In the heart of the concrete jungle that Guwahati has become, lake Dighalipukhuri is one of its few saving graces. The lake has a history stretching back to prehistoric times when this land was known as Pragjyotishpur. Plaques erected by the authorities at the lake compound mention that it was dug by Pragjyotishpur morch Bhagadatta at the time of his daughter’s wedding to Kaurava prince Duryodha. Up to the 17th century, it was used as a dockyard by the Ahom val forces, as the lake was said to be connected to the Brahmaputra flowing just close by north. Dighalipukhuri was also connected on its south-western side through two water bodies to the Bharalu river flowing through Guwahati before it joins the Brahmaputra. So the lake in its present form is much attenuated and reduced than what it was earlier in its glory days. Be as it may, the lake provides a unique character and ambience to the surrounding environs with several notable institutions in the city. A row has now erupted over the building of a war memorial inside the Dighalipukhuri compound near its northern gate. The memorial has reportedly been planned to comprise of legendary general Lachit Borphukan and his soldiers in full battle gear for the Saraighat battle, an Amar Jawan Jyoti reverse rifle with a helmet on top, a uniformed soldier, a MiG-24 aircraft and a Vijayanta tank, as well as panels and murals depicting battle scenes from pre-independent and post-independent India.
It is another matter that Lachit Borphukan’s epic feat was accomplished in a different historical setting, and that a huge memorial with his statue is already coming up a little distance away near Saraighat. To showcase the Dighalipukhuri war memorial, the entire northern gate portion of the lake will be landscaped and brightly illumited. When a group of distinguished citizens protested this move of the State government last December, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi ordered that the project be halted. But the controversy refuses to die down as organisations like the All Assam Ex-Servicemen Association and Patriotic People’s Front Assam have urged completion of the project at the earliest. They argue that the northern gate portion had long been lying disused with a dilapidated Assam-type house, so why should anyone object if this stretch is beautified with lawns and gardens and planted with decorative trees? Pointing to a restaurant constructed several years ago on the western bank of Dighalipukhuri, these organisations are justifying building a war memorial which will ‘inspire and instil a sense of patriotism in the present generation.’ However, such arguments fly in the face of conservation efforts in many enlightened societies — where the present generation is even more aware of how ecosystems operate and how man must not arrogate to himself an overweening role to mould ecosystems as he thinks fit. A lake like Dighalipukhuri is a small ecosystem by itself, and should be allowed to function as one. It has fish, turtles and other aquatic animals, while migratory birds roost on the large, old trees at its banks. There is a dymic equilibrium between its waters and its banks, and how its water is recharged from deep underground needs to be appreciated and safeguarded.
The high wall already erected on the northern gate bank threatens to permanently block any tenuous underground link between Dighalipukhuri and the Brahmaputra river. Already, this hideous wall has obscured the lower part of the stately Gauhati High Court edifice that formed a lovely backdrop on that side. And just because the State government’s dilapidated Fishery office and later the Gauhati Municipality Corporation’s heavy vehicle yard remained as eyesores on the northern bank for years is simply no excuse to turn it now into a floodlit concrete block and ersatz park. A war memorial will be a welcome addition to Guwahati, and surely an appropriate location can be found in many parts of the city crying out for development. But seeking to impose such a memorial alongside Dighalipukhuri will spell the doom of a water body that is one of the last vestiges of the city’s green lungs. Invoking patriotism while turning a blind eye to environmental preservation simply does not wash. Ormental fencing along the Dighalipukhuri perimeter with strategically and aesthetically placed lights and a walkway has ebled people to admire its serene beauty. But the authorities should know where to draw the line. In the me of developing and beautifying Dighalipukhuri, they will end up condemning it to an artificial, sterile water body. Let Dighalipukhuri breathe, let Guwahati live; and let its denizens humbly count their blessings and be a little wise.