In the bustling metropolis of Kolkata, in the east Indian state of West Bengal, Rabindra Sarovar, a lake of national importance, is the favourite haunt of over 10,000-morning walkers.
Two decades ago, Sumita Banerjee started coming to the urban lake area, as a morning walker. Soon she made friends, not only with the fellow morning walkers but with the lake itself.
Now she is a recognised citizen-conservationist and activist, mobilising citizens and taking on authorities and rule-breakers with the support of the law and the media.
Rabindra Sarovar lake is a manmade lake that was dug out of marshy land in 1921 to encourage citizens to settle in the southern part of the city. Banerjee recalls her first tryst with the Rabindra Sarovar – the second-largest water body in Kolkata – in the 1990s, that prompted her to act for its protection.
That was the time when the lake had almost no upkeep and was slowly getting converted into an urban dump yard.
“Back then, the lake was not only getting converted into a dump yard but was also an open space for defecation for both humans as well as their pet dogs,” said Banerjee.
“It was difficult for the morning walkers to pace around the lake. I felt very sorry and wanted to do something to save the lake,” she added.
Tathagata Roy, the current governor of Meghalaya was also one of the morning walkers in the lake.
“He asked me to collect 100 signatures from the morning walkers and submit a petition to the authorities urging them to address the current problems. I collected over 1000 signatures and soon the authorities started taking action. That was the time I realised that our little action helped the lake regain its ecological balance,” said Sumita Banerjee.
Since then with clockwork precision, Banerjee wakes up at 4.30 am every day, walks about 2 km from her home and reaches the lake by 5.30 am. With a wooden baton in her hand, she patrols the area around the water body till 12.30 pm, fights with hawkers and commoners for littering the place, coordinates with government officials and citizens concerned about the lake and informs them about any activity that could pose a threat to the ecology of the lake.
And on some days she is back in the evening to check on the activities around the lake.
The activist is fighting several powerful lobbies and politicians, battling four false criminal cases against her in the high court, risking death threats and also filing public interest litigations to save the lake, all at her own expense. And all for the lake that is gasping for breath.
Dwindling ecology of an urban water body
With its green cover, the lake is spread across 192 acres. Around 38 percent of its total area (73 acres) constitutes the water body, while the rest shelters varieties of floral species, some of which are more than a century old.
Rabindra Sarovar, also known as Dhakuria Lake, acts as the lung of the city by doubling up as a natural carbon dioxide sink. With over 11,000 trees around it, out of which 7,500 are over 70 years old, the lake area is a major source of oxygen generation in the city. The lake also sponges off air pollutants and cools off surrounding areas.
For the city dwellers, this lake acts as an oasis in the concrete jungle with its spacious pedestrian walkways, children’s parks, and floral and faunal diversity including resident and migratory birds, making it a popular recreational spot.
Acknowledging the fact that Rabindra Sarovar is a major environmental reserve of Kolkata with the lake ecosystem playing an important role in the urban ecology of the city, the lake was declared as a “National Lake” in 1997, under the National Lake Conservation Programme (now merged with National Wetlands Conservation Programme) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India.
The scenic Rabindra Lake was declared as a National Lake in 1997. Photo by Mou Chakraborty.
But over the last two decades, the ecology of the lake has taken a major beating from human activities, said Banerjee.
For starters, the beautification of the lake in 2005-2006 (it had to be stopped because of a court case and was completed in 2013) had a major impact on its ecology when the riparian zone where the water meets the soil was concretised. The snails and frogs started disappearing, forcing the ducks and swans to change their food habit.
Then again, every year, the lake’s water quality is assailed by the dumping of at least 50 litres of oil and ritual-related offerings by the observers of the annual Chhath puja, a Hindu festival of paying obeisance to the sun, resulting in fish and aquatic fauna die-offs.
Discharge of kitchen waste from the surrounding sports and social clubs and untreated effluent from a toilet of a mosque constructed on one of the three islands inside lake has ratcheted up the microbial load in the water. Plastic and thermocol waste menace continues at the lake.
Adding to the ongoing problems, this year in 2019, Chhath devotees flouted the National Green Tribunal’s 2017 order prohibiting pujas, social events and community picnics inside Sarovar. As many as 15,000 Chhath revellers broke open the locks of the gate to the lake area, flooded the lake area dancing to loud music, littered the place, dumped plastic in the water, burst crackers and left the lake in ruins. Banerjee, who was instrumental in getting the ban in place in 2017 along with NGO named Calcutta Initiative, tried to peacefully reason with the incoming rush of devotees. But to no avail.
“This year KMDA had made adequate arrangements to stop Chhath devotees from entering the lake. But what can government bodies do when two days ahead of the puja our chief minister (West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee) publicly supports the devotees coming to the Sarovar for Chhath. She supported their logic of organising Chhath at the Sarovar for years and asked ‘where else would they go?’ This is deplorable,” she rued. “Can the Chhath devotees staying in London demand to organise the puja on the bank of the Thames,” says Banerjee whose battle to save the lake has transcended power regimes in the state. In 2010, she collected over 5000 signatures from citizens urging the government (the Left Front regime) to stop the ritual at the lake.
“Now I am getting ready to file a contempt petition in NGT against this violation (during the festival). Filing a case requires a lot of time and money. Though my lawyer this time is a fellow morning walker, who is not charging me, there are several incidental expenses incurred in creating campaign-related materials and making copies of photographic evidence,” she said.
She has also turned down offers of financial help from several morning walkers. “The political parties and the state government are against me. If I start taking money for this legal battle then soon they will level allegations against me for swindling money, which I do not want,” Banerjee said.
Taking on people in power
Her first big success came in 2007 when she could stop the entry of stray animals, including pet dogs in the lake area.
But a bigger challenge for Banerjee was to confront the local government and political parties over the lake’s dwindling ecology.
She made a breakthrough in 2014 when she discovered that the state urban development department was planning to erect a 60 feet wide flyover that would have cut through the Rabindra Sarovar and resulted in the felling of over 400 trees. She quickly informed the media and the attention the issue received from leading media houses forced the government to retreat.
Banerjee looks over “her” lake. Photo by Mou Chakraborty.
But her consistent protests eventually landed her in troubled waters.
“I have been targeted by the local counsellors and Trinamool leaders (leaders of the Trinamool Congress, the ruling party in West Bengal) on several occasions. Despite a ban by NGT, the political lobby has been pushing hawkers into the lake who bring in plastic-wrapped food items, cigarettes and even drugs and alcohol,” she said. Banerjee has faced various altercations with hawkers and political party members, including attempts to physically harm her. She even had criminal cases against her, filed by political party members, which she continues to fight, “even as none of the complainants ever bother to turn up during the hearing,” she says.
Connecting citizens with their natural surroundings
For many citizens, Sumita Banerjee has been a changemaker who has and can motivate others to be actively involved with the lake’s caretaking.
A former pilot and a regular morning walker at the lake, Captain S. Katriar commends Banerjee for devoting her time to the lake’s conservation, while underscoring the dichotomy of her labour of love.
“On one hand her fight has earned her a lot of enemies but on the other hand, her passion for the lake has also earned her a lot of love and respect,” said Katriar who has known Banerjee for 12 years. “Her love for Sarovar has inspired several others to acquire a sense of ownership over the lake and spend time for its upgradation,” he added.
“She is a single lady and has no immediate family, hence can dedicate so much time,” he said. As a woman activist, while respected by many, Banerjee often faces judgements and challenges specific to her gender. But that doesn’t stop Banerjee. “My only goal is to ensure the lake’s ecology is well-balanced during my lifetime. To do this we need the will of the government. If I, as a single, unarmed woman can take care of the lake, can’t the government do it too?
Sumita Banerjee, for many, has become the point person in matters related to the lake and to encourage public participation. “She is an exceptionally courageous woman. Hawkers had tried to set her on fire inside the lake but she was never afraid. Many morning walkers, including me, are so involved with the development of the lake because of her,” said communication expert and morning walker Mrituynjoy Chatterjee.
However, over the years the public participation at the lake is dwindling due to government norms/restrictions. For instance, in order to plant trees at Rabindra Sarovar or to undertake voluntary garbage clearing mission, NGOs, students, as well as morning walkers need permission from KMDA.
Scene overlooking Rabindra Lake. Photo by Mou Chakraborty.
Tushar Talukdar, a retired commissioner of Kolkata police and a regular morning walker at the lake feels that government and the society, in general, are not aware enough about the environment and climate change but Banerjee’s continuous efforts have succeeded in generating some awareness. “She has been fighting fearlessly against many odds. Even a lake monitoring committee constituted by the High Court where Sumita was a member has been dissolved and a committee of bureaucrats has been constituted without any citizens representation. I am associated with this lake for over 70 years and I feel a lot has to be done to change the mindset of the government as well as citizens,” Talukdar said, emphasising that Sumita’s efforts need everybody’s cooperation.
Environmentalist and green technologist Somendra Mohan Ghosh underlined that Banerjee has understood the threat to the lake very well. “If an eco-sensitive zone like Rabindra Sarovar continues to have particulate matter level three times higher than normal, then in a very short span of time its biodiversity would be under threat. We should act immediately,” Ghosh said.
Ghosh added, “But it is appalling to see that despite gaining the status of National Lake Rabindra Sarovar still does not have an expert committee with plantation expert and biodiversity expert. Citizen policing is important and can raise an alarm but we need experts to save the lake.”
Banerjee however, feels that her popularity is a bane in disguise. “Everyone gives me information related to any wrongful activity in and around the lake. But not many people want to come forward as this long-drawn battle requires a lot of time, free service and the added hassle of making enemies with the powerful. But I don’t mind; there were attempts to kill me, I don’t fear death, everyone has to die one day,” Banerjee said.
“I feel a lot of the problems related to the lake can be resolved if we succeed in getting an NGT order to deploy CISF (Central Industrial Security Force) for the security of the lake. I am working towards it now,” Banerjee signed-off.
The story was originally published in Mongabay-India.