DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Statue for a legendary king

The other day a massive statue of Raja Bhoj, the legendary king who used to rule over Bhopal in central India more than a millennium ago, was installed in the city’s iconic Upper Lake on a bastion of Fatehgarh Fort erected in the 18th Century by Dost Mohammed Khan, the first nawab of Bhopal. The vital statistics of the statue are quite impressive. Weighing seven tons with a height of 32 feet, the gunmetal statue took as many as seven and a half hours to reach the site of installation after which a crane especially summoned from another central Indian town, Gwalior, hoisted it on to the bastion. The VIP Road that snakes its way along the Upper Lake for quite some distance and acts as the main north-south artery of the town was blocked for several hours for the purpose, giving rise to traffic jams of enormous proportions in the older parts of the city. The statue, however, is still waiting to be unveiled.

One of the favourite projects of the current Minister in Madhya Pradesh of Urban Administration and Development, Babulal Gaur, the plan to erect the statue of Raja Bhoj was conceived more for adding another attraction for tourists than for paying tributes to the Great Raja for his gift of the Upper Lake to the townsfolk on which 40% of them currently depend for fulfilling their water needs. The minister has been bitten by the beautification bug and has been going the whole hog to beautify a few select areas of the town and the Upper Lake at great avoidable cost even as a very large part of the town suffers from utter lack of basic civic amenities. The amount of Rs. 30 lakh spent on the statue would have taken care of many roads in quite a few colonies where every day the residents have to deal with several civic problems including broken down potholed roads with sewers overflowing on them. Worse, quite incredibly, the minister has tied up with Indian Navy to have a de-commissioned battleship berthed near the old Yacht Club of the nawabi-era, again curiously, for enhancing the beauty of the Lake and attracting tourists. It is needless to say that Bhopal has had hardly anything to do with the Navy barring its wing in the local National Cadet Corps.

If homage had to be paid to Raja Bhoj, perhaps, serious efforts to conserve the Lake would have been a far better way of doing so. The Raja had given the town a lake of enormous proportions once having a spread over a few hundred square kilometres. It has progressively shrunk and today is a pale shadow of its former self at around sixty-odd square kilometres. What the Lake is in dire need now is of measures that would ensure its survival so that it is not only able to delight the local citizenry with its presence but also provide succour to them in various ways. It does not need any more cluttering up of its banks with statuary or curios for people to gather around to gawk at them.

Enough damage has already been done to the waters of the Lake by the tourists, merry-makers and, now (water) sportsmen and women. The Lake Conservation Authority that came into existence as a successor body after the completion of the 9-year long ineffectual Rs. 267-crore Bhoj Wetland Project has had occasions to arrange and host many seminars of limnologists and other environmental experts with a view to eliciting opinions regarding effective conservation of this important water body, a Ramsar site to boot. In practically every such seminar the experts have been talking of reduction of human pressure on the Lake. Always the view that stood out was that tourism pressures should be reduced and collection of large number of people on the banks should be avoided. The simple logic for these suggestions were that more the people, greater is the garbage generated and greater the pollution of the waters – which eventually end up as drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people.

But, no, nobody has the time to listen to the voices of reason and mature intellect. Eateries – a strict no-no near wetlands – have been opened up, motor boats have been plying with impunity and even a floating restaurant was clandestinely launched before the necessary approvals were obtained. Egged on by the politicians, the local Tourism Development Corporation has developed another boat club, a suspension bridge, an eatery at Prempura, another corner of the Lake, where elaborate arrangements were made by the Wetland Project for post-festivals immersion of effigies of gods and goddesses. While the pressure of effigies has eased off a bit, the pressure of tourism is slowly building up. And, Gaur has under his department several proposals for “vikas” (development) of the Lake and its catchments forgetting that the water body does not need “vikas” but only measures for its conservation.

There seems to be no end of pressures on the Lake. Now it is coming from another source – the local department of sports. The Lake was recently appropriated for holding competitive water sports for which hundreds of competitors and onlookers had collected at the Boat Club. Inevitably, the Lake shore collected a lot of filth. The government’s departments couldn’t care less. After all, despite the Wetland Project and subsequent feeble efforts, drains are still spewing sewage and other noxious fluids into it. They, probably, think a bit more of filth wouldn’t harm it.

Tourism and water sports have become a deadly mix for this legendary Lake. With the complexes of Sports Authority of India and others coming up in Bishenkhedi the birdlife on it has taken a hit. Even Asad Rehmani of Bombay Natural History Society had said that Bhopal was considered by his organisation an important bird area hosting, as it was, large flocks of domestic and foreign bird species. All that now seems to be in the past. The ones which migrate from distant lands have deserted this wetland and have not been showing up in the same numbers.

Twice in the last decade – in 2002 and in 2008 – the Upper Lake came close to extinction, mostly because of the negligence of the authorities. It was only the pressure of the civil society groups that forced government and other authorities to take steps for its restoration and revival. Even currently the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum has been pressing the government to shed the current diffused management of the Lake by several departments and create a suitably empowered autonomous authority of, inter alia, experts and representatives of the people. Despite representations in this regard to the chief minister and the chief secretary such an authority continues to remain elusive.

Now that the Wetlands (Conservation & Management) Rules 2010 have been notified by the Ministry of Environment & Forests things may improve. Hopefully, the state government will appreciate that a statue of Raja Bhoj and a battleship, by themselves, are not going to conserve the Lake. What is needed is a serious effort to prevent contamination of its waters, mitigation of the human pressure on it and securing its catchments to ensure that they not only enhance precipitation but also prevent noxious fertilisers and pesticides to flow into it from the surrounding farms.
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