This news will certainly give new hope to those who have been fighting to save the Upper Lake in Bhopal and its catchments. The Delhi High Court recently directed the Chandigarh Administration to revoke the permission granted to the ambitious Tata Camelot Project that planned to erect skyscrapers in the vicinity of Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh. The court decided that the plot of land in question fell within the catchment area of the lake. The States of Punjab, Haryana and the Union Territory of Chandigarh were asked to not only stop construction activities in the catchment area but also to demolish any construction that may have taken place against the mandate of the High Court. The order has been passed while deciding the pending “Save Sukhna” case.
The Tata Camelot project has had a chequered history. Initiated by Punjab MLAs (past and present) somewhere around the beginning of this Century, they expected a windfall on completion of the project. The partnership with the House of Tatas was established around a decade ago. Every MLA was to get Rs. 82.5 lakhs and a luxury flat in exchange for his land of 500 sq.yds. that was allotted to each one of them.
The matter came to the notice of the Punjab & Haryana High court through a news report prompting the court to take suo motu cognizance. The report said as many as nine residential towers of 12 to 35 storeys would dot the Chandigarh’s skyline. The High Court felt that the development revealed “disturbing state of rapid and unregulated urbanization”. However in 2013, the court, quite inexplicably, gave permission to the project saying that prohibition orders on construction in the area were not applicable to it and that the project could continue subject to obtaining all necessary clearances. The petitioners approached the Supreme Court claiming the project will damage not only the Sukhna Lake but also the fledgling Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary.
The Apex court stayed the housing project and reversed the go-ahead given by the Punjab & Haryana High Court and transferred the plea to Delhi High Court to decide the matter. Chandigarh is a centrally administered territory and, perhaps, hence the transfer to the Delhi High Court.
The Delhi High Court, on examining the Survey of India maps came to the conclusion that the area in question actually fell within the catchment area of the lake and no construction on it could be allowed. The Court referred the matter to the Punjab Government to reconsider the permission given to Tatas for pursuing the project.
The initial permission was given by the panchayat of the village concerned. According to the DNA newspaper the Rs. 1800 crore project was to come up on 59.39 acres with construction of more than 92 thousand flats (?) in 19 towers. Curiously, the case was earlier taken up by the Punjab & Haryana High Court and even in 2013 it did not consider transferring the matter to National Green Tribunal, Northern Region. Neither did the Supreme Court seem to have felt it necessary to ask the Tribunal to decide the case instead of the Delhi High Court though the matter related essentially to the subject of environment.
Nonetheless, it is a significant example of how the political class expropriates, annexes and seizes public lands and other natural resources for its own benefit, mostly by hoodwinking or browbeating the official institutions. That they appropriate for themselves various other unwarranted benefits at the cost of the general public’s welfare is now well known. One wouldn’t be surprised if this class put pressure on the Punjab & Haryana High court for a favourable decision that was eventually challenged in the Apex Court
It may be of interest to know that Sukhna Lake is of recent origin as the idea for it was floated by the architect of Chandigarh, Le Corbusier. It was created in early 1950s by damming the River Sukhna. It does not supply drinking water to any section of the population of Chandigarh. The intention was only to provide a water body for the new planned city. And, yet its catchment area is considered sacrosanct. No construction is allowed in it and, more importantly, no motorised boat can ply on it and no food stalls or other establishments like restaurants etc. allowed anywhere near it. The other important thing is that it has a well defined catchment area indicated in none other than Survey of India maps.
On the other hand, in comparison Bhopal presents a very sad picture in regard to conservation of its millennium old Upper Lake. For a long time the government of Madhya Pradesh did not even know where the catchments of the Lake began and where they ended. It was perhaps only the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) which for the first time defined the limits of the catchment area. But, there is hardly any sanctity attached to it. Constructions in it are reportedly continuing without let or hindrance and, perhaps, the authorities concerned are winking at it. And, the NGT, though locally situated, is struggling to get rid of the so-called “marriage gardens” that are not only plumb within the catchments, they are also polluting the Lake through their discharges of waste. Besides, the Boat Club is the biggest polluter where there are food and beverages stall, eating joints and the ubiquitous hawkers hawking packaged or freshly made snacks. Besides, motorised boats, including one that serves snacks and food also ply on the Lake, despite a prevailing ban. All this when the Lake is the source of water for not 10 or 20 or 30% of the population; it is the source for a huge chunk of 40%.
The Bhopal Lake is, in fact, nobody’s baby. It is a recognized wetland of international importance, a Ramsar Site to boot, but no measure is ever taken to protect it or conserve it. It is a prime example of indifference and apathy by those who are supposedly in charge of its conservation. Much was expected from the National Green Tribunal but the hopes have been totally belied. The alternative now seems to be a surge by civil society to force action by the government. Otherwise presumably the prediction made by the CEPT may come true. In twenty years time, as predicted, the Lake, might remain in its present form but it will cease to be of any use for the citizens; its waters will be unfit for human consumption.
Curiously, things have come down to such a level that environmentalists have to take recourse to courts for protecting or conserving natural assets to enable them to issue suitable directions to those who are charged with the responsibility of taking care of them. Things that should be done in ordinary course for the well being of the environment for sustaining life are neglected and unfortunately allowed to be misappropriated by the moneyed and the greedy.
One wonders whether it is time for Bhopal Citizens’ Forum to fight for an award to the Upper Lake of the status of a “living entity” so that all the rights that accrue to the citizens also accrue to it. Given the apathy of the government, perhaps this is the only way the Upper Lake built by Raja Bhoj a thousand years ago can be saved and perpetuated for posterity.