Once a basin that supplied water to the entire city, now gasps for air as it tries to shelter some of the last of its inhabitants.
The Hesaraghatta reservoir is about 30 km north-west of Bangalore city and was constructed in 1894. Then the population of Bangalore then, was 1,80,000 and the reservoir was expected to meet the drinking water needs of the city for three decades which at the time meant, till the population reached about 2.50,000. But the population reached the upper limit by 1922 itself, and reservoir dried up by 1925, leaving Hesarghatta as a forgotten piece of land that was envisioned to serve as a three years water supply at any given time, to the city. In the present day, the lakebed spans about 1912 acres. The 356 acres surrounding the lakebed is considered the last remainnig grassland habitat in Bengaluru.
“Hesaraghatta is well past its prime when it comes to meeting the needs of a city with an unquenchable thirst for development. However, the majestic lake now supplies the city and its residents with a host of other services,” says Samuel John, an environmental activist and writer.
The grassland now, mostly plays host to families who are seeking a picnic spot on the weekends with sprawling swathes of grass, mountain bike riders looking for a moderately long off-road track to race, migratory birds who have deemed the lake a stopover for water, and the photographers and bird enthusiasts put there, waiting in the quiet to observe and document them.
A survey commissioned by the Karnataka Biodiversity Board had reportedly found that Hesaraghatta is home to over 235 species of birds, which include endangered species from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List, 400 species of insects and around 100 species of butterflies.
The Lesser Florican
The lesser florican is an endangered bird species, primarily because of the degradation of its dry grassland habitat. According to Wildlife Institute of India (WII) report, there are fewer than 300 lesser floricans remaining India, a sharp contrast to the 3500 that used to been seen flying across the sky about 20 years ago. The report observes that the species is under a serious threat of extinction.
In 2011, the lesser florican was sighted amidst the tall dry grasses of Hesarghatta, by a bird photographer and enthusiast. This marked the bird’s reentry and first confirmed spotting in the area after 100 years, the last one being in 1911.
Such a rare bird’s sighting became significant and conservations efforts were called both by environmental activists and the government alike. Dr H. S Sushma, an adjunct scientist at the Salim Ali centre for Ornithology and Natural history, said that the state went about to carrying out these efforts without preparation. “A sapling plantation drive was carried out across hesarghatta, planting aorunf one lakh tree saplngs were planted, in an effort to rejuvenate the area to with the conservation of the lesser florican in mind. However, the fact that the natural habitat of the lesser florican is a dry, arid region with tall grass, wasn’t paid attention to,” she added. According to ornithologists the bird count of the species in the state is believed to be about 15-20.
In a recent bid to revive conservation efforts however, the Karnataka government has set aside a grant of Rs 50 Lakh towards conservation programmes for the Lesser Florican, which is clearly on the verge of extinction.
The government of Karnataka had announced plans to develop a film city over the Hesaraghatta grassland in 1972, and leased the land to Mysore Film Devlopment Corporation which was later renamed to Karnataka Film development Corporation (KFDC). “It didn’t materialize,” says Mahesh Bhatt, a photographer, filmmaker and activist, working on the preservation of the Arkavathy catchment area for the past 15 years. He added that the KFDC used to rent out the area for Kannada film shootings in the are which used to destroy and damage the area. “It also used to disturb the millions of birds, mammals and insects found in the area, some of which are on the verge of extinction or critically endangered,” he observed.
In 2012, Mahesh, in an effort to save the land, filed a PIL in the High Court of Karnataka detailing the need of urgent conservation efforts in the region. “This led to an undertaking after three years where the government said that they would protect the land till the cabinet decided the fate of the land”, he added. The 365 acres of land surrounding the lakebed were transferred to the department of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Sciences and it remains as is.
Mahesh Bhatt also submitted a detailed conservation proposal to declare the 5000 acres alongwith the lakebed as a ‘Conservation Reserve’ under section 36 a of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. “The proposal was rejected by the department and it still remains as a proposal today,” he said.
Now, in the 2020-21 budget, CM Yediyurappa has announced a ‘theme park’ spread over 100 acres at Hesaraghatta. “The theme park will be established with a private partnership to provide information and training with permanent exhibition and demonstration of native livestock, breeds of sheep/goats, and poultry breeds,” the CM said in his budget speech.
Environmentalists and activists continue to protest this decision as this is bound to affect the conservation efforts going on for decades in the region.