With committed citizen groups working with the local government it is possible to preserve heritage and be water sufficient.
The city of Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, is spick and span for now. The Swachch Bharat mission has been taken seriously and the Corporation is doing its best to get citizens involved in the cleanliness spirit.
As you go around the city you cannot help be awed by the two magnificent water-bodies that make up the Bhopal Wetlands, a Ramsar designated one and a magnificent heritage. The Chota Talab or the small lake, is a deeper and natural water body. Here are fountains and oarsmen practising rowing. In the evening a beautiful sight.
The larger lake, the Bada Talab, is reputedly a 1000-year-old man-made one. Built by Raja Bhoj, the founder of Bhopal, it is a magnificent 32 sq. km water-spread and the eye cannot see the end of the lake. Here too from the boating club, boats can be hired and time spent on the water. A small island hosts the ‘dargah’ or tomb of a Sufi saint. Birds fill the trees here, roosting at night.
The city of Bhopal has been blessed with this water and depends to an extent on it for its daily requirements. A project funded by the Japanese International Cooperation Assistance has helped improve the shoreline, develop a park and a walking track all along, divert sewage and prevent flooding by strengthening the embankment. The project is now over, yet maintaining an urban lake is not a project but a constant endeavour calling for eternal vigilance.
As one walks around the smaller lake one notices a small channel brining raw sewage into it. The waters in the small patch have eutrophied and a smell hangs in the air. Quick action is called for but are the citizens vigilant and have they a good rapport with the authorities?
The large lake dried up twice, in 2002 and 2008, says the young man who is rowing me to the tomb of the Sufi saint. Is the catchment being managed well enough, is debris being dumped in the channels which lead to the lake, is a catchment management system in place with the right institution created for it ? Again, it is community interaction which will play a crucial role in preserving this functional heritage.
One searches for Baolis or step-wells in old Bhopal. Of the four that one could ask for to see, two have completely disappeared. Filled by land sharks and over one, a tower has been built. Of the remaining two, water was being pumped from one till a couple of months ago till the pump broke down.
It has not been repaired nor is the step-well clean. Unless a partnership is struck with the neighbouring community, it is unlikely that the well will be maintained and may meet the fate of the other two.
The last Baoli is under the ASI and they are doing their best to repair and rehabilitate a magnificent structure, still full of water.
It would have been best if these four and more step-wells had been brought back to life as living and functional heritage, supplying water to the locality yet being showcased for the tourists who would inevitably come to see them bolstering the local economy rather than being an archaeological preserve.
The Mayor of Bhopal is a dynamic personality, interested very much in keeping alive the magnificence of a city just entering a phase of rapid urbanisation.
With committed citizen groups working with the local government it is possible to become water secure, climate resilient, preserve heritage and be water sufficient.
Going local is truly the path to water wisdom. Bhopal can show the way.
First published in The Hindu
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