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A Social-Ecological Approach To Urban Lake Governance And Sustainability In India

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Lakes in Indian cities have seen a pitfall in terms of quality. Their diminishing numbers in the last two decades have created an ecological void in cities’ management and sustainable development. The intersection of environment and society at play has also been an important factor in deciding and shaping the country’s urban lake governance scenario,” said Dr. Mansee Bal Bhargava.

Dr. Mansee Bal Bhargava, an entrepreneur, researcher, and educator, and Former Executive Director at SaciWATERs, shares her insights in a webinar organized by the Center for Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainable Development (CECCSD), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, and India Water Portal.

She is concerned about the alarming rate at which urban lakes are getting shrunk and pollution is degrading the local ecosystem’s balance. This diminishing state of the environment is due to urbanization, growing population, governance, lack of trust in government functioning, poor resource management, development, and the misconception that everything is for human appropriation and sustainability.

Sustainability In Governing A Lake

There lies a gap between the proponents of action and knowing. Thus, a bridge needs to be built among the diverse people working in the water sector. Dr. Mansee believes that such transdisciplinarity, where the science gets merged with society, will lead to more plausible solutions, less politicization, and development with a conscience. A simple communicable language to disseminate the complexity will be a necessary tool, wherein a social-ecological system framework can be brought into the picture.

Governing a lake with a sustainable approach requires physical nature, values, services, governing actors, and mechanisms to be intertwined in a socio-political setting, and related ecosystems or development. She talks about the framework she has been working on, including concepts, theories, models, and methodologies that would work as a manuscript for governing a resource like a lake in a socio-ecological manner.


Udaipur’s (pictured above) case is worth studying to learn about integrating and managing challenges in lake governance.

Shedding more light into urban lake settings’ socio-political aspects, Dr. Mansee explains that most lakes now are just engineered systems with ecosystem characteristics. These ‘lakes’ have also become a ground for cultural events, thus neglecting the idea of conservation. A lake without water is just a piece of land – such a geopolitical contestation is another important aspect of the story.

She also emphasized that the lakes’ water source and the city are a collective milieu of waterscapes. The development around such waterscapes needs to be monitored. Again, the related developments that influence the lake water other than the physical infrastructure can be the population density and social demography of the surrounding area, the people’s occupation and lifestyle, and the extent of extraction taking place. The class divide of rich and poor and their access to such a lake makes it a fine example of a socio-ecological resource.

Governing the lakes’ physical nature will come about by integrating and managing challenges across scales such as lake system, the system of lakes, drainage courses, etc. She exemplified the cities of Hyderabad, Bhopal, Ahmedabad, and Udaipur for the same. Integration of rainwater, groundwater, and wastewater is also crucial.

Lacunae And Issues

Further, the governing values will come into play with ecological, social, economic, infrastructure, political, climate regulations, and the practice of equally sustaining them in the long run. The various governing organizations will play in their capacity, be it the users (personal and businesses), the provider at the site, city, state, central level, the regulators, academicians and historians, and most importantly, the community as a whole.

Trying to have a chronological sense of the lakes’ destitute state, she explained that the growing’ development processes’, the British rule, the green revolution, lack of restoration methods all had a part in its degradation. The restoration of these lakes will have to be a cumulative approach.

Another lacuna is the lack of interest shown in research and education. She believes research will push forward the sustainability quotient for the government, civil society, and businesses. She talked about the lack of effective governance mechanisms at the local, regional, and national levels, citing a crucial point where organically developed villages carrying community-led lake management shifted to ‘modern’ land-use plans with the state as a provider.

Such a social contract did more harm than good and needs to be rejuvenated into a new socio-ecological contract of governing mechanisms, a poly-centric and should make its way through the planning, designing, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of government’ actions’.

Recommendations For Better Lake Governance

Other recommendations of Dr. Mansee involve shifting focus to groundwater and wastewater, which are the real game-changers. A new identity of treating a lake as a heritage should be rather than a recreation source and treating wetlands as urban forests. To include biodiversity components in ‘Detailed Project Reports’ of proposed surrounding infrastructure and quantify nature’s elements – trees, the fish, or the birds. Investing accordingly and putting a price on wetlands services on top of the land price is also a noteworthy addition.

She also highlighted the governance-sustainability dilemma. where keeping people away is not the answer but involving them is, only ‘development’ is not the answer. Still, lake conservation is and, to look for answers of how much and whom to sustain, that is, a measurable thing for urban lakes. Talking about the state of water education, she said that there needs to be a well laid out, comprehensive, and interdisciplinary pedagogy for water education.

Finally, Dr. Mansee talked about amplifying the scope of capacity building, skill development, data development, community awareness, and engagement of youth and senior citizens on governing users.

She is hopeful because the urban lakes are now slowly under restoration after years of deterioration and because a much-needed water census is being prepared to be out soon. Lastly, she celebrates the idea of policymakers and city planners delving into the subject.

The drying up of Puzhal lake

The best way to conserve wetlands is to leave them untouched and let them naturally rejuvenate.

Dr. Fawzia Tarannum, Assistant Professor and Programme Coordinator, Coca Cola Department of Regional Water Studies, TERI School of Advanced Studies brought to the table the importance of a gendered perspective of water management and care, the need for social movements and community involvement, the effectiveness of current policies and laws and, fighting the tanker mafias.

Dr. Mansee later talked about the role politics and leaders can play to bring about a change. The best way to conserve the wetlands is to not do anything with it and let it naturally rejuvenate, unlike the short-term development and economic agendas the people at power promise to bring about; the idea of community well-being and ecology being the long term agendas. The lack of ecological clarity in the budget 2021-22 and the economic policy reports that NITI Aayog comes out with further demerits the issue’s seriousness.

In her ending notes, she emphasized the broader concept of conserving water reflecting on the importance of pricing it, citing the unsustainable use of it by the county’s middle class. The need to manage and have better wastewater treatment facilities also serves its purpose as an example of water regeneration.

Finally, groundwater which she believes is the prime component of the water cycle (that includes the process of percolation of water in a lake slowly under the ground) is where the focus should be. Putting out the irony for the viewers of demanding pure water yet over extracting groundwater.

Dr. Simi Mehta, Amita Bhaduri Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

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