Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Bhopal Notes :: 36 ::Ecologically Threatening Upper Lake Wall To Go

Readers must have come across on several occasions references in these columns to a retaining wall that the Bhopal Municipal Corporation was constructing well within the iconic Upper Lake of Bhopal in an area that goes by the name of Khanugaon. The stated purpose was to create a pedestrian pathway and a cycle track of around two kilometres for the benefit of the locals. What was clearly unstated was the plan to build a new boat club at Khanugaon. Newspapers criticized it, environmentalists as well as local NGOs and Bhopal Citizens’ Forum were up against it. The Bhopal Municipal Corporation was, however, unrelenting and went ahead with the construction 

The matter eventually went to the local bench of the National Green Tribunal where it is still pending. Its latest directions, given around a fortnight earlier regarding survey of the “Full Tank Level’ (FTL) of the Lake and marking of its boundaries after the survey, remains unimplemented so far. Initially the Municipal Corporation dilly dallied in complying with the Tribunal’s orders for various reasons. Eventually, it directed the District Administration to form teams for the survey. This process itself took time as the municipality was again evading the calls to attend the meetings. After a great deal of procrastination four teams were formed to go about identifying the spread of the Lake and mark its boundaries as currently the Lake has attained its FTL of 1666.80 ft. The survey is now expected to commence from 3rd August 2016.

In the meantime, however, the Chief Minister took time off to see for himself what the problem was. Actually, such matters generally do not generate enough interest among the politicians, especially the political head of the state. Perhaps, there was a deeper political game behind it as the pedestrian pathway, a cycling track and a new boat club at Khanugaon was the brainchild of the erstwhile Minister for Urban Administration who has since been stripped off of his ministerial position. The serial adverse reporting in the local press about the controversy that brought the Municipal Corporation into very bad light also must have played a role. The Corporation was not only unwilling to comply with the orders of the Tribunal, it had disdain for the contentions of the NGOs and the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum who asked it to demolish the “ecologically dangerous” retaining wall, reportedly 10 ft. tall at some places obstructing the free flow of water and was claimed to be on the FTL but was surreptitiously constructed well within the boundaries of the Lake. The Commissioner stopped the ongoing work but did not order the demolition. In this connection readers will recall the mention that was made of uncivil behavior of Khanugaon residents with the members of the Citizens’ Forum (Cf. Bhopal Notes 32 dated 23rd June 2016). Obviously, the residents of Khanugaon had much to gain from the wall and the boat club. Hence thei anger against the members of Citizens’ Forum.

Ultimately it took a visit to the site by the Chief Minister to push the matter towards finality. One look at it and he directed demolition of the wall. The Mayor, all the district officers, , the Municipal Commissioner and other sundry officers were present. He gave directions to not only to demolish the contentious wall, he also directed the officers concerned to act according to the directives of the NGT. He also happened to see the submerged markers and ordered that these had to be removed and planted at the places where the Lake had spread itself to to mark its boundaries. What is more, he also directed thatforests should be developed along the Lake shores and that strict action against violators of the sanctity of the catchment area.

This is perhaps the first time that the Chief Minister has intervened in a matter regarding conservation of the environment of the city. The intervention will be fruitful if the whole thing is thoroughly probed to identify the officer who was responsible for this misadventure. The earlier commissioners of the Corporation have reportedly denied any responsibility. The one who approved the project is reported to have said that he was told the wall would be at FTL. Obviously, he had not checked the detailed project proposal. Quite clearly the project was being implemented in deviation of the proposal approved by the Centre. The charges of the vernacular press that the very custodian of the Lake was out to strangulate it are largely true. Worse, in the process public money and public resources were wasted on a project that could never stand against a proper environmental scrutiny. Exemplary punishments for the guilty officials for erecting the wall well within the FTL of the Lake need to be taken. Simultaneously those who have encroached into its catchment area have to be ousted.

Hopefully, the state government will not allow the matter to rest with the issue of oral directives of the Chief Minister. It needs to ensure that such unwise constructions never again take place in and around the Lake, its surroundings are covered by plantations to the extent possible and the catchments are cleared of encroachments in compliance of the directives of the Chief Minister. It also needs to release the report of the Centre for Environmental Planning & Technology on conservation and development of the Lake for the information of the general public.
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