DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Friday, January 30, 2009

Sunrise over a dying lake


The ongoing community effort to de-silt the 1000-year old Upper Lake in Bhopal does surely have some positive sides. While it could help deepen the Lake, it also displays some beneficial facets that have hardly ever been witnessed before. One must hand it to the chief minister for the initiative. He had the campaign launched and had an evocative slogan “Our Lake, our heritage” coined for saving the Lake.

Although belated, the initiative, surprisingly, has had some positive fallout and one sees, to use a cliché, some signs of a dawn somewhere on the horizon. The campaign seems to have galvanised all and sundry, enhancing awareness of the vital importance of the Lake and the dire need to save it. It has mobilised the chief minister’s ministerial and political colleagues, fostering in them – out of genuine concern or plain sycophancy – a kind of awareness of the existence of this vital water body and the need to nurture it. Hitherto their indifference was palpable.

More importantly, it has brought in senior bureaucrats to the Lake bed to wield pickaxes and shovels, a feat which has seldom been achieved. Their involvement is more important as they are the toughest lot to be sensitised. It is largely their unconcern which has brought the Lake to such a sorry pass. Politicians come and go, but the bureaucrats are permanent. The former, at least, have fear of votes; the latter have no qualms whatsoever.

For the last 14 years, during the execution of two back-to-back projects for “conservation and management” of the Bhoj Wetland, which includes the Upper and Lower lakes, two political parties happened to be in power. Both (one of which ruled for nine long years) showed utter disregard for this vital Wetland – that is, until recently when the water crisis appeared ominous for the fortunes of the party currently in power at the imminent general elections. During this long period it is the bureaucrats who should have been more sensitive and pro-active. But, they, cocooned in their cushy warmth, occupying positions of power and authority in two (failed) projects and in the state administration, did nothing for its conservation.

Apart from the officialdom, the campaign has been able to elicit huge support for the ‘cause’ from all sections of the society. Even the generally apathetic middle classes, mostly absorbed in the business of making a living, have displayed an unparalleled involvement. All the expenditure (if at all) made out of the project allocations for public awareness campaigns were, seemingly, wasted, as they never made any impact and educed responses of the kind being currently witnessed. It is a happy augury as the apathy of the general public even for the matters of their immediate concern is legendary.

The campaign may well set a trend – by far, a much needed one – of conserving the state’s water bodies which are largely in disarray. Already the feeder streams of the Upper Lake have been taken up for de-siltation and a similar campaign was launched at Ujjain, followed, though, by disconcerting reports of improper site-selection. Hopefully, water bodies elsewhere will be taken up for conservation after more prudent selection based on the advice of experts.

The current frenetic activity on the Upper Lake proves, if ever a proof was needed, the enormous power politicians wield in this country. They have only to appreciate that they are the movers and shakers, exercising enormous influence over their political colleagues and the bureaucracy. As things stand today, the faintest of cues from them could orient the entire administration towards providing succour to the generally deprived community.

It would be pity if the whole thing remains a one-off campaign and the energy that has been generated on the dry bed of the Upper Lake is allowed to ebb away. The good result that might be achieved needs to be sustained and followed up by the government making the Wetland generate resources for its own maintenance and upkeep or by allocating adequate funds for the purpose as also organising a constant well-ordered oversight to avoid the kind of denouement it has witnessed. For survival, heritage needs sustenance, not mere slogans or voluntary labour.

The need, in fact, is also of going much beyond – that of conserving water by controlling its consumption, plugging leakages, preventing public and private waste and arranging its recycling. Globally, water is the fastest depleting resource. It has to be conserved regardless of what it takes
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