Urban Waterbodies as Commons

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Hyderabad, India

Anant Maringanti:

"Ambir and Errakunta lakes described above are only two of the hundreds of waterbodies in Hyderabad which can be called urban commons in a profoundly geohistorical richness. The geomorphic backbone of these waterbodies was formed out of a basaltic flood 65 milion years ago. The chaotic drainage patterns of the Deccan plateau created by this event set the context for the gradual emergence of a network of man-made waterbodies in the 12th century. Between the 16th and 19th century, a very large number of water bodies got added to this network to serve the needs of settled agri­culture as well as human habitations. Within the jurisdiction of the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority of 7,100 square kilometres, it is estimated that there are over 3,000 large and small waterbodies most of which are interconnected to each other. Even though the Nizam state undertook modern engineering interventions in the form of irrigation dams, flood balancing reservoirs on a priority basis in the early 20th century, it left institutional arrangements intact for governing the smaller traditional structures – earthen dams, stone masonry, etc, and simple stone weirs.

Multiple and complementary use patterns, customary entitlements, oversight by village level stewardship institutions and funds from the government continued, as agricultural production which sustained the state’s economy was critically dependent on these waterbodies. The gradual decline of these systems began with the rise of the modern and modernising techno-bureaucracies of the post-independence Indian state. The new regime’s imagination, beholden to the large irrigation dams (e g, Nagarjuna Sagar) on the anvil, had little room for the networks of small waterbodies and gradually, the village level social relationships and structures of authority began to break down. To complicate matters further, as the Nizam state’s official languages were Urdu and Persian, languages that the new bureaucracy was not trained in, the accumulated knowledge of governance gradually fell into disuse and became inaccessible. According to estimates by former officials of the irrigation department, between 1950 and 1990, nearly 7 lakh acres of land lost irrigation due to the drying up of the networks of waterbodies in the Telangana region.

In the 1970s, as Hyderabad city began to grow a number of new physical and social processes set in gradually leading to fragmentation and erosion of this system of waterbodies. In ­particular, reckless disposal of industrial effluents, sewerage and municipal waste into waterbodies, encroachment by real estate interests and marginalisation of established customary land use and stewardship practices in the last three decades have led to the virtual disappearance of many of the waterbodies with the result that out of the nearly 500 waterbodies that lay within the core city area, the Hyderabad Urban Development Authority could identify only 169 which could potentially be restored in 2001. Since then, questions of who should be managing these lakes and how the efforts should be funded have been appearing regularly in newspapers even as agencies (revenue department, municipal corporation, water and sewerage board and the ­planning and development authority) keep passing the buck and ­engaging in the blame game.9 And since then many of these 169 have fallen into further disrepair (Ramachandraiah and Prasad 2004).

Environmental activists in Hyderabad identify a number of processes which have led to the disappearance of waterbodies in Hyderabad. Prime among them is changed use patterns and incremental establishment of claims to residence – primarily through modes that can be called insurgent citizenship tactics. The process is multifarious and usually involves two stages: occupation and legitimation. For example, occupation could start in the command area where cultivation is abandoned and farmers are willing to sell it. Or it can start in the shoulders of the waterbody where land is categorised as poramboke, leaving room for inflows and general maintenance. It could start in the nalas which feed the waterbody with flood overflows from upstream lakes or carry water downstream to other lakes. Once the inflow and outflow are damaged, the lake bed is isolated from the network of waterbodies and dries up. Sometimes, local land sharks can deliberately lower the surplus weir so that the water level in the waterbody goes down and dry land emerges at the farther edge of the lake. Sometimes there are rocky outgrowths or islands in the waterbody where birds nest and perch undisturbed. There are small shrines or trees which become accessible in some seasons. These elevated pieces of earth in the waterbody are isolated through a small pathway or bund connecting the edge of the lake to the rock on both sides and thus first creating a sort of lagoon separate from the main waterbody which can then be dried out and filled up.

Once occupancy is established, legitimising ownership involves working through the bureaucracies of land management. Given the complex history of land parcels and the continuance of older claims into the present, it is always possible to construct multiple claims to the land using various kinds of documents (some of which may even be entirely forged). For example, during the second world war the Hyderabad state gave special annual leases to farmers to augment agricultural production through cultivation in lake beds and in the catchment areas. In many cases, washermen, cattle rearers had rights to a section of the riverfront for washing clothes and growing fodder respectively. Documents relating to such provisional entitlements which are no longer practised have an ambiguous status in land management and are open to interpretation at the lower levels of bureaucracy. Over the last three decades, literally millions of such documents have circulated through land administration bureaucracies and litigation and have played a crucial role in contestation and compromise to stablise ownership claims.10

As these processes of gradual/incremental occupation and legitimation course their way through the complex terrain described above, residential areas get established, real estate values go up even as infrastructure and services sewage, water supply, drainage and garbage clearance take time to be extended. It is under such circumstances that many residential areas improvise and find cheapest ways to procure services and create infrastructure – often by disposing of waste water into the waterbody and burning solid waste on the edges of the waterbody as happens in the case of Pragati Nagar and Errakunta. Instances of the municipal corporation itself using the dried up water body as a transit dumping ground from where larger municipal vehicles pick up the waste are numerous.

At the current juncture, from an insurgent citizenship perspective, such processes are claims to the right to the city. From the inclusive growth perspective, these are claims which need to be brought into the ambit of formal market mechanisms and finance arrangements. But what of the long-term consequences of this urbanisation? The process described above can often take many years and may be ongoing even after the entire lake disappears. The new occupants of the lakes, who now comprise the entire spectrum of real estate – gated communities, affluent middle class neighbourhoods, corporate houses and squatters – continue to suffer the consequences of contamination due to municipal solid waste dumping and untreated sewerage discharge; flash floods inundating houses; mosquito breeding; groundwater depletion and contamination. Both the rich and the poor suffer many of these consequences, as lake beds are increasingly occupied by not just squatters but by affluent housing societies. Algal blooms, organic and inorganic wastes kill fish. As water is unclean and fish catch becomes rare, birds stop visiting. And finally, as each of these waterbodies is a node in a network, changes in the structure of one waterbody can have consequences for the rest of the system both upstream and downstream far beyond the city itself affecting particularly marginal farmers." (http://beta.epw.in/newsItem/comment/190746/)