It is a park named after the world’s largest rural employment guarantee scheme. ‘MNREGA Park’ was opened to the public just six months before the lockdown due to the Covid19 pandemic. A vast expanse of barren land close to the ancient Baglamukhi temple was landscaped into a beautiful park through man-days generated under different heads of works available under MNREGA, and hence the name.

Situated at a height of over 2200 metres in the midst of pines and deodars, the park is just around 500 metres away from the roadhead on the Mandi-Janjehli State highway in Murhag gram panchayat of Gohar block in Mandi, Himachal Pradesh.

Over 300 people from Murhag village worked for a year-and-a-half to complete the park that has become a model of rural tourism. Each of them got the mandatory 120 days of work on a yearly basis. More than ₹1 crore was spent on the park with 99 per cent of the funds coming from MNREGA heads. Community toilets were constructed from funds available under the 14th Finance Commission and the drainage system dipped into Swachh Bharat Abhiyan funding.

“The park was constructed without cutting a single tree.” says the gram panchayat chief Tejender, proudly. Attractively landscaped, the park with a pine-rich forest around it has a running ‘track’ encircling it, rain shelters to sit and relax in, a playground and swings for children, and boating facilities in a pond that is ringed in by deodar trees.

Tejender says the park was constructed with several objectives. Apart from showcasing the potential of MNREGA to advantage, it aims to educate people about the need to conserve forests, while displaying the advantages of water harvesting and renewable energy. For visitors outside the vicinity, this is an introduction to local culture, flora and fauna.

A hundred solar street lights illuminate the park and the water harvesting facility here can be used even to irrigate agricultural fields close by. There are more plans in the pipeline, including installing fountains and a toy train that will take visitors around the park. A play station has also been set up that educates children on issues such as conservation of nature. The park is also a good example of fruitful cooperation between the panchayat and the forest department. The well-lit park has helped in drastically reducing incidents of poaching and smuggling from the forests around it.

The panchayat has also planted additional deodars and chinars. Three sets of rest houses, a dining area and a kitchen shed have been constructed to serve the needs of the villagers for social functions, and a conference hall for government or corporate-sector seminars and meetings.

The park also has space allotted for a village haat (market) for setting up of half-a-dozen stalls by self-help groups. This will not only help the villagers earn some extra money but will popularise local food and handicraft.

Tejender says that in just a few months before the lockdown around 150 functions and meetings were held here, leading to generation of ₹2,5 lakh for the panchayat and some earnings for the villagers. During the unlock period too there was a footfall of 500 to 700 visitors each day. However, with more cases of coronavirus reported in Mandi recently, the park has been closed for some time.

“It would be ideal if visitors come and spend a few days at the park instead of just for picnicking while driving through. The park is the first in a series of MNREGA tourism projects to be developed in the coming days,” says Gohar block development officer, Nishant Sharma.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi