On Shaky Ground
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Long before the 2 bhk, owning a Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) housing plot was life’s ambition for the city’s middle class. People applied for one and waited, often for years and often without luck. An allotment, of course, settled you for life. Or it could come back to haunt you three decades later, as people who bought sites years ago are discovering.

It’s something that has the Karnataka government in a spot. A recent demolition drive by the district administration on encroachments around some of Bang­alore’s lakes now hangs like the sword of Damocles over some plots BDA sold a couple of decades ago. It has since emer­ged that many of the BDA’s housing layouts which stand on dried lake beds on paper still belong to the revenue department as due procedures for transfer were not followed. So do they qualify to face action or is it just a communication lapse between two government agencies? Answers, as usual, have been scarce.

The Siddaramaiah government—beset as it is by a string of setbacks, the latest being the alleged involvement of police officers in a lottery scam that has been handed over to the cbi—stopped the demolition drive immediately and bou­ght time until a committee of legislators studying the condition of lakes aro­und the city submitted its report, due sometime around June 9.

To be sure, no building sitting on a BDA plot has been touched so far, although the two-day demolition drive in early May brought down scores of buildings located on privately developed areas. But those affected complained that if the BDA could build on a lakebed, so could they. Chief minister Siddaramaiah, who has recently taken to inspecting Bangalore’s localities now that elections to the civic body are due soon, was quick with an assurance that the poor who lost their homes would be compensated.

It’s no secret that Bangalore’s real est­ate boom has come at the cost of its numerous lakes or tanks—around 390 in 1985 according to one account—and that several public buildings such as bus terminals and stadia have been built on what were once water bodies. But the current issue seems centred on what the government should do to set the record straight. One approach suggests a fresh classification of lakes as either living or disused, based on which action be taken.

Studies point out that a large number of tanks around Bangalore were built either as a source of drinking water or for irrigation. Bangalore, whose water table has been rapidly depleting, gets its drinking water from the Cauvery, a 100 km away.

“Stay in a rented house,” advises Suni­tha Harish, who got the shock of her life on Jan 4 Sunday afternoon, when the revenue department served an eviction notice. Hearings with the tahsildar, mee­tings with officers and even ministers followed as she and a group of around 110 households in the east Banga­lore locality of Banaswadi set out to prove they had bought their plots from BDA. The demolition squads did not tro­uble them but, as she says, “Our fear hasn’t gone away.”

Says K. Jairaj, a former additional chief secretary of Karnataka, “We should not be overzealous in trying to push enforcement in all quarters, it won’t work. We must draw a line. Public properties that have come on lake beds cannot be demolished, it is the private properties that have come up due to wanton encroachment that have to be proceeded against.”

If protecting lakes was the idea, then it’s a bit too late and there is little to be achieved by merely evicting people unless there’s a clear plan ahead, experts feel. “Will these lakes be restored after the demolition? No such policy seems to be in the pipeline,” says Dr P. Thippaiah, a former associate professor at the Bangalore-based think-tank Institute for Social and Economic Change, who published a study titled ‘Vanishing Lakes: A Study of Bangalore City’ in 2009.

There’s no dearth of information. There is a 1988 report by a committee app­ointed to answer precisely the questi­ons being asked now. There is also a 2007 report by then JD(S) legislator A.T. Rama­swamy on the extent of land-grabbing in Bangalore. But is the government willing to follow recommen­dations or will it stick to piecemeal effort?

By Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore

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