It all started in the year 2006-2007 when Sumita Banerjee used to be a regular morning walker like others. More than 10,000 Calcuttans come to Sarobar daily for a morning walk, and Banerjee was one of them. Rabindra Sarobar lake is an artificial lake that has been constructed in 1920 by the British. However, after independence, the area has been taken by CIT (Calcutta Improvement Trust). It spans 192 acres, out of which 38% of its total area is covered with land and 73 acres with water. With over 11,000 trees around Sarobar, out of which 7,500 are over 70 years old, the lake works as the lungs of the city.
Sumita Banerjee was observing for a long time that the lake was getting deteriorated day by day. Banerjee says, “It was getting difficult for the morning walkers to walk as the condition of Sarobar was getting worse.”
From the incident, Banerjee’s life took a U-Turn, where she single-handedly started saving Sarobar Lake, the second-largest lake of Kolkata.
A Monitoring Committee of 6 members was set up by the High Court under Retd. Judge Girish Gupta and she was one of the committee members. Banerjee, with local people, holds a meeting every Sunday, where she discusses new ways to protect and save the lake.
Sumita wakes up at 4.30 am daily, walks about 2 km from her home, and reaches the lake by 5.30 am. She is also known by various names such as Lake Mamata and Lathi Wali as she takes a wooden baton in her hand while she patrols whole 192 acres till 12:30-1 pm. Banerjee fights with hawkers along with local people for making the place dirty. She doesn’t allow anyone to enter inside the lake premises with plastics objects in their hand.
Prafulla Shah, a morning walker, said, “She is doing this for the last 15 years, and I feel proud to say that I am one of the people who started loving nature after watching her work.”
Banerjee said, “I am doing this from my funding. The Government of Bengal is not helping me because they are mainly responsible for the destruction that is happening daily.”
Five criminal cases have been lodged against Sumita in Alipore Criminal Court, and two arrest warrants have been issued. This year in February, a case has been dismissed by the court as police failed to provide legal proof and documents. Sumita said, “Political leaders including Mayor are continuously forcing OC of Rabindra Sarobar Police station to lodge fraud cases against me. Not only that, in the year 2018, two mini trucks with outsiders also came in front of my house and threatened me that they would kill me.”
Rabindra Sarobar lake was declared as a national lake in 1997 under the National Lake Conservation Programme of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India.
Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authorit) has issued a notice that no festive occasion can be celebrated in lake as the solid waste is harming both the aquatic lives and nature. Still, two days before Chhath Puja, our own Chief Minister told devotees to come and celebrate Chhath in the lake.
In the year 2010, Sumita collected over 5,000 signatures from the Calcuttans, urging the government to stop all the rituals at the Lake. In the year 2014, the High Court issued an order stating that no hawkers will be allowed inside Lake premises. Still, even today, after six years, hawkers are going inside the premises selling various food items and making the area dirty with plastics and wastes.
Sumita faced ups and downs in her life till now for protecting Sarobar lake and often faces judgments and challenges specific to her gender by the common people. After all this, she says, “No matter what happens but I will keep on saving the ecology of the lake, and for this, if I have to give my life, then I am ready to sacrifice my life for Environment.”
Sumita Banerjee has earned enemies, but she earned love and respect that is more valuable to her.