The catchments of the Upper Lake of Bhopal have come up in public discourse from time to time. The latest to raise the matter is elderly former bureaucrat, Smt Nirmala Buch, who has categorically stated that the proposed Master Plan 2031 would be disastrous for the city. The Plan envisages uniform development over an enlarged area that includes the catchments of the Lake. Imploring the state government to ban development in catchments of the Lake she has described the Plan, if implemented, would be disastrous for the city’s Lakes and its environment. However, this Plan too seems to be a non-starter as all the legalities could not be completed after its publication within the time stipulated in the law.
I have been around in Bhopal for a quarter century and have been witness to various shenanigans of the state government and its agencies in respect of the catcments. No wonder during all these years practically nothing was achieved. There was only talk, and more talk with nothing concrete to show for. The catchments were left to their own devices. Quite unsurprisingly, urbanization, which is likely to sign off the death warrant of the Lake, has slowly been creeping up to overwhelm the surroundings. In the meantime the authorities take their own time to choose their course of action, supposedly, to save the catchments.
The state agencies, including the Municipal Corporation that is the custodian of the Lake, have neither eyes nor ears. These cannot see or hear what common people do. While construction on the alternative route to Sehore has been going on apace a jetty was constructed in Khanugaon area that came into use for a few days before the current monsoon set in. Some enthusiastic sailors would sail out on the Lake giving us pretty pictures. Even some bigger vessels would come from across the Lake from the Boat Club to dock on the temporary-looking jetty. But apparently, it was all unauthorised as the jetty itself was illegal. The jetty currently now lies unused for unknown reasons. All this, however, never caught the eyes of the state or its agencies at the appropriate time so that the illegalities that were being perpetrated could be stopped.
This kind of inaction in respect of the catchments has been going on for years. Frankly, the time now has come to ask the government what exactly it wants or what exactly it is aiming at in so far as the catchment area is concerned. If it could not decide on the course of action on the recommendations of the body of experts from Centre for Environmental Planning & Technology (CEPT), Ahmedabad who were its own invitees, apparently, the government’s motives are not quite honourable. The CEPT had also suggested banning of developmental works in the catchments of the Lake just as Smt. Buch has now suggested. But the government did not take action on it and instead sat on the report. The report lies neglected unceremoniously in some corner of the office concerned. A tidy sum was spent on it but, obviously, it does not matter as long as it does not serve the interests of the politicians in power. It might be recalled that objections against the City Development Plan 2021 were so vociferous that the government had to junk it. The Plan had proposed opening up of the catchments for the real estate sector which was not acceptable to the general public.
In the pull and push between the people and the government planned development of the city is being indefinitely delayed. While politicians want to use the catchments as source of some quick money by allotting pieces of it for, presumably, big ticket projects, people do not view the vast available lands like that. They wish to keep it intact so that the Lake, their lifeline, remains secure, more so as there have already been numerous encroachments on it.
The catchments do not need to be opened up for the real estate sector. These need to be taken care of in a manner that they act as the watershed for the Lake and sustain it and its adjoining Lower Lake. At best the catchment area could be used for ecologically-based development that, instead of damaging the water body, makes it thrive with a better quality of water, appears attractive to diverse species of migratory birds and fosters generation of different empathetic aquatic plants.
In this connection, one needs to recall the early 20th Century ecologist and town planner Patrick Geddes, the Scott. More than a hundred years ago Geddes developed interests in diversity of life forms and a concern that was clearly far ahead of times that included the premise that modern industrial society would leave behind “a landscape at once homogenised and degraded”. Having been influenced by Swami Vivekananda, Rabindra Nath Tagore and Sister Nivedita, formerly Margret Noble, he travelled to India and worked as freelance town planner. The towns he wrote about include Dhaka in the East to Ahmedabad in the West and Lahore in the North to Thanjavur in the South.
As Ramchandra Guha, historian, biographer, essayist and social scientist all rolled into one says Geddes’ town plans are deeply ecological. “He saw the Indian city defined by its relationship to water. Traditional Indian city saw the river as sacred”. Geddes wished to redesign the city of Indore around its rivers. Elsewhere, where there were no rivers he stressed renewal and revitalization of tanks. Secondly, Geddes was always alert to spaces, howsoever small. These could be used for planting of trees. As a botanist, he knew where cypresses could be planted or a mango or a peepal or a banyan. Thirdly, he insisted on conservation of resources to reduce the dependence of cities on their hinterlands. Fourthly he believed in recycling, like of sewage to manure gardens.
If only our town planners were better read they would have gladly adopted the principles of town planning that Geddes believed in, more so in areas like the catchments of the Bhopal lakes to not only preserve the water bodies but also to scientifically develop the lands without any collateral damage. Perhaps it is not yet too late to do so. There is still plenty of time but in the meantime the hammer of law should come down on all un-authorised construction – past and ongoing.