Eighty-one-year-old P.D. Khaitan is furious. He has been walking on the grounds of the Victoria Memorial Hall every morning for the past 60 years. But if an expert committee appointed by Calcutta High Court to safeguard the monument has its way, the sun could soon set on the Memorial morning walks.
For Khaitan, informed about one of the committee’s proposals on Wednesday, denying morning walkers their daily bit of fresh air on the city’s most popular lawns is “impossible” and “unacceptable”. And he is just one of the 2,000-plus daybreak walkers who would be jolted by the recommendation to keep the Memorial gates firmly shut till 10 am, instead of 4.45 am.
The committee, chaired by Shyamal Sarkar, member-secretary, West Bengal Pollution Control Board, was constituted by the high court in November 2003, in response to a public interest litigation by Subhash Dutta.
High on the list of suggestions the committee is poised to put forward to the court are no hawkers, no parking, no burning of waste materials, and no morning-walkers. The reason: to save the monument from environmental pollution. The majority of the committee believes that the actions of many of the walkers “disturb the overall environment and cleanliness of the Victoria Memorial grounds”.
According to sources, the monument authorities complained to the committee that many walkers litter the area with plastic packets and food. “We were even told that small-scale social gatherings are organised (often to allow prospective brides and grooms to meet), where sweets and fruits are distributed,” said one committee member.
While Memorial secretary and curator Chittaranjan Panda refused comment, the din from the Victoria Memorial Morning Walkers was deafening. “All the allegations are false,” asserted Babulal Agarwal, association secretary and a regular walker for decades.
“Nobody eats on the lawns after an early morning walk,” he thundered. I don’t know why they are targeting us, when the visitors in the daytime and evening are a nuisance. Why are they not checked'”
P.R. Agarwala, chairman of Rupa Publishers, had taken up the initiative of bringing out a free directory of regular morning walkers in October 2003. Now, he is upset that the authorities are adopting such “anti-citizen” tactics. “We go there every morning only for two reasons — to walk and enjoy the fresh air. Where does the question arise of us polluting the area'”
But committee members insist that the Memorial is no place for a morning jaunt. “Nobody takes morning walks at the Taj Mahal. Moreover, the entire Maidan is there for walkers,” argued one. Some may agree to cross over to the Maidan, but others, like veteran walker Jagmohan Bagla, promise to stand their ground. “Why should we be deprived, while the evening walkers are allowed entry'” he demanded.