Expert views on High Court judgement

The result of the high court order would inevitably be to kill the Mansagar Lake and its birds and aquatic life. - B.G. Verghese

Mansagar Saga

Processes obviously matter but seldom more than outcomes. The aphorism 'Operation successful, patient dead' expresses a great truth. Procedures are established for the orderly transaction of business and normally demand obedience; but it is action, based on due diligence, impels progress.

This thought came to mind in the context of a controversy over a contemporary issue of natural and built heritage conservation. Something of beauty and pride has been restored to historic Jaipur, busy refurbishing its pink facades, squares and traditional bazaars to bid for coveted recognition by Unesco as a world heritage city. More than historicity and ego are involved. The label adds considerably to civic and national elan, tourist income and employment.

Jaipur has splendid monuments, Amer Fort, the Hawa Mahal and Jantar Mantar among them. Nothing so enhances a desert as a lake or oasis. And so it was that Raja Man Singh built the Man Sagar Lake below his citadel at Amer by damming a nullah coming down the Aravallis.

The reservoir was developed by his successor, Raja Jai Singh, founder of Jaipur, to supply water to his new capital and provide local irrigation. This pearl was further embellished by building the three-storey Jal Mahal with a roof garden, a pleasure island to which the Maharaja, his queens and courtiers would repair from time to time to enjoy the cool air, go boating, watch the busy birds or soak in reflections of the shoreline.

Alas, with the integration of princely states, or maybe earlier, the lake fell into disrepair. City sewage was diverted into it, while uncontrolled irrigation drained it, giving rise to draw-down farming, grazing and encroachments. A reduction in the water spread, shore erosion, a build-up of sludge, destruction of the shoreline habitat, loss of bird and fish life, eutrophication and hyacinth invasion inevitably ensued. Ground water quality deteriorated sharply. A foul stench filled the air. The pavilion fell into disuse and, untended, the monument was reduced to a derelict shell.

Jal Mahal was a protected monument from 1968 to 1971 when it was delisted for reasons unknown. The civic and state authorities subsequently made efforts to restore the lake and monument but, whether on account of a lack of resources or sustained interest, nothing was achieved.

The new millennium saw a revival of interest and consensus on a long-lease build own operate transfer public-private partnership emerged as the best answer to sustainable conservation. The project entailed restoration of a lake that had become a fetid swap and sewage dump to its pristine condition, alongside rehabilitation of its shoreline precincts, restoration of the Jal Mahal as a cultural treasure; and development of the 100 acre precinct area, partly reclaimed by de-silting the lake, for use as an open air crafts bazaar to showcase Rajasthan's famed arts and craftsmen at work, a food court for visitors and tourist resort with a 400-room hotel and some cottages recessed towards the hills.

Generate employment

These would not merely enhance tourist interest but generate employment and income for the care and maintenance of the complex with an assured return to the private partners who were expected to build and operate the scheme. The precinct area reclamation was actually executed by the Union ministry of environment and forests under its national lake restoration programme, virtually making it a third partner in the project.

Pre-bid explorations indicated that nothing short of a 99-year lease of the 100 acre craft-food-hotel complex would attract the quantum and quality of investment required. The Jaipur master plan of 1971 had set aside 200 acres to the south and west of the lake for tourism and a hotel and in 2001 the Government of Rajasthan (GoR) submitted a detailed project report to MoEF for conservation-cum-tourism. Four bids were actually tendered and after pre-qualification, technical and financial screening, the highest bidder, MGK Enterprises, was awarded the lease. The process was transparent and competitive and was endorsed by GoR and Jal Mahal Resorts Pvt Ltd, established by MGK Enterprises as the executive partner.

MoEF's environment clearance for the larger project was gazetted in November 2006 and by August 2010, Phase I of the project, namely, the lake and Jal Mahal restoration were complete. Sewage drains had been diverted and polluted city storm waters were passed through canalised sedimentation basins and settling tanks and purified before seamlessly emptying into the main body of the Lake.

Water quality vastly improved. The shoreline was restored, plastered with special mud, grasses and rushes to provide suitable bird habitat. The transformation was dramatic. The monument stood resplendent, its roofs and arches artistically embellished, the corridors elegantly empanelled with Rajasthani miniatures beautifully enlarged several hundred-fold to capture the finest detail. Crowning the edifice was the restored 'Chameli Bagh,' a scented roof garden with chattries and a translucent, lotus-shaped marble floor designed for classical dance and music performances.

The project had been approved by the BJP and Congress governments in Rajasthan and the NDA and UPA at the national level. Work had progressed unhampered until February 2011. Jal Mahal Resorts had invested almost Rs 80 crore when a series of PIL suits by local interests were admitted by the Rajasthan high court against Jal Mahal Resorts and various GoR entities. Fraud, criminal conspiracy, violation of rules, conventions and environmental norms, and flagrant profiteering were cited. A 99-year lease was said to be tantamount to gifting precious public trust land for a pittance.

On May 17, 2012 the high court ordered restoration of the status quo ante, an astonishing decree that dictates restoration of the sewage intakes, removal of the settling basins and sedimentation pond and, in effect, the return of sullage and desilted material to the lake. The result would inevitably be to kill Mansagar Lake and its bird and aquatic life, leave Jal Mahal to rack and ruin, and recreate a malodorous sewage pond and swamp amidst an aspiring world heritage city.

This menacing order has been stayed by the Supreme Court, whose ruling will be a landmark. Does India wish to remain pettily rule-bound to nobody's benefit – if any meaningful rule has indeed been violated—or should it move swiftly and purposefully to shed dirt, indolence and poverty, build the future and conserve its natural heritage for the greater common good? Much is at stake.