Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Breathe Easy in Bhopal

Eisha Sarkar
An adapted version of this post was published on Mumbai Mirror on Monday, March 21, 2011 at 06:05:31 PM

"What do you think?" Mahesh Buch asks us. We look at the majestic Upper Lake of Bhopal. "Wow! This could be  Zurich." "Wow, is the right word," he says and goes onto describe the best freshwater fish found here. Buch isn't just the former Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh. He is the man who made Bhopal one of the greenest cities in India and he takes great pride in showing us around.

As we drive around the wooded areas of the 348 sq km city, Buch mentions, "There was a time when I was wearing 14 different hats as the head of various government departments and bodies at the same time. In the 1970s the government was looking to give away nearly 850 acres of land to builders. I refused to sign the orders and asked the forest department to declare all that land as reserved forest and plant trees there."

We make our way through Sultanabad past former Prime Minister Arjun Singh's sprawling 14-bedroom mansion and the curiously titled Bull Mother Farm towards the Kerwa Dam. We stop at a board that declares "Eco Tourism Site", one of the many that Bhopal has in store for us. Just 15 km from the city, the site is a popular picnic spot for its scenic view of the River Kerwa flowing through the woods. 

Our next halt is the 4.45 sq km Van Vihar National Park in the middle of the city. Managed like a zoological park, we find animals kept in their near natural habitat. Most of the animals are either orphaned brought from various parts of the state or those, which are exchanged from other zoos. No animal is deliberately captured from the forest. We find sunbathing crocodiles, pochards and ducks, egrets,' painted storks, a solitary chinkara and a sleeping leopard. Near the Van Vihar is also Roopankar or the Museum of Arts that houses tribal artefacts and crafts.

Hungry, we wind our way up one of Bhopal's seven hills to the Madhya Pradesh Tourism's Winds 'n' Waves restaurant that overlooks the Upper Lake or bada talav, the largest aritificial lake in Asia. Built by Raja Bhoj during his tenure as a king of Malwa (1005–1055) in his capital city, Bhojpal, by constructing an earthen dam across the River Kolans, the bada talav serves around 40 per cent of the residents with nearly 30 million gallons of drinking water per day and has in abundance the delicious samal fish, which is the local delicacy. From the restaurant's rooftop, Buch points out to the landmarks that fringe the lake -  Taj-ul-Masajid, one of the largest mosques in Asia, Shaukat Mahal, Moti Masjid and Gouhar Mahal built during the rule of four successive begums (from 1819 till 1926) and the infamous Union Carbide pesticide plant that was responsible for the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, the world's worst industrial catastrophe.

Post-lunch, we head to the Bharat Bhavan, the world-renowned multi-disciplinary centre for arts that comprises a series of courtyards. "I told architect Charles Correa that I wanted a building that did not look like a building," says Buch whose brainchild this centre is. The complex houses a museum of the arts, an art gallery with some of the largest exhibition halls in India, a workshop for fine arts, a repertory theater, indoor and outdoor auditoria, rehearsal room, and libraries of Indian poetry, classical and folk music.

After browsing through artworks by 20 different artists and sculptures including Tyeb Mehta, S H Raza, M F Husain, Manjit Bawa, Akbar Padamsee, among others, we drive to the single-minaret Turkish mosque Sofia Masjid Koh-eiFiza and then towards the Fatehgarh area where the former Nawab's residences are located. Fatehgarh also houses some of Muslim aristocracy that remained in the city even after the last Nawab's daughter Abida Sultan, left for Pakistan in 1950. Her son, Shaharyar Khan, was to become the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and then the Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board. "There was a time when eight members of the Pakistani hockey team were from Bhopal," says Buch as he points to Indian hockey player Aslam Sher Khan's house.

We stop over at the Gauhar Mahal built by Qudsia Begum in 1820, which is now an Urban Haat where handicraft and handloom works of the artisans are put on display and sale - Tanjore paintings, Maheshwari and Chanderi sarees, dancing dolls from Andhra Pradesh, beaded jewellery from Gujarat and so on. 

Blending tradition with modernity, balancing ecology and development, welfare and conservation, Bhopal could be a model city for India's development. If only the government would take care of the people in such a way that would not force them to put up message signs such as, "Indian government protects corporates and culprits and not gas tragedy victims," outside the railway station. More than 25 years later, and death of over 20,000 of its citizens a city still awaits justice!

Mahesh Buch was honoured with the Padma Bhushan for his work with the Civil Services in Madhya Pradesh on January 26,2011.