Those not familiar with Madhya Pradesh and its commercial capital, Indore, will not know Sirpur lake. But it means a lot to those who do and they would like it to be declared a Ramsar site - one of a select group of globally designated water bodies that need to be preserved as part of man's natural heritage.
While such official recognition may come one day, what has already happened is a remarkably successful effort by a trio of committed individuals that has turned around a lake in terminal decline and made it live and prosper again. In two decades of effort, they have been able to win the support of the larger citizenry and also officialdom, without which such a battle could not have been won.
Sirpur lake, which covers 600 acres on the Indore-Dhar highway, was a natural habitat for birds till the eighties, when its decline began. The rainfed lake, which comes under the Indore Municipal Corporation, was the then-ruling Holkar family's gift to the city more than a hundred years ago.
In the early nineties, Bhalu Mondhe, a wildlife photographer who routinely visited the lake on winter mornings with his camera, had a dangerous altercation with nearby slum dwellers who were cutting down a tree by the lake. He soon formed The Nature Volunteers (TNV), along with journalist Abhilash Khandekar and ornithologist Kaustubh Rishi. TNV described itself as a group of "environmentally restless people" determined to save the lake and the flora and fauna for which it was home. Mr Mondhe became a crusader for the lake; saving it became an obsession for the founders.
The struggle by this dedicated group has managed to restore the lake to some of its earlier condition. They achieved their aim by travelling along a well-defined route: paid regular visits, created public awareness, maintained a vigil, spent large amounts of their own money, sensitised officials and elected representatives, and roped in the Bombay Natural History Society and environmentalists like Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment.
The Sirpur Bachao Samiti was formed in 2004 and a detailed conservation plan was worked out in 2005. The Madhya Pradesh government's environment arm got into the act and a lot was done. A barbed wire fence was erected, embankments and pavements built, water quality improved and trees planted. The rejuvenated lake was prevented from becoming a tourist spot and, instead, birdwatching camps were organised. Sirpur lake is now a fully secured water body and a safe bird habitat where migratory birds continue to come on their seasonal visits every year.
Having done the job, the founders of TNV decided to document their handiwork. A couple of years ago, they brought out a book, Birds of Sirpur, which contained pictures of all the birds that would call Sirpur home - perennial or seasonal - and basic details about them. They modestly describe their work as "documentation by amateurs" and say their aim is that the book should become a useful tool for beginners who enjoy watching birds. But the effort in its entirety means a lot more - a mammoth attempt to rescue a bird habitat against all odds, lure back the birds and then scientifically document the result.
M N Buch, the iconic former civil servant, town planner and environmentalist, describes what has been done to Sirpur lake as a "miracle". He says with a touch of irony that "if concerned citizens come together for a good cause they can not only move mountains, they can even save and retrieve a dying city lake". In order to achieve this, they used every trick in the book - involving citizens, organising publicity and enlisting the help of government officials, other non-governmental organisations and experts.
Samar Jha, a former civil servant who, after years of enthusiastic birdwatching, has become more expert than amateur birders, notes that "the fact that they have photographed and recorded as many as 130 birds of wetlands, trees and grasslands is a testimony to the success of their efforts to rejuvenate the lake. The presence of the birds is proof that the habitat of the lake and surrounding areas has been restored". The book is not perfect in matters of nomenclature and classification and the colours could have been more vivid and natural. "But these do not take away from the fact that TNV has done singularly wonderful work."
Why tell this story today? One reason is that, with success in hand and documented, it is a rounded story that lends itself to telling and retelling. But far more important is the fact that in the midst of a deafening and abusive election campaign, it is vital to know that politicians will not save us of their own volition - crusading citizens driven by a cause will. They will turn history around and grow the public good.