What did the Chhath violation of NGT at Kolkata's Rabindra Sarobar expose

While religious, political and other inetrests gain currency, environmental concerns take a backseat 

By Sambit Pal
Published: Tuesday 05 November 2019
Rabindra Sarobar, Kolkata. Photo: Getty Images

Late morning 2 November, 2019, a group of hooligans stormed into the greens surrounding Kolkata’s Rabindra Sarobar, popularly known as Dhakuria Lake, breaking locks as private security guards stood by. Armed with stones and sticks, they ensured devotees could reach the lake and perform Chhath rituals without hindrance. While at it, they ensured the order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banning Chhath at Rabindra Sarobar was violated. 

In 2018, the NGT banned Chhath rituals at this National Lake (since 2002 under the Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystem by Ministry of forest, environment and Climate Change). Before that there was a tug of war between environmentalists and government agencies for several years.

While the activists pleaded for a complete ban to protect the lake's bio-diversity, the state government bought time in the name of finding an alternative water body to replace the decades-old south Kolkata venue. The NGT had put as many as 15 conditions in the earlier years while allowing Chhath rituals at Rabindra Sarobar; those too were flouted by the devotees without much objection from the government agencies or the police.

Things seemed headed in the right direction this year as the Kolkata Police and Kolkata Improvement Trust decided on keeping the lake closed even for morning walkers and general visitors on November 2 and 3. Multiple banners at the gates announced the NGT ban. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation created artificial ponds nearby for worshippers.

Unfortunately, when the hooligans broke open the gates so that devotees could worship in the lake, there were allegedly no police personnle or government officials around. Not only did the devotees performed their rituals, but also bursted firecrackers and blared out music from huge sound boxes.

A day after the mayhem, dead fish and tortoises were found floating in the toxic lake water.

Neither did the government do much nor did any political party vocally condemned violation of the NGT order to protect biodiversity at the 192 acre eco-sensitive zone.

The ruling establishment, including Chief Minister Mamat Banerjee and the mayor of Kolkata, made it clear that they wouldn't speak up when it came to religious sentiments. Bharatiya Janata Party workers pressed themselves into cleaning up the lake area after the rituals were over, but wouldn’t say a word on banning Chhath at the lake as that would go against their Hindutva agenda. They rather shifted the blame onto the government for disobeying the NGT order.

The silence of the political parties seems to be for vote banks. The Bihari votes are crucial for the ruling Trinamool Congress, the BJP and the Left in some pockets in West Bengal. Banerjee’s Trinamool is also in an image-makeover mode, especially after the ‘Jai Shri Ram controversy’ where she herself termed some non-Bengalis ‘outsider’ in the state and was cornered by an ‘anti-Hindu’ campaign against her. The current episode has given the party an opportunity to regain the trust of non-Bengalis.

The debate over the violation of NGT order, interestingly, is not restricted to over administrative or political failure. It has given birth to multiple narratives.

A lack of political will was definitely a reason for the government not acting tough to adhere to the Tribunal’s order and the Opposition not being vocal. On top of this, the Bengali-non-Bengali divide is cropping up in the politically volatile state. A section has blamed the violation on the Bihari aggression against Bengali culture, a narrative that goes against right wing’s Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan agenda.

A section of the right-wing has also pointed fingers at a mosqeu on one of the islands in the lake.

Some have asked why should a patch of greenery with a huge water body at a posh south Kolkata locality get such prominence, arguing that it was an ‘elitist’ agenda of a few ‘armchair’ environmentalists. Why did environmentalists not raise their voice against elite clubs on the lake premises for decades, they asked.

In the middle of all this, what is being exposed is our lack of concern for core environmental issues. Chhath at Rabindra Sarobar symbolic. The political, racial and elitist debates are undermining the fact that we should react to any environmental concern irrespective of whether it is politically motivated or religious sentiment is being used to defend the act.

The ruling establishment’s hypocrisy gets exposed when the CM jogs on the Darjeeling hills in the name of protecting the environment and there is so much talk about fighting climate change, but the environment can take a backseat when religious sentiments come into the picture while polluting a Lake. Similarly, when we try to colour the gross violation of a quasi-judicial body’s order to protect a lake with different prisms except for just environmental concerns, our fight against the danger that we are in gets defeated.

Views expressed are the author's own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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