have a se­ri­ous prob­lem.”

In a re­port sub­mit­ted to author­i­ties in early June, T.V. Ra­machan­dra, one of the city’s lead­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tists, said the foam in the wa­ter was the re­sult of “sus­tained inf low of un­treated sewage and ef­flu­ents,” which rain­fall and high winds churn into froth. A cig­a­rette tossed into the lake could cause the foam to ig­nite, he said.

For years, Ra­machan­dra and other sci­en­tists have warned of se­vere degra­da­tion in a place once known as the “City of a Thou­sand Lakes.” Most were built five cen­turies ago to sup­ply ir­ri­ga­tion and drink­ing wa­ter to a land­locked pop­u­la­tion. They were later con­nected by a canal sys­tem un­der Bri­tish rule.

Over the last two decades, Ban­ga­lore’s pop­u­la­tion dou­bled to nearly 10 mil­lion as the city evolved into an In­dian ver­sion of Sil­i­con Val­ley, but lo­cal agen­cies failed to man­age the growth. Com­pared with 1973, the de­vel­oped area of the city has in­creased nine­fold while bod­ies of wa­ter have shrunk by 80%, Ra­machan­dra says.

As the de­mand for land in­creased, de­vel­op­ers built bus sta­tions, sta­di­ums, high-rise apart­ment build­ings and even a golf course atop dy­ing lakes and the wet­lands that once acted as nat­u­ral pu­ri­fiers.

Much of the con­struc­tion was illegal, driven by a pow­er­ful “land mafia” and abet­ted by cor­rupt lo­cal of­fi­cials who looked the other way as de­bris and waste were dumped from homes and in­dus­tries that lacked proper treat­ment sys­tems.

A task force ap­pointed by the gov­ern­ment of Kar­nataka state, which in­cludes Ban­ga­lore, re­ported in 2011 that the city had be­come “a land of a thou­sand sewage tanks.”

“Be­cause reg­u­la­tory agen­cies are weak and don’t have much power or staff, all the pol­luters are tak­ing ad­van­tage,” Ra­machan­dra said in an in­ter­view. “For the last four decades, we are pay­ing the price.”

The an­nual ap­pear­ance of the white foam is a symp­tom of the larger prob­lem, ac­tivists say. Bel­lan­dur lies near the south­ern end of the chain of lakes and gets more than 130 mil­lion gal­lons per day of un­treated or par­tially treated sewage from across the city, far more than it can fil­ter nat­u­rally.

Sci­en­tists say the waste­water also con­tains de­ter­gents that are high in phos­pho­rous, used by In­dian man­u­fac­tur­ers to soften hard wa­ter. That also con­trib­utes to the foam. The United States be­gan re­strict­ing the use of phos­phates in de­ter­gents in the 1970s af­ter find­ing they were killing off aquatic life in the Great Lakes, but In­dia has no such reg­u­la­tions.

This year, many Ban­ga­lore res­i­dents said, the foam on Bel­lan­dur and neigh­bor­ing Varthur Lake was thicker and smellier than in pre­vi­ous years. The winds that swirl through the city be­fore the an­nual mon­soon rains blew the froth into the streets, where it col­lided with ve­hi­cles and pedes­tri­ans who at times strug­gled to pick it off their skin.

Ra­machan­dra spent an hour with his stu­dents from the In­dian In­sti­tute of Science, Ban­ga­lore, col­lect­ing sam­ples of the foam one af­ter­noon, and nearly all of them de­vel­oped rashes, he said. It is worse for those liv­ing next to the lake, such as M. Man­ju­nath, an un­em­ployed fa­ther of a baby girl, who blamed the nox­ious froth for oc­ca­sional headaches and dizzi­ness.

“It has be­come very dif­fi­cult here,” Man­ju­nath said. He ac­knowl­edged that his neigh­bors in the shanties by the lakeside dis­carded their waste into the wa­ter, block­ing a canal that caused the lather to build up in Bel­lan­dur Lake.

For years, ninth-grade science stu­dents at Khan’s high school have been study- ing the ef­fect of the pol­lu­tion in Varthur Lake and send­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal sam­ples to Ra­machan­dra’s lab for test­ing. They have found E. coli bac­te­ria in borewells fed by the lake — which res­i­dents use for drink­ing — and learned from doc­tors in the area that nearly half their pa­tients are suf­fer­ing from stom­ach ail­ments that ac­tivists say are linked to dirty wa­ter.

Sam­ples the stu­dents took from Varthur Lake also have re­vealed high lev­els of oil and other hy­dro­car­bons. Sci­en­tists and of­fi­cials say that hy­dro­car­bon-rich in­dus­trial waste, f loat­ing on the wa­ter and mix­ing with the lather, was what burst into flames be­gin­ning May 15.

“In­dus­tries have mush­roomed in the area with no con­trols or reg­u­la­tions,” said Sub­hash Adi, the state upa lokayukta, or anti-cor­rup­tion om­buds­man, who has held hear­ings on the is­sue. “We’ve told the author­i­ties there has to be ac­tion, and if they fail to do some­thing, we will hold them re­spon­si­ble.”

But the hodge­podge of state and mu­nic­i­pal agen­cies that share re­spon­si­bil­ity for the lakes has not iden­ti­fied the pol­luters. In­stead, the agen­cies blamed one another as the fires made na­tional head­lines.

The Kar­nataka State Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Board said it would file suit against the Ban­ga­lore Wa­ter Sup­ply and Sew­er­age Board for fail­ing to stop the con­tam­i­na­tion. The sewage board said it was the pol­lu­tion au­thor­ity’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to find and cite those re­spon­si­ble for the illegal dump­ing.

The sewage board has asked for $156 mil­lion to set up new treat­ment plants on Bel­lan­dur and Varthur lakes. Lo­cal author­i­ties are deep in debt and can’t af­ford to build them. Even if they could, re­searchers say that con­tam­i­nants from scores of up­stream lakes would con­tinue to f low south, neu­tral­iz­ing the ef­fect.

Res­i­dents say they have lit­tle faith in the gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to solve the prob­lem.

“We need to change course, but it’s like try­ing to turn the Titanic around,” said Nagesh Aras, a soft­ware ex­ec­u­tive and en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist. “There’s an ice­berg ahead, but the cap­tain hasn’t even seen it. And that’s the tragedy with the fires. We’re try­ing to ex­plain that they’re just the tip of the ice­berg.”

Man­ju­nath Ki­ran AFP/Getty Im­ages

PEDES­TRI­ANS cover their noses as they cross froth­ing wa­ter from nearby Bel­lan­dur Lake. The foam, caused by un­treated waste, caught fire last month.

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