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Chhath Puja celebrations take place at Kolkata's Rabindra Sarobar lake despite NGT ban, activists' campaign

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 the light of pollution of the lake during 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 per 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!”

Chhath pooja at Kolkata. Image sourced by A Ghose/101Reporters

Chhath pooja at Kolkata. Image sourced by A Ghose/101Reporters

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) have been filed against unknown perpetrators by them on Thursday.

Activists Sumita Banerjee and Subhas Datta are preparing a fresh 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.

The activists will reportedly move the court by 19 November. If the NGT takes up the lawsuit, the guilty parties could be fined up to Rs 50 lakh each.

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 formed 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 the KMDA chairperson. 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 I should move the NGT,” Banerjee said.

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 animals and birds in and around the lake. The stadium nearby was to host ISL matches in 2016, which would cause severe problems for the birds, whether 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 its first ruling in 2016 said that Chhath Puja rituals could not be performed at the Sarobar. The Rashtriya Bihari Samaj (RBS) moved 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 direction was ignored. In 2017, RBS again moved court, this time with prominent political backing, and argued their case before the Chief Justice. The KMDA even came to their rescue, saying it would ensure the prompt clean-up of all puja residue. However, it was the same old story.

This year, the RBS president Mani Prasad Singh told The Times of India that the organisation was 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 could take a dip in the lake, and also install halogen lights and large banners welcoming the crowds.

Beyond the ecological urgency, the controversy also has significant political implications. While the 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 the 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 the 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 percent 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.”

(The author is freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com)


Updated Date: Nov 17, 2018 18:51 PM

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