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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bhopal Notes - 15 :: Smartening up a city

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To convert Bhopal into a smart city it is essential to restore, upgrade and maintain its heritage, including its historical structures, the iconic Upper Lake, etc. Apart from these, efforts need to be simultaneously made to increase the revenues of the Municipal Corporation. So said the members of the Indian Administrative Service of the local state administration in a brain-storming session conducted by the Bhopal Municipal Corporation in order to elicit their views on the proposed upgrade of the town into a smart city. The Municipal Corporation is making a serious bid to have the city included in the list of 20 which will be taken up for conversion into smart cities and, hence, is in the process of eliciting opinions in this regard from every section of society. Even the ministers, especially the Home Minister, have expressed similar views. The Home Minister made a special mention of the need of efforts towards beautification and conservation of the Upper Lake

It was quite strange to read these pearls of wisdom put forth by the representatives of the government which consistently has made efforts to degrade and kill the Upper Lake and has not been receptive to the suggestions and recommendations of environmentalists, limnologists and several informal organizations like the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum for adoption of measures for conservation of the Lake. Not only did it largely render the Rs. 267 crore project supported by a Japanese Bank ineffective, it also has neither rejected or approved the draft plan for conservation of the Lake submitted more than a year ago by the Centre of Environment Planning & Technology – a reputed organization of Ahmedabad – which the government had engaged. The report is gathering dust in the Secretariat and the government neither seems to be bothered about the need for urgent steps of conservation of the water body nor about the seeming waste of public money in engaging the reputed organisation. It would be interesting to ascertain the amounts spent on conservation of the Lake without practically achieving any positive result.

Besides, the recent report of allotment of a few hundred acres of land for construction of a cricket stadium of international standards and some colleges and universities in the catchment area of the Lake proves that the government is unmindful of the impact of its actions on the Upper Lake and is prepared to sacrifice it for reasons best known to it. It cannot be anybody’s case that the government is unaware of the implications of its actions. After all, a ‘catchment is the lifeline of a water body’ degrading it would be perilous for the water body. Surely, the bureaucrats in its Department of Environment are aware of the sanctity of the catchments. And yet, constructions in the catchments have been consistently allowed and from Sposts Authority of  India outfits to Jagaran University and a few colleges,e Chirayu Hospital and Medical College in Phanda, all have come up in recent years breaking all the environmental norms.

The government got away with them because the National Green Tribunal was yet to be born. That is why the Lake could be promoted then in a massive way for “rest and recreation” by the State Tourism Development Corporation under the guidance and assistance of the current Home Minister who was then the Minister for Urban Development & Administration. He also espoused the amusement park, Sair Sapata, on the banks of the Lake which not only pollutes the waters of the Lake but also has driven away the vibrant bird life of Van Vihar. Only this morning a report in a national daily quoted a local bird-watcher that whereas earlier around 10000 wading birds used to congregate in the area their numbers now have shrunk to only 1500. It was not for nothing that the place was designated as an Important Bird Area by the Bird Life International and a Ramsar Site under the Convention of Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat. The birds now avoid the Lake and overfly it, and justifiably so, given the noise and disturbance caused by human activities and its increasingly polluted waters, threatening the Wetland’s status as a Ramsar Site and an Important Bird Area.

It, therefore, does not seem to lie in the mouth of the various representatives of the government to talk about conservation of the Upper Lake. While the politicians in the government have largely went out only to milk it, the bureaucrats, supposedly more knowledgeable, have only bided their time showing no spine in standing up to their political masters to uphold the environmental norms in regard to cluttering up the Lake’s banks and its catchments.. That they were all there to safeguard the interest of the people has seemingly been lost on them. In the process, a millennium old asset created by a beneficent feudal to serve the people is being destroyed by democratically elected rulers – peoples’ interest being nowhere in their scheme of things.

Now they are talking of conservation of even the heritage structures. The city is littered with them but the government has done precious little to restore or save them. Except of the Gol Ghar where a museum has been established a year or so ago depicting the life and times of the Nawabi era after being restored, nothing has so far been done to preserve, maintain improve the Royal Ensemble in the centre of the city. In fact, Shaukat Mahal in the Ensemble, a magnificent specimen of amalgam of Indo-Islamic and European Post-Renaissance and Gothic styles of architecture was allowed to degrade because of bureaucratic processes. Despite the alarm sounded by the media and some conservationists well in time, an imposing part of its frontage, instead of being repaired and restored, was pulled down in a hurry by the local municipal corporation who apart from being inept are also ignorant and callous about preservation of heritage.

Regardless of what these politicians and bureaucrats say, if, by an odd chance, Bhopal happens to get included in the list of cities to be smartened up, only a little good will come the people’s way. Having so far not displayed any political will to improve the city’s civic services, they are all aiming at the big money that will accompany the inclusion, most of which will either be wasted or find its way into various pockets. This has happened before with the funds received under the Urban Renewal Mission as also those that were received for creation of the BRTS corridor. Massive funding accompanying these missions has left very little to show on the ground. One, therefore, apprehends that in the event of approval for the city’s upgrade, while it might continue to remain un-smart, the movers and shakers in the government and the municipality may become really “smart”, with pocketful of goodies.


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