DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Monday, September 21, 2015

Bhopal Notes - 13 :: The National Green Tribunal, Bhopal

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It was reported yesterday that the Bhopal Municipal Corporation (BMC) has started removing copra and gravel from the Kaliyasot River banks. A case had been filed with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) about it by a public spirited individual who had alleged that the builders’ lobby was encroaching on the river for their illegal gains by extending the river banks and reducing the width of the river. Even the Bhopal Development Authority – a government agency – was also involved in the matter. Having found the allegations true after a proper verification the NGT ordered removal of the extraneous matter from the River. It has fallen on the BMC’s lot to remove the muck as it was its apathy or negligence or even its corrupt ways that facilitated interference with the natural course of the river waters. A massive effort is now underway which indicates the degree or extent of encroachment on the river by the greedy and self-serving builders’ lobby and the corrupt municipal officials. However, action against the guilty builders seems to be still some way off.

Sometimes I wonder what would have been the fate of our iconic lake and several other water bodies had a bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) not been established here. In around five years’ time it has relentlessly strived to protect the environment and several water bodies, the most important of which is the scenic Upper Lake which is also the lifeline for a substantial proportion of the city’s population. Through obfuscations, misleading statements, sometimes verging on utter lies and chronic procrastinations – mostly willful – of the state government and its several agencies including the local civic body, the NGT is meticulously and tenaciously plowing its way through the numerous environmental cases filed by a few public spirited people. Such a serious attempt was perhaps never made to ensure protection of the environment of the city, largely with a view to ensuring a healthy and happy posterity. It must be added that all this is despite the existence of a department dedicated to the cause of protection of the environment not only of the city but of the entire state which seems to be in deep perennial slumber.

NGT was established in 2010 by an act of Parliament with the principal bench at New Delhi and four other benches at various places, including Bhopal, to cover all the regions of the country. The enactment came rather late though in several international conferences from 1972 onwards in which India had also participated it was resolved that all participating powers provide adequate judicial relief for protection of environment, forests and other natural resources. Besides, the right to a healthy environment has been construed in India as part of Right to Life under article 21 of the Constitution. The Tribunal is to function as a civil court and is mandated to dispose of cases filed before it within a period of six months.

 Since then it has done yeoman’s job in protecting the forests around Bhopal and its water bodies – especially the city’s iconic Upper Lake. Everyone knows how polluted it is and yet the powers-that-be in the government and the local municipality, its custodian, have tried their best to thwart all efforts to maintain its spread and improve its water quality. Multi-crore projects with international cooperation with money and expertise were rendered failures because of their lackadaisical ways. Even the report of the Centre for Protection of Environment and Technology of Ahmedabad for the Lake’s conservation has been suppressed and kept under wraps by the state government, most probably, because it does not suit builders friendly with the government.

 And yet, with its no-nonsense attitude it has been able to impose a ban on the functioning of the so-called marriage gardens situated on the banks of the Lake and discharging their effluents into the Lake. Despite orders of the courts the municipal officials contrived to neutralise them and made piles of money by allowing them to function all these years. Lately, the NGT intervened again to prevent encroachment on the Lake, this time by the Municipal Corporation itself which was trying to construct a bi-cycle track, a pedestrian path-way and a food court on the opposite bank of the present Boat Club. For this purpose it even erected a wall right inside the Lake which was overrun by water during the recent heavy rains. All the time, it claimed before the NGT that it was a people friendly project and would not pollute the Lake waters. It is such an obstinate organization that it continued construction felling some trees (planted under Bhoj Wetland Project) despite orders to the contrary by the NGT. Perhaps, there was a lot of money involved in the project. The matter now rests with the Mayor who is reportedly investigating it.

 In this environment of corruption, bull-headedness and negativity the Tribunal has rendered admirable service to the people of this town. But for it the Lake would have rapidly deteriorated and rendered useless as a drinking water source in another few years. Nonetheless, what has so far been achieved is nothing in comparison to what still needs to be done. When the government and its agencies are out to kill the Lake the NGT has been bravely soldiering on in collaboration with a few committed individuals and lawyers. It needs all our unqualified support to dismantle the evil that is within the system harming the city’s environment and poisoning its natural resources like air and water.    



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