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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bhopal's iconic lake under threat


Bhopal, the capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, could have been such a beautiful city. It was endowed with everything a place could aspire for – green hills and valleys, several lakes and a few small gurgling streams. Climatically it was bordering on the ideal – equable, with mild summers, plenty of rains and moderate winters. All that has been lost because of “development”, now a dreaded word for those who are sensitive about the city’s environment that they have seen progressively deteriorating. The unrestricted urban expansion has been gobbling up the surrounding farmlands, colonising the green hills, transforming the city’s streams into sewers and its lakes into septic tanks. The developmental assault on the city’s iconic millennium-old Upper Lake, a drinking water source for the locals for centuries, ceaselessly continues unmindful of its vital importance for the city’s environment, water security and green cover .

The other day, quite paradoxically the local edition of a national daily brought out a huge spread on conservation of the Lake when the Chief Minister happened to inaugurate another “tourist complex” on one of its banks much larger than the existing Boat Club on another much frequented bank. . The complex has been given an ethnic name “Sair Sapata” that connotes to me (though I may be wrong) tours and travels. Although the newspaper suggested ways and means of conserving the Lake it cleverly avoided mentioning the need for reducing tourism activities in and around it (which, in fact, are on the rise) on various environmental counts.

The “tourist complex” is located at Prempura, close to the exit point of the waters of the Lake that flow towards a dam. Built over an area of 24 acres at a cost of Rs. 4 crore ($ 800,000) the complex is accessed through a suspension bridge (somewhat like that of Rishikesh on the Ganges in Uttarakhand on the foothills of the Himalayas) across the channel. It currently has a toy train, a restaurant with a glass floor through which the marine life (that have been able to survive the rising pollution of the waters being made of sterner stuff) is visible, four food kiosks, three view-points, a glass house, a two-acre children’s play-ground and several pedal boats. The floating restaurant Lake Princess, reportedly with dining facilities, was re-introduced and the chief minister had a ride on it with several of his cabinet colleagues and officials. The complex is supposed to remain open till 10.00 PM every evening. It seems, people are flocking to it in great numbers and one can see its lights till late in the evening from the Idgah Hills on the other side of the Lake.

While inaugurating the “tourist complex” the chief minister very rightly said that it was a very good “gift to the people of Bhopal”. It would indeed serve as a very good amusement park for the people of the city. Vast numbers of young locals would certainly haunt the place for dining and other recreational activities, just as they collect in large numbers at the Boat Club or in the DB Mall on holidays and weekends. However, one cannot really expect tourists, especially the discriminating ones and those from abroad, to visit the complex as it has nothing much to offer to them. Predictably, even as the complex was inaugurated French tourists were taken on a meandering heritage walk through the lanes of the old city. One therefore tends to think that naming “Sair Sapata” as a tourist complex was a misnomer. Expenditure by the state Tourism Development Corporation (MPSTDC) on such complexes for amusement of the locals would, therefore, seem to be unwise and misdirected when the heritage sites in the city that are of interest to the tourists are crying for attention.

The other day, a few members of the Heritage sub-group of the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum happened to visit the three-century old Rani Kamalapati Palace. It is an important heritage complex of the town with a pan-chakki (water mill) and a hamaam (Islamic bath-house). The Palace is the only structure that has seen a semblance of maintenance primarily because it houses an office of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The rest of the structures that lead to the bathing ghats (platforms) for the legendary queen on the Lower Lake are in utter decay. Likewise, the water mill and the bath-house are also in degraded state. The ASI, which is supposed to maintain it, has no money, getting for restoration and maintenance of all archaeological sites in the state covered by its local superintending archaeologist the measly amount of Rs. 4 crore, which the MPSTDC blew up on one complex, viz., “Sair Sapata”.

Worse, the waters of the Lower Lake that splash on the Palace walls and were once fit enough for a queen to bathe in are so filthy that any tourist who happens to see it would be appalled. They would also be appalled if they happened to visit the city’s heritage sites that are preserves of the state’s archaeological department. One would have expected that in order to promote tourism in the city the MPSTDC would lend a helping hand to the archaeological departments for restoring the structures and improving their surroundings. But it is obsessed with tourism on the Upper Lake (to the exclusion of all other lakes in the city) regardless of the adverse impacts of their handiwork on its ecosystem.

Apart from the Boat Club and assorted eateries including the floating restaurant that have a deleterious impact on the Lake waters “Sair Sapata” is going to seriously threaten the wetland’s bird life. One wonders whether while conceptualising the Complex all the environmental aspects were kept in view. Bhopal’s Upper Lake (known as Bhoj Wetland along with its twin little sister, the Lower Lake) is an Important Bird Area, a reason, among several others, that prompted its designation as a Ramsar Site. The Complex is too close to the bird habitat. A busy amusement centre, with constant comings and goings and screaming and yelling children in the children’s park, so close to it, is surely going to deter the birds to choose the wetland for roosting. Besides, its bright lights after sundown are going to cause disturbance to the roosting birds and make the site for them eminently avoidable.

A vast number of people would perhaps be happy at the amusement park being served to them by the government on a platter. But, the fact is that it is going to deal a lethal blow to the Upper Lake and its ecosystem. One cannot overlook the fact that the Upper Lake, with its adjunct, the Lower Lake, apart from being an important inheritance, also serves us in numerous ways. From keeping us hydrated and water-secure, to bestowing on the city a green cover under climatic conditions it micro-manages, the Lake is a natural asset for the townsfolk with a unique ecosystem serviced by its flora and fauna, both under and above water. Any disturbance in its delicate ecological balance could spell disaster for the Lake – and indirectly, for the local citizenry.

But, none seems to be concerned about such niceties. The political executive, led by the tourism bureaucracy just couldn’t care less. The politicians are concerned about their votes and others have a vested interest in expanding tourism activities. So, environment could be damned. One wonders whether all those who flock to the lakeside complexes or dine floating on the Lake Princess are mindful of the consequences of their patronage of the outfits thoughtlessly sold to them by short-sighted people for short-term gains in the name of promotion of tourism. One wishes if only people could be sensitive enough to shun them all!

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