Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Media finally reports on dying Bhopal lake

It is seldom that the local papers are critical of the way the government and its agencies deal with the precious natural asset of Bhoj Wetland and its two lakes. Mostly, all critical reports would either be kept under wraps or, at best, be tempered down. As a departure from normal, however, the vernacular and the English language print media came out rather strongly against the government’s handling of issues relating conservation of the Wetland before, during and after the recent International Conference on Wetlands and Lakes.

The most scathing report was the one that appeared in a premier English language newspaper regarding the contents of the research paper that was read on the last day of the Conference by Prof. Ashwani Wanganeo, Head of the Department of Environmental Sciences & Limnology in the Barkatullah University. The presence of Dr. Wanganeo at the Conference took me by surprise as hitherto he had scrupulously been kept by the government at more than an arm’s length. While we in the Citizens’ Forum would go over to him for consultations and advice the government would always give him a wide berth. He has been in demand internationally but the state government never sought his expertise. The government, probably, never found him amenable enough and was, presumably, not quite happy with his forthrightness. 

Exposing the lies of the government and its agencies, he stated in his paper that “100% of human wastes” from several wards of the city continue to be dumped into the Lake as do lakhs of litres of urine. Besides, religious festivals “see materials like clay, clothes, paper, wood and insoluble paints containing harmful substances playing havoc with the health of the Upper Lake.” Drains and nullahs continue to flow into the Lake and emphasis on tourism has fostered growth of “infrastructure not in harmony with the environment, causing huge negative impact”.

It is the same old story. Year after year concerned citizens and their representatives have been bringing all these issues to the fore without any concrete remedial action by the government. That at the end of the festival season the Lake gets overloaded with heavy metals, as reported year after year by the local Pollution Control Board, has had no impact on its babus. So far it has not been able bar PoP images from being immersed in these waters.

Besides, the government recklessly promoted “tourism” and created all kinds of “unwise” infrastructure like Sair Sapata, attracting thousands of visitors to the Lake side generating huge amounts of waste that eventually go down and pollute the waters. The government, despite a ban, has also allowed plying of motorised boats against all environmental norms for a drinking water source. 

It is strange that the wise men of the government do not realise that by hiding the “Jheel Mahotsav” behind a fig leaf of its stated purpose of “creation of awareness among the people for conservation of the Lake” was an exercise to mislead the people or, maybe, even an exercise in self-deception. And, organising international conferences out of the blue for no apparent reasons at enormous costs to the exchequer cannot conserve the all-important water body. They do not seem to realise that what is needed are concrete measures which the experts within and outside the government have delineated on several occasions earlier. Or, probably, the men in the government just don’t care.

Reports indicate that multiple departments handling the issues relating to the Lake forked out Rs. 5 crore for the Conference and Jheel Mahotsav whereas the government couldn’t spare just a crore for buying a dredger, a proposal for which is pending for long. The government’s apathy is evident from the fact that more than a crore of interest earned in 2009-10 on the unspent amount of the Bhoj Wetland Project mostly remained unused as only Rs. 6 lakh could be used for conservation of the Lake. 

No effective institutional structure has been created for planned conservation of the Lake even after a decade of unsuccessful completion of the Bhoj Wetland Project. Even the Master Plan prepared by the Centre for Science and Environment was blocked for political and other shady interests. Grossly inadequately equipped organisation has been left to its own devices.

International conferences or any number of “jheel mahotsavs” or a Hollywood-style signage and attempts to window-dress the Lake are not efforts at conservation. These are only attempts to screen the truth from the people. The government, since it came to power in 2004, has scrupulously avoided taking effective measures towards its conservation and has brought it down to the level of a septic tank. Unashamedly, it is forcing half the population of the city to drink its highly polluted water.

That the Lake is “dying a slow, painful death” is what describes its condition accurately. In fact, it is at the terminal stage. Only an unlikely miracle can turn it around.

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