Civil Society checkmates
Politicians’ Well Laid Plan
It is seldom that civil society in India is able to stall governments from executing their improper plans. It was only recently that in Bhopal, the capital of the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh, that it effectively blocked the government from pushing through the ten-year City Development Plan for Bhopal. If implemented, it would have devastated the city and its salubrious environment. Seeing through the attempts of politicians to unleash merry hell on the city’s precious lands, its civil society mounted such an effective resistance that the Chief Minister, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, had to take the rare step the other day to scrap it.
The Development Plan was released in August 2009. The public hearings for registering objections before a committee of 75 members lasted around three weeks and concluded in the second week of April 2010. Throughout the hearings before a committee, which always lacked the quorum, people gave a resounding “No” to the Plan. More than 2000 objections were filed and hundreds appeared in person in the sweltering heat for putting them across.
Besides, in the midst of the ongoing hearings the government was hugely embarrassed by a revelation made in a reply to a petition under the Right to Information Act. According to the revelation, two Directors of Town & Country Planning (T&CP) were summarily transferred out in quick succession in 2008 because the recommendations they made or the plans they prepared were not to the liking of their political masters. This plan was rustled up, reportedly, under the guidance of the cronies of the politicians who also happened to be builders and released in late August 2009.
Once the cats came tumbling out of the bag, the Government, finding itself like a “cat on a hot tin-roof”, had no way out except to climb down and decide (even before the 75-member committee could file its report) to “review” the Plan. The bloopers in it were aplenty. And, they did not creep into it because of inadvertence. They were deliberate and inserted by design with intentions that were far from honourable. The politician-builders nexus was at play threatening the city’s very character. Citizens and their several groups put an effective brake on their shenanigans.
One may ask what was it that provoked the people’s ire to make them oppose the Development Plan virtually as one man. Bhopal is acknowledged to be one of the very few pretty towns in the country. Well endowed by nature, it needs only a little human help to make it a very liveable city. People, therefore, expected the planners to indicate the vision they nursed for the town. This very government, under the same chief minister, had once proposed to make it a “Global Environment City”, particularly, because of its potential of becoming so with its several green hills, blue lakes and a handful of streams. Sadly, the same government produced a plan that had no vision for the city. Instead it had extensive facilitations for wholesale sacrifice of forests and prime farmlands for constructions there on. Environment of the city or impact of the Plan on it was not factored into it. The challenges posed by climate change, particularly in regard to the shrinking availability of drinking water, were not touched upon. In fact, the Plan was so framed that, if implemented, the present green and environment-friendly character (whatever little left of it) of the town would have been seriously imperilled. The centrality of the city’s hills and the lakes, around which the previous ten-year plan was evolved, was given a go by. The Upper Lake, the heart of the town and beloved by its citizens for whom it is an important source of drinking water, was slated for destruction, with its catchments and shores cleared for residential and commercial constructions.
While the earlier, 2005 Plan had intentions of containing the expanse of the city with development of sub-cities and satellite towns, the 2021 Plan provided for its unbridled expansion over ecologically sensitive forests and surrounding farmlands for the benefit of builders, land sharks and their political cronies. One of the Directors T&CP had rightly recommended that with large tracts of land available for development under the earlier Plan there was no need for a fresh plan. She, however, was promptly axed. She knew that around 50% of the land allocated for development under the earlier Plan had remained unutilised. But, to justify expansion of the city from 600-odd sq.kms to 800-odd sq.kms a gross overestimation of the city’s population – from the current around 18 lakh (1.8 million) to 32 lakh (3.2 million) – was craftily made.
Perhaps, worse was the proposal to lay a network of roads over farmlands to foster speculative buying of agricultural lands and their eventual surreptitious conversion for residential/commercial/public/semi-public use. And, importantly, while the city was proposed to be expanded over several sq.kms there was little in the Plan which provided for a coherent transport system. Even details of width of roads, pavements, cycle tracks, etc. were conspicuous by their absence.
The Plan had nothing in it about development, restoration and improvement of surroundings of several architecturally magnificent heritage structures displaying their innate syncretic culture of the region. In fact, the medieval core of the city, perhaps its most populous part and littered with heritage structures, was utterly neglected and thus would have been condemned to total lack of development for the next ten years had the Plan not been scuppered.
The upshot of the sordid story is the massive corruption at the political level of the State Government which has developed deep and abiding nexus, inter alia, with those in construction business. Their greed and lust for ill-gotten wealth knows no bounds and the people’s interests and their wellbeing do not figure anywhere in their reckoning. The higher bureaucracy has come out in very bad light. It had, seemingly, abdicated its powers and responsibilities. While it remained mute witness to the virtual sacrifice of a beautiful town at the altar of greed of a clutch of politicians and builders, it had no compunctions in witnessing wilful and unhindered transfers of officers of the level of directors of T&CP by those who were proxies for the builders and land sharks.
The government would have carried through this suicidal development plan wreaking havoc on the city and its unwary citizens had the city’s civil society not put up a stiff resistance. Coming together as never before, it vehemently attacked the evil designs of the makers of the Plan. Deeply hurt at the brazen tilt in favour of the construction lobby, people – individually and in groups – as also the media had no alternative but to mount a concerted assault. In doing so, Bhopal has placed before the country a new paradigm, showing the efficacy of cohesive effort for unravelling devious efforts of politicians and their equally deceitful cronies.
City development plans in this country, generally, amount to expansion of the frontiers of a town that gobble up hundreds and thousands of hectares of ecologically vital green areas, forests or farms. With the kind of self-serving, greedy and venal politicians we have, wheeling and dealing in the business of land comes naturally to them. It is, therefore, not safe to allow them to play around with these natural assets that are increasingly becoming vital. One, therefore, feels such developmental plans, which can impinge on the environment and lives of citizens, should also be subjected to objective environmental impact assessments before being implemented
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