In the last year Rabindra Sarobar or Dhakuria Lakes, a bit of lung capacity aggressively planted in the heart of south Kolkata, has clearly seen better upkeep. Both the grounds and the water body are a lot cleaner. The depressing feeling that water hyacinth and garbage used to evoke earlier is now largely gone.
Small mounds of garbage, piled up by sweepers, still wait for days before trucks carry them away but that eventually happens. Kolkata is still light years away from London (the role model set for the state capital by the redoubtable West Bengal chief minister), whose finest ornament arguably is its parks, but at least one green public space is blessedly cleaner.
This is part of a bigger plan. Private guards now try to monitor a whole host of dos and don’ts. New, well-designed signs exhort citizens not to litter, smoke or urinate. Plastic is a strict no-no, as are pet dogs — though strays wander around happily. You can ride a bike only after 9 am and barriers ensure cars are parked further out along the periphery. There are fewer entrances, so monitoring is easier. In the evenings lovers seem to be having even more of a field day than earlier.
But on returning to my favourite early morning haunt after a few months, I spotted a dark cloud amidst the improvement. Work is well on the way to install a musical fountain system. A well designed sign proclaims in Bengali: “Work is on.” It adds that this is: “A global front-ranking novel effort to create environment consciousness.” From this you would imagine that nature is being invited in through the front door. The lakes are actually going to have a “floating ultra fast action musical fountain with laser show and video projection system.”
What takes the breath away is who signs off on the notice. It is none other than the West Bengal Pollution Control Board! There is the exhortation to “Keep this national lake clean,” but it is mystifying how the cause of environmental consciousness is furthered by having a musical fountain with laser and video show, and that too under the leadership of the pollution control board. Logically the next step for the board should be to exhort visitors to shopping malls to keep the environment clean and organise clean rath yatra melas!
There are environments and environments. Surely the job of the board is to check and reduce man-made pollution so that nature, with all the glory and beauty of its flora and fauna, can return to its rightful place from where misguided development had banished it. It is perverse to imagine that the job of the board is to supervise high-tech tamasha for the masses.
For a decade now Rabindra Sarobar has come under the National Lake Conservation Plan through a Rs 7 crore project. Till 2010 the centre had paid Rs 4 crore under the 70:30 Centre-state cost sharing arrangement. The plan covers both natural and man-made lakes. The Sarobar is man-made, created nearly a century ago when earth had to be excavated to build a railway line that runs alongside.
Thereby the gods gave the city, now choking under the weight of its numbers, a boon. The large expanse of water and hundreds of trees together make up a showpiece of the kind of environment that man should have never lost sight of. In the lake conservation plan there is a place for tourists and fountains, but the tilt is clear. It advises that no more than 25 per cent of project cost be spent on lake front development; that engineering work for bunds be minimised; and lake shores be naturalised by planting vegetation instead of going for structural works. Tellingly, the shoreline should be protected by bamboo piling (not brick and mortar embankment). To house the laser show, a new brick-and-mortar structure has come up, right next to an old godown where space could have been found for it!
The whole issue is which way we want to go — the Sarobar as an entertainment and amusement park? Or akin to a national park where trees and nature are allowed to rule? A laser show will bring in crowds in the evening, keeping the grounds clean will be a headache, and the grass will die under a thousand footfalls. Most important, music and light after nightfall will drive away nesting birds. The fountain will be located next to one of the uninhabited islands which are a haven for birds. Do we want fewer birds or more? Sometimes, as I walk in the mornings, I see a flash of kingfisher blue. For how much longer?