"I t ’s an apt moniker. As a child growing up in Bhowanipore’s shady treelined streets, Pal was shocked by felling of trees on Bakulbagan Road by the municipality. "One day the road was just stripped naked of its foliage. It broke my heart." The Bhowanipore babus didn’t seem interested in doing anything about it, so the plebian son of a government clerk, who ekes out a living as a typist in a paints company, dipped into his paltry savings to fund a massive tree-planting job on the road. Some two decades on, Pal has emptied out his savings, provident fund and gratuity in spending nearly Rs 35,000 on planting and tending to the trees on the street. He still waters his trees unfailingly every morning, but these days he’s also obsessed with saving a river.
For the past five years, Pal has been fighting to revive the Adi Ganga (also called Tolly’s Nullah), Calcutta’s filthiest creek that wriggles away up to the temple at Kalighat and winds past grubby red-light ghettos, grotty tenements, putrid hooch shacks and wealthy Alipore to reach the Vidyadhari canal. Major Tolly, a British officerr, had dredged it more than two centuries ago so that pilgrims would be able to bathe in Ganga water when making a sacrifice to the Goddess. Today, pilgrims cover their noses from the gaseous stench spewed by its fetid waters that are polluted by the city’s sewage. Water buffalo hide in it from the heat, people bathe, defecate and wash utensils and children play skidding games on its steep banks of greasy black mud. To make matters worse, nearly 2,000 shanties have sprouted on both sides of the creek.
When in school, Pal used to take regular dips in the creek — then swelling with water. He used to sit on the banks and watch boats ferry merchandise, even the holy food of the Kalighat temple was cooked in its water. "Seven years ago, I was stunned when I overheard a mother warning her son, going for a bath in the creek: "Don’t bathe in this river, the water’s poison."
The instinctive environmentalist chose a time-tested way to whip up consciousness about the stinking canal. Single-handedly Pal plastered the walls of the shops, homes and streets in Bhowani pore with ‘Save Adi Ganga’ posters, oil-paint graffito and banners.That was not all. Over the past few years, he has spent his salary— a couple of thousand rupees at the most— on printing handbills, addressing meetings and staging sitins with one fervent appeal to the citizenry: Let us join hands and save the holy creek. "I will not allow the Adi Ganga to die," he says.
It’s not been easy for Pal to chase his dreams . At home, the bankrupt bachelor is chided for "frittering" away his savings. At work, people often taunt him. But Pal is the archetypal old-fashioned campaigner: when a jeweller promised him Rs 5000 in return for carrying his shop name on the handbills, he flatly refused. "I don’t believe in raising money. I believe in making responsible citizens come together." Pal’s street - fighting methods seem to be paying dividends: though smug bureaucrats refuse to acknowledge his presence, a Rs 23-crore clean-up operation of the creek, mainly funded by the Centre, has been approved. In Marxist West Bengal, even the best-laid out and well-funded plans mostly refuse to take off because of inertia and corruption. So if you still want to to join Pal’s crusade to save the holy creek, write to him at Balaram Basu Ghat Road, Bhowanipore, Calcutta 25.