Saturday, January 24, 2009

Killing a once-thriving wetland

The dry exposed bed of the Upper Lake in Bhopal, capital of the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh, is witness these days to frantic digging. About a fortnight back the provincial chief minister woke up to the fact that the Lake was left with very little water. Ministers and officials, seldom seen around the Lake unless on a joyride on the motorised boats, are labouring along with common people to dig for all they are worth in a bid to deepen it. Not only voluntary labour is being elicited, even monetary contributions are being sought for conservation of the Lake. An evocative slogan “Our Lake, our heritage” has been coined to seek people’s participation.

Located at its heart, the Upper Lake is a veritable signature for the town. It was created in the 11th Century by the legendary Raja Bhoj by damming the then perennial Kolans River to provide drinking water to his subjects. Later, the Afghan rulers added in the 18th Century the Lower Lake to receive the overflow from the bigger Upper Lake. Together, the two lakes constitute the Bhoj Wetland, which was recognised in 2002 as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention of 1971.

It is these very lakes which now are under serious threat. Both have shrunk appreciably this year – the Upper Lake from its 30-odd sq. kms to around 8 sq. kms. and the Lower Lake to around 2 sq. kms. from its original approximately 8 sq. kms. Traditionally the source of drinking water, the Upper Lake served until recently, 40% of the local population. This year, with the progressive decline in its water level, the supplies have been restricted only to around 10% of the population and that, too, on alternate days.

While monsoons have turned increasingly fickle reducing precipitation, official negligence has played no mean part in divesting the lakes of their water. A Rs.2.5 billion project for conservation of the Wetland formulated by the government, with money borrowed from the Japanese Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC), commencing in 1995 ran, for want of adequate oversight, for 9 long years, instead of its pre-determined tenure of 5 years. At its termination in 2004 not only Rs. 600 million were left unspent, many vital objectives also remained unfulfilled. Whereas the main objective of “conserving and managing” the Wetland was not achieved, the goal of ensuring availability of water from the Upper Lake in an increased quantity and of satisfactory quality, as is now obvious, also remained unfulfilled. Even the sewers emptying into the two lakes could not be diverted to reduce their pollution levels. Another Asian Development Bank loan has since been negotiated to execute the work.

All this happened under the very nose of the government with its various agencies supposedly overseeing the Project. None was, however, held responsible. Worse, a large proportion of the money for the project was improperly spent on the works that should have been taken up by the state’s civil works department. For instance, a four-lane road along the northern shore of the Upper Lake, fallaciously intended to provide a barrier for human interface with the Lake waters, was constructed at the expense of the Project. Inevitably, it has increased human activity close to the waters facilitating people to dump into it all kinds of rubbish. The progressively increasing vehicular traffic on the road has also increased pollution of the waters by vehicular emissions. Besides, a bridge to connect the properties of the influential, too, was constructed out of the project allocations although it never figured among the intended civil works.

Instead of returning the unspent millions to the JBIC the government negotiated another loan of Rs 240 million out of the left-over funds for a 5-year project, again, for “management and conservation” of the Wetland commencing in 2004. MP Lake Conservation Authority (LCA), created on the termination of the earlier project, was contracted as the implementing agency. It has now transpired that none of the itemised worksslated for execution – important by any stretch of imagination for the conservation of the Wetland – was carried out. The project amount was “safely” kept in deposit in the state treasury and its interest is being used for paying for the establishment of the LCA. No periodical feedback on progress of the works, as mandated under the Project, was given to various authorities, including the JBIC, the Government of India and the Government of MP. Also, none of these authorities ever asked for progress reports from the implementing agency. No eyebrows, however, were ever raised. As usual, none has been held accountable for the non-performance.

Worse, even the report on economic valuation of the Wetland, bankrolled by the World Bank, carried out by an Environmental Economist of the prestigious Indian Institute of Forest Management located in Bhopal, delineating its economic benefits and recommending ways and means for garnering of resources for its conservation and upkeep was never considered for initiation of necessary steps.
The apathetic approach of the government is apparent from the toothless LCA it created, and that, too, for the entire state instead of, as projected, only for Bhoj Wetland. Having neither statutory backing nor finances it lacks the wherewithal to conserve any water body. Several of its CEOs have been non-professionals – officers of the Indian Administrative Service who generally wear several hats simultaneously – have so far made any consequential difference to any of the state’s wetlands.

Largely dependent on the waters of the Lake, people, individually and collectively, have for long been clamouring for government’s attention to the fast degrading Wetland. The local Citizens’ Forum, an informal pressure group of prominent citizens, filed a petition in 2007 with the State Human Rights Commission which brought all the issues relating to conservation of the Wetland to the notice of the government. And, yet there has been no action.

The goings-on during the 14 years appear like a primer on how to kill a vital Wetland that was once thriving. The credit for authoring the lessons goes to those who run the MP government and its various agencies so elaborately devised to conserve the environment, including its water bodies. While it now calls upon people to save the Heritage Lake the government has hardly ever spared any money or effort on its conservation. The unkind cut is that while it has wasted billions taken on credit from foreign sources for conservation of the Wetland, it is now asking people to contribute in cash and kind for the same purpose. That loans are being piled on them, with attendant burden of taxes in the future, in addition to the current misery inflicted on them of restricted alternate-day supply of the precious fluid is, seemingly, of no concern to the government.
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