The two-hectare lake now has boating. (Express photo by Asad Rehman)
It is 5.15 pm and three middle-aged women are taking a brisk walk around a lake in the Railwayganj area of Hardoi, a district headquarters town in Uttar Pradesh some 500 km from New Delhi. “All day we are busy with our families. But every evening, the three of us meet on this walk,” says Alka Sharma, 38, walking with Neena Singh, 40, and Nisha Gupta, 43.
For these friends, and hundreds of others, the two-hectare (20,000 sq m) lake and the 500-metre track around it, is a gift that has changed the face of the neighbourhood — what was once an infamous dump for everything including unclaimed bodies is today an amusement park complex that has helped reduced crime in the area and generated livelihoods for local people.
“Earlier, no one came here because this was a dumping ground. It was also a burial site where unclaimed bodies were dumped. The stench was unbearable,” Alka said.
The Belatali amusement park — essentially the lake with two colourful boats for visitors to take joyrides — was inaugurated on October 2 this year by Hardoi District Magistrate Pulkit Khare, 34, who took the initiative to develop the area along with the Behta Chand gram panchayat.
Shailendra Srivastava, station house officer of the Kotwali police station, said: “Before this (Belatali) was built, we used to regularly get calls from women complaining of harassment and molestation. Anti-social elements drank alcohol and gambled here. Now, families and women feel safe visiting the place. We also ensure that at least two police officers are posted there.”
Prakash Chandra, the husband of Behta Chand gram panchayat sarpanch Gudiya, said work began in December 2018, and the gram panchayat worked with guidance from the district administration. “MGNREGA and Finance Commission funds given to the panchayat were used. When we began construction, we found several skeletons... Now, as you can see, around 1,000 trees have been planted around the lake, and children take rides in boats,” Chandra, 47, said.
According to Chandra, at least 3,000 of the around 15,000 people in the gram panchayat found employment during the construction of Belatali. “Because they were involved in the construction, they have a sense of ownership of the place. People also do their bit for its upkeep,” he said.
The park currently employs nine people at monthly salaries of Rs 3,000-6,000, Chandra said. “Because of Belatali, several small businesses have opened in the area. People from the gram panchayat have opened stalls selling noodles, fast food, toys, and ice cream.”
At one such stall, 19-year-old Aman, who belongs to Behta Chand village, is tossing noodles in a pan. “I used to set up my stall on the highway near Shahabad tehsil, some 35 km from here. Since Belatali was inaugurated, I have been here... it saves me time and I make more money,” Aman said.
Opposite the Belatali gate stands Hotel Shekhar, offering 26 rooms at a nightly tariff of Rs 500. At the hotel, Suraj Rathore, 31, says the construction of Belatali has led to the tariff going up from the earlier Rs 300.
“Earlier, the hotel had a staff of three; now, at least 12 people work here. Most of them are from Behta Chand village,” said Rathore, who is from the same village himself, and gets a monthly salary of Rs 5,500. “Now, a Hotel Lake View is coming up next door,” he said.
Behta Chand resident Harishanker Gupta, 62, said Belatali seems to have brought visible prosperity to the area. “I see more people buying motorcyles and mobile phones these days,” Gupta said. “I don’t know if it is because of the talaab (lake), but I think several youths have got employment near the lake after its construction.”
Ram Babu, 35, who sits at the park’s ticket counter, said around 100 tickets are sold on weekdays, about 150 on weekends. “An entry ticket costs Rs 2, and a ticket for a round of boating on the lake, Rs 50. There is a Rs-50 monthly pass for those who come to walk in the park every day,” Ram Babu said, while handing pink tickets to a father and his three small daughters who have come from Sandila town 50 km away.
“We came because of the boats. My children are very excited; they’ve never been in a boat before,” the father, Anuj Shukla, 38, said, helping his girls wear orange life jackets.
Back after the 20-minute ride, the two older girls, Anuradha, 11, and Ridhima, 13, look scared and excited in equal measure. “I had fun. The water was very cold,” Anuradha said. Ridhima interrupted her: “Did you see the fish? I saw two!”
Pintu, the man in charge of the boats, said the lake has some local varieties of fish, that are fed every morning and evening.
District Magistrate Khare said he first visited the area soon after being posted to Hardoi in December 2017. “The place was stinking. There was garbage everywhere, the pond was covered with water hyacinth, and sewage would be dumped in it.” He said he felt a transformation was needed “because our towns and cities need spaces where people can spend time with their families and relax”.
It was initially a challenge to convince the Pradhan and other stakeholders that this was possible, Khare said. “They felt that even if the area was cleaned up, it would be impossible to maintain. But they ultimately came on board,” he said.
Sitting on one of at least 50 benches around the lake, Smriti Kashyap, 23, has a few suggestions to further improve Belatali. “There should be a toilet here. And also, perhaps a few places where couples can have some privacy. Small places like Hardoi have no restaurants or coffeeshops; these public places are the only ones where couples can meet,” Smriti, who lives nearby and had come to the lake with her cousin Arti, 17, said.