West Bengal, with its environmental diversity, is an ideal location for ecotourism. From the snow-clad Himalayas to the tea gardens in the north, from the red laterite tracts in the west to the sal forests in the south, from the jungles of casuarina trees on the coast to the world’s largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans - the variety in environments is shared by very few states.
A major tourism potential
Ecotourism has been a major tourism initiative of the state. The present state government has shown a lot of initiative in developing ecotourism hubs, some in so far untouched places. There is a project in the pipeline at Nayachar, Dooars and the Sundarbans. Alampur, near Tajpur in East Midnapore district, is also getting an ecotourism hub.
Last December, a new kind of ecotourism project came up in the state – the first urban ecotourism park in West Bengal. It was inaugurated by the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in New Town near Kolkata. Named ‘Eco Tourism Park – Prakriti Tirtha’, it is a huge complex, 480 acres of gardens and recreational areas, with a large lake inside.
The story goes that one day in July of 2012, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, on her way to the airport, got down near a large water body on the New Town Major Arterial Road. She immediately saw the potential the area had, and initiated plans to develop an ecotourism park. Then, West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (WBHIDCO), a government of West Bengal undertaking, was roped in, and it developed the park as we know it today.
According to the website of HIDCO, the park was created with the vision of creating ‘a balance between ecological regeneration, resource conservation, and optimisation, with the need to create a recreational urban open space.’ In fact, the name itself is indicative of this: ‘Prakriti Tirtha’, where prakriti means 'environment' and tirtha means ‘pilgrimage’. So this is a place for pilgrimage, where one can get some of the same benefits as those on a pilgrimage – regeneration and rejuvenation of the mind and body, through immersion in the environmental and cultural heritage of West Bengal.
Highlights of the Park
The park is divided into different areas, meant to give anyone a full day of enjoyment, and more. The areas display the environmental, artistic and cultural heritage of West Bengal. Being an ecotourism park, display of various kinds of flora has been given special importance.
There is the Rabi Aranya, a unique garden, whose specialty is having trees and plants mentioned by Rabindranath Tagore in his works. Another special attraction, both for adults and children, is the Butterfly Park - a large dome that encloses various species of flowering plants, supporting a large variety of butterflies. The Tropical Rainforest caters to tropical trees, the Mist House caters to exotic plants with strict humidity requirements (a fine mist is sprayed over the plants at regular intervals), and the Herbal Garden showcases traditional Indian medicinal plants.
The cultural aspects of the state are highlighted through Shilpi Kuthi or Artists’ Cottage, displaying the work of artists, Banglar Haat or Bengal Market, displaying products of the Bengal cottage industry, and Baul Gram, or Village of Baul, showcasing Baul singers, who enchant visitors with their mellifluous songs. The Shilpi Kuthi has a unique setting: there is a wall divided into segments. Artists paint on their respective segments, and it becomes a live art show with people streaming in and out, reminding one of the street artists of Paris.
A children’s playing area, a food park, an ayurvedic spa, a cottage and conference hall on the island located in the middle of the lake, boating facilities, an amphitheatre, Bonsai Garden, Cactus Walk, Flower Meadow, Bamboo Garden, and Rose and Fountain Garden complete the list of demarcated areas inside this beautiful ecotourism park.
Alternate sources of energy
As if this was not enough, recently, the Centre of Excellence for Green Energy and Sensor Systems of Bengal Engineering and Science University (BESU) has drawn up plans to make the park a showcase for solar energy. Solar energy has been chosen as it is a sustainable form of energy with a very high potential, and is being harnessed all over the world. In the plan drawn up are ‘solar trees’, solar boats and a solar power plant.
‘Solar trees’ are not real trees, but solar artwork resembling trees. Two such trees in the parking area will illuminate the place. The solar panels would get charged all through the day, and the energy absorbed would get converted to electricity and light up the place in the evening. So no electricity generated by any conventional power plant would be used up.
There would be two types of solar boats – shikara and paddle boats. Energy from solar panels in the boats would power them. Plans for a 500 kw solar power plant are also in the offing, which, being a much larger project, would have to wait for financial sanction.
A hub of activity
Prakriti Tirtha is also being used for sundry other purposes and is slowly becoming a hub of activity. Vishwakarma Puja is when, traditionally, kite flying takes place. On September 17, the Election Commission of India launched a Systematic Voters' Education and Electoral Participation programme (SVEEP) at the park through the celebration of a kite festival, using the popularity of the festival to build for a good cause.
The Eco Tourism Park has given to the people of Bengal a place where they can go on weekends or any other time, for some much-needed respite from the work-a-day life. The eye-catching greenery created by the wide variety of plants in the gardens is a ‘living classroom’ about nature’s service. The songs and music of the Baul create a soothing vibrancy.
This unique place near Kolkata (and New Town is being gradually developed into a major satellite township) would provide people an environment to ‘relax or rejuvenate, socialise or seek solitude, and learn first-hand how the region’s flora and fauna are benefitting their city.’
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