The Kolkata Book Fair on the Maidan, the city’s famous public park, has never been merely about books. It has also been about batter-fried fish and quite a bit of litter. In 2007, environmental activist Subhas Datta decided to take action. He petitioned the high court and got the fair moved out.
Wherever you see green in Kolkata, be sure 63-year-old Subhas Datta has had something to do with it. From mobilising movements for clearing garbage to unchoking drains, water logging to garden and heritage conservation, the 63-year-old unflappable green crusader has been fighting social and environmental inequities for more than three decades.
His efforts have certainly eased the demands Kolkata’s population — currently 14.1 million with 13,743 people per sq. km (for the metropolitan area) compared to Delhi’s population of 16.7 million with 11,297 people per sq.km — have made on its environment.
“I am a Protestant, not by religion but by practice,” says Datta with a smile. His humour has bite, and given his situation, he needs it. Picking up a fight with someone or the other has been, for him, an occupational hazard. Datta, however, wears his arrests, threats and “15 false criminal cases, including two cases of attempt to murder, which have been registered by the police to thwart my movements,” as badges of honour.
He grabbed the headlines in 1996; ‘Green Bench’, India’s first Environment Bench was set up in the Kolkata high court on the basis of his petition before the Supreme Court. He has filed 68 Public Interest Litigations (PIL) till date. The West Bengal Trees Act 2006 — to save trees in non-forest areas — was also enacted due to his efforts. Cleaning up the Hooghly river in West Bengal is also part of his agenda. He has 14 PILs in court at present.
Datta comes from refugee stock. His parents were part of the post-partition exodus from Dhaka. He had to sell paper packets to support his family. His father was a law clerk, and his uncle Sureswar Datta, part of many refugee movements, was his idol.
In the 70s, Datta, a trained chartered accountant, was still moving in and out of jobs till he found his calling. In 1977, he became the general secretary of Howrah Ganatantrik Nagarik Samity (Howrah People’s Forum) through which he drew attention to unemployment and civic problems in Howrah, and joined protests against police atrocities.
In early 1990, he realised that civilian cases are heard in person before the Supreme Court, so he began to draft a 442-page-long writ petition highlighting 22 categories of environmental hazards in his locality, Howrah. “Environmental disorders affect us greatly, their impact is enormous, and yet so little is done to protect it,” he says.
These days, Datta is careful about picking his issues. Earlier he would land up wherever people called him. “A lot has to do with the person who gets in touch with me. He has to be passionate towards the cause. The issue must begenuine, of public concern and have a sense of urgency,” he says. “So many people approach me with their problems, but I cannot be there for everyone. So, at times, I feel helpless, depressed and tired. I hope I am not misunderstood.”
Datta’s activism has kept alive the hopes of many people in Kolkata, a city that has a reputation of a strong public culture. The activist has been toying with the idea of a Green Party, but has kept it on hold as he feels he lacks the muscle or money power to form a political party. “The adjustments and the compromises are just too many,” he quips.