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TMC govt enforces ban on Chhath puja at two major lakes in Kolkata; crusaders relieved

The Trinamool Congress (TMC) government deployed huge police contingents around Rabindra Sarobar and Subhas Sarobar, the two major water bodies in Kolkata, on Friday and Saturday to stop devotees from performing Chhath puja rituals in violation of court orders.

Artificially created by the British government in the 1920s, Rabindra Sarobar was declared a national lake by the Centre in 2002. It is protected under the National Lake Conservation Plan.

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Chhath puja cannot be allowed at the Rabindra Sarobar which is considered one of the lungs of the city because of its green cover and is home to more than 200 varieties of resident and migratory birds. In a simultaneous development, a division bench of the Calcutta high court banned the puja at Subhas Sarobar, a waterbody of equal importance and located in the north-eastern part of Kolkata.

Environment activists, who had moved the court to protect the water bodies and greenery, were relived as devotees could not enter these sites till Saturday afternoon when the festival came to an end. On Friday, some people tried to forcibly cross the makeshift barriers erected around Rabindra Sarobar but were chased away by the police.

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“We are happy that the police carried out the court orders. But this is not enough. The same should be done in the coming years as well,” said Sumita Banerjee, the green activist who had moved the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2018, seeking ban on the rituals at Rabindra Sarobar and bathing by devotees. Although the NGT ordered a ban, it was rampantly violated in 2018 and 2019. The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the NGT’s order, setting aside an appeal by the state government to allow the rituals amid certain restrictions.

“Around a dozen painted storks have arrived at Rabindra Sarobar after four years. They have set up nests on an island. As many as 122 varieties of birds have been recorded so far this year. These include black-headed cuckooshrike, long-legged buzzard, changeable hawk-eagle, Swinhoe’s minivet, pied harrier and brown-headed gull. In 2018 and 2019, a lot of birds simply vanished after firecrackers were used by the devotees inside the protected site,” said Sudip Ghosh, who organised ardent birders into a group that have recorded the sightings over the years.

Amid allegations by opposition parties that chief minister Mamata Banerjee is concerned about Hindi-speaking voters because of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory in Bihar assembly polls, the Kolkata Municipal Development Authority (KMDA), the custodian of the two water bodies, appealed to the Supreme Court and Kolkata high court to allow the puja this year.

On Thursday afternoon, Banerjee requested Hindi-speaking people to observe Chhath puja at home or in their respective neighbourhoods, using the 1,500 water tanks the government had created over the past few days.

While addressing a Chhath puja gathering, BJP state president Dilip Ghosh targeted Banerjee. “The chief minister is worried about people from Bihar because elections will be held here in a few months. Had she been seriously concerned, the government would have made alternative arrangements long ago. These people will vote for us,” he said.

Banerjee addressed two Chhath puja gatherings in Kolkata. “In Bihar, the government has sanctioned only one holiday for Durga puja (a four-day festival) but in Bengal, we have listed two holidays for Chhath puja,” she said on Friday.

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