Meet Usha Rajagopalan, Spirited Senior Citizen Who Set Out To Save A Lake In Bangalore

A nature lover, Usha Rajagopalan set up a trust called the Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust (PNLIT) in June 2010.

While there is a glint of adventure in her eyes and a chuckle in her voice, there is also an unshakeable determination to achieve her goals which, she says, she has had from her college days. That’s Usha Rajagopalan, well-known Bengaluru-based author.

But these days her writing has taken a backseat as lake conservation has become her passion. The 67-year-old spirited senior citizen has made it her life’s mission to save the Puttenahalli Puttakare lake near her home.

Usha Rajagopalan likes calling herself a “lakeika” – a lake activist and a writer (‘lekhika’ in Hindi). “I am a writer by choice and lake conservationist by chance,” she says with a smile. Creative writing has always been a passion and she has published several books.

But these days, it is the view from her flat that keeps her engaged. The view of Puttenahalli Puttakare lake in Bengaluru, the revival of which she has spearheaded by setting up a trust. The lake restoration efforts won the trust the ‘Namma Bengaluru’ award in 2012, an initiative to thank ordinary citizens for their extraordinary contributions to the city. Her lake initiative became a model for others and today there are around 55 lake groups in Bengaluru.

Usha Rajagopalan got her passion for nature from her father

Usha’s father, a Conservator of Forests, brought home interesting animals. Some were injured or ill and had to be nursed back to health and sent to the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo. Time spent with these animals are some of her favourite childhood memories. It is this childhood spent close to nature and animals that drew her to lake conservation.

“The lake was not in my scheme of things. But I love it. It is because of my initial exposure to nature that I took up the cause of the lake. I wanted to take up writing seriously as my children were grown up. But from my flat window I could see the lake dying,” she says.

The problem was that the lake was being used as a dumping ground for sewage and construction debris. Trash was being burnt around the lake and slum-dwellers were encroaching on the embankment.

“I wondered what my father would do if he had seen a lake dying this way. I felt very guilty whenever I looked at garbage piling up in and around the lake. I was fortunate to have like-minded friends who were interested in rejuvenating the lake,” narrates Usha.

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Lake warriors got together to save the lakes

Along with three others, she set up a trust called the Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust (PNLIT) in June 2010. The very next month a tree plantation drive was organised around the lake. Residents of nearby societies were invited. Their donations, which amounted to Rs. 40,000, enabled the trust to hire a gardener and security guard to take care of the saplings.

Usha and her team of lake warriors have succeeded in transforming the lake into a haven for birds, fish and other flora and fauna. The water table is recharged and trees planted around the lake have made it a green patch among the concrete buildings surrounding it.

Soon they were invited by BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike) to become official custodians of the lake and signed an MoU. “We got to know we were the first group to sign such an MoU! (with a laugh). Looks like citizens don’t take up such causes usually. The annual lake expenses come to Rs. 8-10 lakhs now. Every year we have been raising money through donations. Donors are willing to contribute as they have seen the lake develop before their eyes,” she says.

All the lake-related activities of the trust are people-centric, like nature walks and weekend gardening. That’s because they want to make caring for the lake a community responsibility.

“Since sewage inflow and encroachment are the two major problems the lakes faces, we went and met the BWSSB (Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board) authorities and requested them to divert the sewage. They cooperated with us. For a good seven years our lake was free of sewage. As far as encroachment goes, we tried to rehabilitate the slum-dwellers but that did not work out. The lake is open 24X7 so we face problems of vandalism and poaching as well,” she says.

Changing habits is essential

What gives her joy and satisfaction is seeing visitors dispose waste in dustbins and people increasingly immersing small clay idols (and not plaster of Paris ones) in the water-filled bins kept near the lake for that very purpose.

“Once I go to the lake, it takes four to five hours to be back on some days. My dreams are all about the lake these days. Writing has taken a backseat for now. I take my grand-daughter to the lake often,” says Usha.

Her biggest inspirations in life have been her father, mother and grandfather, she says. From her father she learnt to dream big.  Her love for nature and animals too comes from him. Her mother had tremendous wisdom and resilience, and her problem-solving abilities were exceptional. Her grandfather triggered in her the interest to read and write, she says.

“I owe my success as a lake conservationist to my friends (fellow trustees) the community, municipal authorities and so many experts who have generously given me their time,” says Usha.

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About the Author

Aruna Raghuram

I am a freelance journalist and write on parenting, personalities, women’s issues, environment, and other social causes. read more...

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