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Saving Hesaraghatta

A mundu-clad villager, a pony-tailed photo-journalist and a nattily dressed chartered accountant make an odd threesome. It's a trio that meets only in a Bollywood scriptwriter's hyper imagination.

But their assorted backgrounds was the last thing on S.T. Basavaraja's and Mahesh Bhat's minds as they stood in a huddle on the dry bed of the Hesaraghatta lake, on the outskirts of Bangalore. They were even oblivious to the sandstorm that four bulldozers were furiously raking around them.

The storm brought good news. The bulldozers were clearing the silt from the Hesaraghatta lake's eastern channel. This channel would connect the lake to a catchment area. Next monsoon should bring water to the lake. The Hesaraghatta lake could do with some water.

Last year, the historic 1,630-hectare lake ' that had been Bangalore's single source of water for about one century ' dried up to the last drop. 'I saw the lake dry up inch by inch. No one tried to save it,' says Bhat.

The Hesaraghatta lake was built by the Dewan of Mysore state in 1894. It was Bangalore's main source of water till it started drying up in the early 1990s. Silting, deforestation and providing water to a rapidly growing population took a toll on the lake. The lake's demise moved three men into action. Basavaraja, an arecanut farmer from Hesaraghatta village, Bhat, a jet-setting freelance photo-journalist, and Devaraj, an affluent chartered accountant, came together in an effort aimed at breathing life back into the lake.

Each wants the lake back for a different reason. Basavaraja is driven by emotions. The Hesaraghatta lake was a part of his childhood. He learnt to swim in it. His father would catch fish from the lake to feed the family. The endless bird-watchers 'who came wearing sun hats and binoculars and would sit crouched in one spot for hours ' were a constant source of amusement to him and his friends. Trekking around the five-km-by-three-km lake was one big adventure as it took the whole day and meant carrying a packed lunch.

The weekend picnickers from Bangalore kept the tea stalls and restaurants in brisk business. 'Sundays were like one big mela-day around the lake,' remembers Basavaraja.

Today, one old, tired-looking snack-vendor sits beside the lake now. That too, out of sheer habit ' and not business considerations. 'This is the only job I've known,' he says. His customer base is reduced to the village children who take a snack-break after a noisy game of cricket on the lake-bed.

Mahesh Bhat has an academic concern for the lake. He lives in a dance school campus nearby and witnessed, day after day, the once sprawling Hesaraghatta lake dry up. Finally, last year, there was not a drop of water to be seen. 'It speaks volumes about our whole-hearted disregard for water conservation,' he says.

The Bangalore Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (BMRDA) made a last-ditch effort to save the lake in the late Nineties. It commissioned the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to conduct a study on why the lake was drying up. Following ISRO's report, the BMRDA ordered that no residential colonies were to come up around the lake and made organic farming and rainwater harvesting compulsory. 'The rules remained on paper,' says Bhat. Devaraj is the sleeping partner of the group. The chartered accountant owns a farmhouse near the lake, where he would spend lazy weekends chilling out and sometimes bird-watching. He wanted to help save the lake, but didn't have the time to contribute. So he chipped in with the resources. Devaraj organised the earth-mover for de-silting the lake and sponsored the diesel.

Operation 'Save the Lake' was kicked off by Basavaraja. He decided it was time for action when the lake finally dried up completely, lowering the water table from 100 feet down to 700 feet. By then, the migratory birds had all disappeared. 'I couldn't bear to watch the deterioration any longer,' he says.

Basavaraja started the Akravathy Kera Seva Samiti, put up hand-written banners and hired an autorickshaw mounted with a microphone ' to spread the 'Save Hesaraghatta' message.

Vote-seeking politicians have probably numbed people to any message passed through mobile microphones and street banners. Basavaraja's campaign did not spark any radical mass movement. 'A few people lent support. But we didn't know where to go from there,' he says.

Bhat happened to read a banner and contacted Basavaraja. The ball got rolling. For starters, Bhat gave the crusade a trendy name. The movement was now called, 'Friends of Hesaraghatta'. Next, he asked his friends in high places to open doors to the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) ' the body that 'owned' the lake. The BWSSB was magnanimous enough to grant permission to Bhat and Company to de-silt the lake. Four bulldozers were organised to start work.

The toughest bit was to motivate villagers to help out. People thought Bhat was talking through his hat when he asked the community to chip in to de-silt the lake's three-kilometre-long, badly blocked water channel. 'It took all our convincing skills to sell the idea,' says Bhat.

Hesaraghatta's friends finally managed to get 30 sturdy young village men to do shramadan every Sunday for eight weeks. A three-km channel, that connected the lake to a catchment area, was opened and water began trickling into Hesaraghatta lake. Now, the lake has three feet of water spread over a few hectares. Bhat is hoping to see the lake full to a quarter of its original size in the next five years.

Bhat has other plans ' he now hopes to become a 'Water Ambassador'. Friends of Hesaraghatta will be spreading the message of water conservation in corporates, clubs, parties ' wherever they can find an audience.

Basavaraj is not looking that far ahead ' he only wants his beloved Hesaraghatta lake to breathe again.

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