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Fearless Kolkata Woman Fights Death Threats to Keep a Lake Alive

A native of Durgapur, Sumita Banerjee moved to Kolkata a few decades ago. A former school teacher, she found her calling as a green activist when she noticed a blatant disregard for the well-being of Kolkata’s second-largest water body, Rabindra Sarovar.

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Love is a pure emotion that makes you do things you never thought you were capable of. An anchor of hope, it can make you fearless, agrees Sumita Banerjee, who has risked it all for love.

A native of Durgapur, West Bengal, she moved to Kolkata for studies. Alone in a big city, she found solace amidst the canopied banks of Rabindra Sarovar and soon joined the community of morning walkers called Lake Lovers Forum, who were passionate about the well-being of the lake.

A few steps from Golpark More, the lake is a safe haven for people from all walks of life — those looking to snatch a few minutes of sleep under the trees, the elderly yearning for companionship or the hurried professionals striving to stay in shape.

“It was not just the natural bounty and beauty, but how it had cradled a diverse community of people behind its tall gates. It is almost magical to see the world go a tad bit slower in this green haven situated amid a concrete jungle. It is our treasure to cherish and protect,” says Sumita.

Since then, she has been fighting tooth and nail to protect the lake from various forces—industrial, political or religious—that have been trying to encroach and destroy its valuable diversity for personal gains. Having drained most of her savings and even dodging death threats, Sumita has grown to be the fearless guardianess of Rabindra Sarovar.

Becoming the sole protector

Born and raised in Durgapur, Sumita came to Kolkata in 1990. After completing her Masters of Arts in Bengali, she took up a teaching position in a city-based school. It was in 2001 when she first visited the Rabindra Sarovar.

The artificial man-made lake is situated at a prime location of Kolkata and is visited by over 10,000 people daily. Dug up on a marshy land in 1921, it is home to a diverse flora and fauna that houses several species of migratory and resident birds.

Spanning over 192 acres, out of which 73 acres is water, this lake is considered the second-largest water body in Kolkata. With more than 11,000 trees and a majority of them over 70 years old, it is an environmental reserve that balances the city’s urban ecology. Owing to this, in 1997, this lake which is also known as Dhakuria lake, was declared a ‘national lake’, under the National Lake Conservation Programme of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India.

Yet, despite all the official accolades meant to provide immunity to this national environmental reserve, it was left in tatters during Sumita’s first visit, which was anything but love at first sight.

“Back then, Rabindra Sarovar wasn’t what we see today. There was no one taking good care of it and it was on the verge of becoming a dumpyard. Hawkers had encroached pavements and walking trails were littered with garbage. In some parts, there was even open defecation by dogs and people. It was a very sorry state with a handful of morning walkers from nearby communities striving to keep it alive. I was no environmentalist or activist at the time but the blatant disregard for an environmental treasure like this was a huge shock for me. I knew the potential a space like this could have for city dwellers and its environmental implications and that was motivation enough to begin the fight,” she recalls.

However, it was a specific incident at the lake that triggered her unflinching motivation for the cause and gave her confidence to attempt such a mighty feat.

“The community of morning walkers was small but strong, always ready to help one another in moments of crisis. One such case came when a person with a disability, Argho, who frequented the lake, lost his father to an accident that left him and his mother utterly helpless. To help him out, the morning walkers community began to raise funds. Initially, they couldn’t gather enough funds to create a substantial impact,” she says.

“I, being a fairly new regular, decided to take up the cause and help as much as possible. Soon, from the Rs 2,000 collected initially, I managed to raise almost Rs 6 lakh in a matter of a week through crowdfunding. We then registered a bank account for the mother and son and deposited all the money in their name. That one success at mobilising people to create a substantial social impact gave me a sense of confidence that I could probably do more than just feel sorry about the state of affairs around me. That’s how I made rejuvenating and protecting the lake as my life’s mission,” says Sumita, who is now recognised as the sole citizen-conservationist and activist taking-on all disruptors or rule-breakers threatening to harm the lake and its natural bounty.

Countless fights and few triumphs

Every morning, Sumita walks around 2 kilometres from her home to reach the lake by 7-7.30 am. The rest of the day then passes by with her patrolling the lake area, stopping hawkers and citizens from littering, coordinating with government officials, managing cleaning and maintenance work, and much more. Although her usual day ends at around 3 pm when she walks back home, on some days the work can stretch beyond the late hours of the evening.

This has been her routine for the past two decades, as she relentlessly strives to protect the lake from any threat whatsoever.

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“Some days are good and others can range from bad to worse. But the work has to go on,” shares Sumita, whose first task was to limit the hawkers from entering and littering on the premises of the lake.

On the advice of Tathagata Roy, former governor of Meghalaya, she collected more than 1,000 signatures from morning walkers to file a petition. The first win came in 2014 when the High Court issued an order restricting hawkers from conducting businesses inside the lake premises.

Simultaneously, her efforts had stopped the so-called beautification project of the lake launched in 2005-2006, which was adversely affecting the population of snails and frogs due to concretisation of the riparian zone- the bank where the soil meets the water.

The next big challenge was then to stop the annual dumping of religious ritual-related offerings into the water. From plastic and thermocol waste to dumping of at least 50 litres of oil, the adverse ecological impact on conducting Chhath Puja was massive, pushing for another petition to stop it.

In this fight against this tide, she found support from environmentalist Subhas Datta who had started the tirade against Chhath puja back in 2015. After their relentless efforts, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on 15 November 2017 passed an order barring all social and religious activities inside the lake premises.

But, this was far from a win, as the following years witnessed Chhath puja devotees blatantly flouting the NGT ruling. In 2019, more than 15,000 devotees broke the locks on the gates of Rabindra Sarovar, played loud music, burst crackers, littered and ruined all the good work accomplished so far. According to a report, South Asian Forum for Environment (SAFE) found that the 2019 incident left 22.3 mg of oil and grease per litre into the lake water against the permissible limit of 10 mg per litre. Another report, claimed that the 50 lakh saplings planted in the lake area in 2018-19 were also destroyed by devotees during this debacle.

“Years of effort to rejuvenate a dying lake went into ruins in a single day. What’s worse is when the custodian of the lake, Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA), in 2020 decided to challenge the NGT ruling in the Supreme Court urging to lift the ban on Chhath puja,” adds Sumita.

To her relief, the plea was eventually shot down, ensuring that the ban prevailed.

“I remember I couldn’t eat or sleep during that time. The day when the SC ruling was to come, I almost had a nervous breakdown. My whole life now was dedicated to the protection of this lake and all of it was at stake. But fortunately, it was in our favour. Since then, from 2020 the KMDA has taken necessary steps to stop the devotees from entering the lake and I hope this continues. If people are observing Chhath Puja abroad without polluting their rivers, why can’t they do the same here? ” she says.

Fighting against the tide

Source: Rabindra Sarovar (L); Sumita Banerjee (R)

For the last two decades, Sumita has single-handedly fought against corporate lobbies, politicians and religious outfits, often risking her life in the process.

“The fact of the matter is that the lake is located in a very prime location and everyone, from politicians to lobbyists, want to have a piece of it. It is a national lake and looking at it as real estate land is completely against the law but some people are trying to bend the law by every means possible, even if that involves threatening my life,” she says.

“In August 2018, for instance, a group of men tried to corner me. It was around noon, and they began threatening to kill me. When I did not show any sign of fear, they even poured petrol on me and threatened to burn me alive, and all this happened while the CCTV cameras were around. Finally, after some time the law enforcement bodies arrived to stop it. Despite them assaulting me, they were set free in just a day. Like this, several outfits have tried to threaten my life, and some have even filed fraud cases against me to pin me down but every effort to curb me only makes me stronger and I realise the gravity of my work,” shares Sumita, who has been fighting all the legal battles at her own expense.

“With the lake’s biodiversity at risk, we need a group of experts in lake rejuvenation to work in tandem with the government to create a substantial impact. Till then, I will continue to hold the fort down and protect this beloved lake with my life,” the changemaker concludes.

Edited by Yoshita Rao

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