Amita Ghose | Nov 16, 2018 | 6 min read
Kolkata: Chhath Puja celebrations took place over two days at Kolkata's Rabindra Sarobar Lake this week in brazen disregard for the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ruling that bans this congregation there in light of pollution of the lake in the event and to preserve its ecological significance. The fact that over 40,000 people from the city’s Bihari community descended on the venue on Tuesday and Wednesday to kick off the puja, apparently in collusion with political parties, the police and city authorities, has angered environmental activists who have been fighting a years-long legal battle to protect the lake.
As the administration and the authorities concerned shrugged off any responsibility in implementing the NGT order, the police played the victim card by saying they were unable to keep the crowds away. On being asked how the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA) could allow such large-scale celebrations at the lake in violation of the ban, Paushali Banerjee, counsel for KMDA, said, they were told that celebrations at the lake would not be allowed this year.
“We did write to the police a month ago, and they wrote back to us saying that the gates of the lake will remain closed. As far as our knowledge, police were present at the gates and they were already guarding the premises. We did our bit. Then devotees forcefully entered the lake, and in that case, looking after the law and order is not our job!”
Activists Sumita Banerjee and Subhas Datta are preparing a contempt of court petition to respond to this latest transgression. They have been actively campaigning for the past five years to stop this annual ritual that lays waste to the lake and the park around it. Thousands of people take a dip in the lake and flowers and other puja essentials are chucked into the waters, the clean-up of which is getting progressively harder. The bonfires and firecrackers also wreak havoc on the various species of birds that migrate there.
A source in the Kolkata police said six suo motu cases under Sections 188 (Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) and 353 (Assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of duty) to have been filed against unknown perpetrators by them on Wednesday. The activists will reportedly move to the court by November 19. If NGT takes up the lawsuit, the guilty parties could be fined up to Rs 50 lakh each. The probable names to be mentioned in the petition would include KMDA chairman, KMDA executive engineer Sudhin Nandi and the officer-in-charge of the lake's police station.
The legal fight for the ravaged ecosystem of Rabindra Sarobar lake began in 2013. However, it acquired public prominence only by 2016 when the petitioners directly approached the chief justice of the Calcutta High Court. “In the first two years, the case filed by me wasn’t given much importance. A six-member committee was found during this time which included Tushar Talukder and Mrityunjay Chatterjee (as representatives of the court), two city councillors, the officer-in-charge of the Rabindra Sarobar Lake police state and KMDA chairman. But the government made sure that none of the decisions of the committee could be implemented properly and now they absolutely deny the existence of this committee. Later it was suggested to me that the court would never give a judgment against TMC and I should move to NGT,” Banerjee told Firstpost.
In this petition, the NGT was made aware of several troubling developments around the lake. The social/sports clubs that had mushroomed around the lake kept organising events and ceremonies, excessive light and noise from which affected the creatures in and around the lake. The stadium nearby was to host ISL matches in 2016, which would cause severe problems for the birds, both migratory or otherwise. A mosque was built on the premises of the lake and a flawed sewerage line from there was connected directly to the water. Devotees of Chhath Puja had been absolutely destroying the ecosystem of the lake itself; as a result, in the past two years at least 200 kilos of fish had died due to oxygen starvation. The bursting of crackers during Durga Puja and Diwali was destroying the grass and creating a thick veil of smog around the lake.
The NGT in 2016 in its first ruling said that Chhath Puja rituals could not be performed at the Sarobar. The Rashtriya Bihari Samaj (RBS) moved to court then, claiming that a judgment as important as this could not be given just 10 days before the Puja, as it would be very difficult to find a new venue. The court after hearing the plea allowed the group to perform rituals in the lake that year but maintained that no one should be allowed to bring with them flowers, oil or other polluting substances used in rituals. The rule was thoroughly ignored. In 2017, RBS again moved to court, this time with prominent political backing, and argued their case before the chief justice. KMDA even came to their rescue saying it would ensure the prompt clean-up of all puja residue. But that year too, like every other year in past, the story was the same.
This year, the RBS president Mani Prasad Singh in his told the TOI that they were unaware of the ban until a day before Chhath Puja. The same report also states how authorities from the Kolkata Municipal Corporation worked through the night before the puja to put up bamboo ladders so people can take a dip in the lake, halogen lights and large banners welcoming the crowds.
Beyond the ecological urgency, the controversy also has significant political implications. While BJP-TMC blame game has already begun on who played the 'Let's win Bihari votes' card, the TMC power minister, Sovandeb Chattopadhyay, who has always had a role in the Chhath Puja celebrations at the lake, shrugged off all responsibility.
“So what if I was present? I was outside. My people and I were present at a camp that was put up on the road near the lake to help Chhath devotees. We did not enter the lake and followed the court's ruling.”
Subhas Datta says, “On spotting Sovandeb, we approached him and asked how come this is happening again in the lake even after the NGT ban and how come TMC was supporting this? He said he was only there to help the devotees, but when I showed him the ruling which said that any kind of gathering in and around the lake is prohibited, he, of course, had nothing to say and ignored us.”
Banerjee further adds, “I am not shocked at how TMC is doing this for political gain. When the so-called beautification was happening at the lake, these people did not even think twice about perpetually disturbing the ecosystem by removing 60% of the natural soil plaques and covering it all with concrete. Time and again TMC minister Firhad Hakim would come and give temporary solutions but soon the work was again started. I got information that Hakim had also organised a few meetings with all the stakeholders before this year's Chhath celebrations and all this was done with the state government's unofficial nod.”
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