The Supreme Court (SC) on Thursday ruled that Chhath puja will not be allowed at the Rabindra Sarobar lakes in south Kolkata, which is considered the lungs of the densely populated city because of its greenery.
In a simultaneous development, a division bench of the Calcutta high court (HC) banned Chhath puja at Subhas Sarobar, a water body of equal importance and located in the north-eastern parts of the city.
The puja will be held on Friday.
Amid allegations by opposition parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief and Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is eyeing the votes of Hindi-speaking people in the upcoming assembly polls slated to be held in April and May, 2021, the Kolkata Municipal Development Authority (KMDA), the custodian of these water bodies, moved both the SC and the HC with appeals to allow the puja at these sites, albeit, in a regulated manner.
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On September 17, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had ruled that Chhath puja cannot be held under any circumstance at Rabindra Sarobar.
On November 10, a single bench of the Calcutta HC had passed a similar order in regard to Subhas Sarobar.
The KMDA had moved the SC against the NGT and Calcutta HC orders.
On Monday (November 16), the SC refused to order a stay on the NGT’s ruling and listed the matter for hearing on November 23. The KMDA appealed for an early hearing since the puja will be held on Friday (November 20). Both appeals of the KMDA came up for hearing on Thursday in Delhi and Kolkata.
While green activists in Kolkata welcomed Thursday’s court orders, CM Banerjee appealed to the Hindi-speaking population to observe Chhath puja at home or in their respective neighbourhoods, using artificial water tanks that the government created over the past few days.
“We have created 300 artificial water bodies for your convenience. In case you need to visit a river bank please follow health protocols related to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic and travel in small groups. Follow court orders and do not form processions,” Banerjee said in a televised message.
The word Chhath means six. The festival is dedicated to Lord Surya (Sun God) and Chhathi Maiya, who is known to be the sister of Lord Surya. The festival is celebrated mostly in Bihar, Jharkhand, eastern Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Delhi. Devotees express their gratitude towards Lord Surya and perform intricate rituals over a span of four days.
The NGT had passed an order in 2018, banning Chhath puja at Rabindra Sarobar after environment activists and wildlife lovers had started a movement.
The petition was moved by environment activist Subhas Dutta, who is also a party in the case heard by the SC.
Covering 192 acres of artificial lakes and with 7,000 trees, some of which were damaged by cyclone Amphan in May, Rabindra Sarobar is a birders’ paradise.
At least 200 species of resident and migratory birds have been sighted in the water body by birders. It is also home to several species of fish.
Hundreds of devotees had flouted the ban and broke open the gates of Rabindra Sarobar in front of the police in November 2019 to perform the puja.
They had even used loud crackers and played songs on loudspeakers even though the state government had earmarked alternative water bodies in the city.
The incident made headlines and had triggered a huge row.
Anticipating that its appeals might be turned down by both the courts, the KMDA started putting up fences around Subhas Sarobar a few days ago. Exposed portions of the boundary walls around Rabindra Sarobar were also covered with metal sheets and cordoned off with bamboo poles.
Sumita Banerjee, a green activist and a part of a movement to save Rabindra Sarobar, said, “We welcome the court order but the government must ensure that there is no repetition of last year’s chaos. We are surprised to see the KMDA, which is the custodian of this site, move the apex court to seek permission for destroying nature.”
Dilip Ghosh, the president of the BJP’s Bengal unit, took a jibe at the ruling TMC. “Hindi-speaking people in Bengal had been performing Chhath puja for decades, but the TMC never bothered about them. Today, the government has moved the SC because assembly elections are round the corner. It is the TMC’s political compulsion,” he alleged.
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