Rabindra Sarobar and Chhat Puja

Administration forces the National Green Tribunal to allow Chhat puja in Kolkata’s National Lake Rabindra Sarobar despite its initial order to ban the puja in the lake. This episode once again exposes that environmental concerns always take a backseat to the popular demands, reports Sambit Pal.

(Image Courtesy : Indranil Chatterjee)

Around 2005, an environmental activist in Kolkata used to call journalists and start the conversation saying, “Hello! This is frog calling. I am in danger. Would you please help me?” If someone called her, the usual opening line was, “Hello, this is frog speaking.” She was then campaigning against the concretization of the sides of one of Kolkata’s much-loved water bodies, Rabindra Sarobar, popularly known as Dhakuria Lake, developed in the pre-independence era. Her argument was that if the sides are concretized, many species of frogs and insects would lose their habitat which would lead to an imbalance in the bio-diversity. So she adapted this unique technique to draw the media’s attention.

(Image Courtesy : Indranil Chatterjee)

Another activist literally put his life in danger when he tried to stop the local slum dwellers from bathing and washing clothes and utensils in Rabindra Sarobar. His legal battle continued for years.

Many laughed at them. Their campaigns and legal battles were mocked at and they were accused of practising ‘environmental romanticism’ and carrying out anti-government and anti-poor activities.“You know, political bosses and political pollution are the source of all social and environmental hazards in the country,” says Subhas Dutta, an environmental activist, who has been fighting for Rabindra Sarobar and other environmental issues in Kolkata.

Despite several assaults on Rabindra Sarobar and its surrounding greens, there have been sustained campaigns to protect the lake.Unfortunately, in most cases there was little support from the administration. The local administration was not ready to whole heartedly accept that Rabindra Sarobar is simply not a joggers’ park or lovers’ paradise, this lake is hometo many species and birds, including migratory birds. Subhas Dutta once again questions the will of the political bosses to protect the most precious water body and the green patch in the middle of the concrete jungle in south Kolkata.

 “The administration is least bothered. They admit in private that the issues I have raised are important, but because of the political bosses and fearing losing their jobs, they keep quiet,” he says.

(Image Courtesy : Indranil Chatterjee)

Even after the Ministry of forest, environment and climate change of Government of India included Rabindra Sarobar under the Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystem and it was declared as National Lake in 2002, initially there was poor response from Kolkata Improvement Trust, the custodian of the lake. Sustained campaign by the lake lovers and activists forced the government to change things at the lake.

Reminiscing his experience, Satyajit Basu, a regular to the lake, says, “Ten years ago I was rebuked by my wife, who hails from outside Kolkata, when I took her to Rabindra Sarobar for the first time. While I thought of introducing her to my childhood love, the lake, and share some of my nostalgic moments with her, she termed it as a ‘stinking lake’ and I had to hurriedly take her away.”

(Image Courtesy : Indranil Chatterjee)

She cannot be blamed. Things were not well at Rabindra Sarobar. Though it has always been popular among morning walkers and young couples, the upkeep of the lake was a neglected affair. The filth in the water was left to rot, the place was not safe after dark and the path around the lake was not properly maintained. Lovebirds had to face ‘moral policing’ of anti-socials as well as the Kolkata Police.

Ten years down the line, things have changed drastically. The new government in Bengal has utilised funds disbursed by the central government under the national lake conservation plan. Under the project, in the last one and a half years, the whole area has been beautified and cordoned off, properly illuminated, seats around the lake has been renovated, environment-friendly parking space has been built, 24×7 private security guards have been deployed with assistance from the Kolkata Police, measures have been taken to stop throwing puja flowers in the lake. Most importantly, the lake water is cleaner than it was a few years ago.

Many call it a ‘work of concretization’ rather than ‘beautification’ as there wasn’t much initiative to increase the green cover and protect the trees around the lake.

The Latest battle

Some might call it cosmetic changes, but the renovated lake is looking beautiful and it’s making the lake lovers happy. The local administration has, however,once again showed its true colour. On November 1, on the basis of a plea by environmental activist Subhas Dutta, the east zone bench of National Green Tribunal ordered there should not be any Chhat Puja celebration at Rabindra Sarobar as it will not only pollute water but also create other forms of pollution with loud music and bursting of fire crackers during the celebration.

The next day, under the threat from the Bihari community in the city, Kolkata Improvement Trust and Kolkata Municipal Corporation rushed to the NGT to challenge the order and appealed to allow Chhat Puja in the lake. They could not take the risk of hurting religious sentiments of a community, which has a large presence in the city.

Both KMC and KIT, along with other government bodies, argued that there wasn’t enough time to make alternate arrangements to accommodate over 30,000 devotees who throng Rabindra Sarobar every year during Chhat.

The NGT was forced to modify the order and put as many as 15 conditions while allowing Chhat in the lake for this year, including erecting a netted barricade within three feet from the bank of the lake. Devotees can throw flowers and other materials for rituals only within the barricade and it has to be removed by the civic authorities.

Angry with the NGT’s order, the Rashtriya Bihari Samaj has questioned why the court should interfere into religious matters and activists misinform the court. “We don’t throw banana trees and other materials in the water. As part of the ritual we just dip them into the water,” says Rajesh Sinha, general secretary of Rashtriya Bihari Samaj. “Rather, we clean the banks of the water bodies, repair and clean the roads leading to the water bodies during Chhat puja.”

While they threaten to go to higher courts to get the NGT order quashed, activist Subhas Dutta who produced pictorial evidence before the NGT showing how the whole Rabindra Sarobar remain polluted after the Chhat Puja, claims, “Vote bank politics has exposed the bankruptcy of the government on the environmental issues time and again.”

(Image Courtesy : Indranil Chatterjee)

Same old attitude

This raises a serious question about the attitude of the administration when it comes to environmental issues. While common lake lovers, who had earlier hailed the NGT’s initial orders, are now upset with the modification, the government is heaving a sigh of relief. Mudar Patherya, a local resident who regularly campaigns for protection of Sarobar, says, “It is a fight between public will and government capabilities. Government also accepts what is happening is wrong. But the government does not have the capability to enforce the court’s ruling. They neither have the capability nor the intention. Other else, why should they require a court order to protect the Sarobar in the first place.”

Rabindra Sarobar is just an example; political will has seldom sided with environmental concerns.

(Image Courtesy : Indranil Chatterjee)

In 2005, the Calcutta High Court had ordered the eviction of slum dwellers who were illegally squatting on railway land in Gobindapur area adjacent to the lake. It was found that the slum dwellers were using the lake for bathing, washing clothes and utensils. The appeal for protecting the lake water led to the eviction of slum dwellers and created havoc. Several attempts by the Kolkata Police to carry out the High Court order had failed as the eviction drive was resisted with a violent movement. The local councillor and MLA led a group of people from the colony to jump in Rabindra Sarobar, swim and take a bath defying the court order as a mark of protest,demanding proper rehabilitation. The concern for keeping the lake clean took a backseat before political compulsion. Officials of the elite clubs, which have premises around the lake and were accused of polluting the lake water, also delayed implementing the court order.

In the whole episode the petitioner was portrayed as the villain. Be it Ganga pollution or keeping Kolkata’s largest green patch Maidan clean or protecting the east Kolkata wetlands, activists and judicial or quasi-judicial bodies had to intervene time and again forcing the administration to act. This Chhat Puja episode is the continuation of the same trend.

Some would arguethat the lake facesthe threat of pollution from other avenues too. “There were reports that a part of the lake was full of beer bottles thrown by clubs adjacent to Rabindra Sarobar after the new years’ party. Why wasn’t there any PIL against that”, asks Rajesh Sinha.

(Image Courtesy : Indranil Chatterjee)

While arguments and counter arguments continue,little is done to leave a water body untouched and protect it from ‘organised pollution’.

(Image Courtesy : Indranil Chatterjee)

No one thinks of the frogs and the birds and other known and unknown species which inhabit the area, but have no voice to raise their concerns. Popular demand trumps their survival.

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