Mithi River is an integral part of the lives of a large number of Mumbaikars. Though a major part of the city’s population does not stay along its course or use it for any recreational or transport purpose the western suburban railway network, which passes over the river near Bandra station is what brings lakhs of commuters everyday into close contact with the river. It hardly has the sight and smell of a river at this point, having collected abundant quantities of untreated liquid and solid waste along its 17 km course. The other people are of course those who stay along its course or pass by it. The floods of 2005 brought the Mithi into sharp focus. Before that it was just a smelly drain, which had to be tolerated. As someone who has been involved with the cause of mangrove conservation, I am left confused, angered and challenged at why we have not been able to make any meaningful difference to the quality of this water course in so many years.
The Mithi is just one aspect, the millions of litres of untreated effluent and garbage that flows through the Mithi and other rivers of Mumbai into the sea eventually leads to a degraded water quality all along the coast. One is left only to historic anecdotes and old Bollywood films to be able to see the sight of clean beaches with clear water lapping the shores. Today all beaches of Mumbai are severely polluted and unfit for human exposure. Only the poor and uneducated today fare into the waters at Mumbai’s beaches. The poor water quality impacts Mumbai’s ability to provide adequate tourism avenues, which are sought after in all cities with access to the sea or water bodies in general. These are all inter-related issues and cannot be looked at in isolation.
The inability to clean the Mithi in so many years is a poor comment on the citizens of Mumbai. A city with so much wealth, technical expertise, educational and other institutions, which has been on the forefront of urbanisation should have moved by now to the next paradigm and demonstrated successes which would in turn become global best practice case studies. Mithi is clearly one such area where we could have developed a case study of a river restoration project. The 2005 floods could have clearly provided this inflection point, but led to another tragedy unfolding along the Mithi.
Crores go down the drain
One of the more unfortunate developments in the Mithi timeline in recent times has been the response of the administration post the 2005 floods. Much before the floods, environmental activists had been highlighting the role of wetlands and ecosystems in flood control, the need to appreciate flood plains and more importantly to severely reduce the pollution load in the river, which impacts the citizens on a daily basis as opposed to floods, threats from which are limited to a few critical days during the monsoons.
The administration consisting of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), instead of appreciating these concerns and developing corresponding responses chose to ‘train’ the river. Building concrete walls along its embankments, desilting the river and blasting the natural rock formations at Mahim Causeway were chosen as methods for controlling the floods. These approaches were supported with consequent contracts for all these activities. There were contractors for desilting, which was plain stupid because silting is a natural process in any river and, the silt removed was being deposited on the other side of Mumbai in Kanjur Marg and other places from where it was flowing into Thane creek. Instead of desilting, the focus should have been on checking the thousands of bags of household garbage and other forms which are irresponsibly flung into the river along its whole course. The plastic in this form is what chokes the water ways and the mangroves. But this was more a matter of doing a good job of governance within the existing resources without any possibility of spending money on contracts.
Then there were hundreds of contracts given for lining the walls of all the nullahs and rivers in Mumbai with concrete embankments over the muddy porous embankments which existed. These concrete walls now cause flooding in areas which never experienced flooding before because water from their area, which could previously flow out in the adjoining nullah anytime the city experienced heavy rainfall is now stopped by these concrete walls which are higher than the ground level.
Since 2005 almost thousand crores has been spent in these activities, and the benefits are really questionable and should be the subject of inquiry and discussion. The same administrative machinery has shown absolutely no interest in spending money for effluent treatment, better research about the river and in governing the river better in terms of controlling garbage being thrown into the river.
Stop dumping of waste
It’s never too late when it comes to ecological restoration projects. The most important and maybe the only first step will have to be to drastically reduce the release of all kinds of solid and liquid waste into the river.
The city has institutions like IIT Bombay and National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), which are capable of designing a combination of engineering and ecological solutions to collect the waste entering the river and treat it appropriately. There are many institutions even outside the city that can provide solutions to these problems. But clearly these institutions cannot provide leadership and vision which is what is the need of the hour than technical expertise, of which there is no shortage.
Our neglect of Mithi or any of the other rivers and wetlands in Mumbai is symptomatic of our attitudes towards water itself, which does not seem to be valued enough in spite of a rich cultural and religious legacy over millennia of according high value to the basic elements.
Civil society efforts have been poor when it comes to restoring the Mithi. A very successful Mithi Yatra was organised by the founding members of Mumbai Jal Biradari in January 2009 to create awareness amongst citizens against illegal activities such as discharge of unauthorised hazardous waste carried our along the course of the Mithi.
In 2011 fellows at Observer Research Foundation Mumbai, developed a report called “Making the sewer a river again” which made a renewed call for action. But somehow we never move beyond reports and committees in this country. Unless there is no sustained public movement from Mumbai for cleaning up the Mithi and other rivers and/or support to the individuals and organisations which are doing something, the state of the Mithi will be no different from what it is today. Cleaning the Mithi has to become a matter of pride for at least a few hundred committed individuals if we are to see the change.
In the environment versus development debate it is the general remark that countries or societies first work towards economic development and only after a certain level of growth and development has taken place does environment find a place of concern and consequent improvement. In Mumbai we have been developing and growing since more than a century now. It was always a wealthy city of India and has only grown wealthier in the past few decades. But all the wealth that accrues to its residents has not led to any changed thoughts or actions towards a better environment. And the banks of Mithi provide a very fascinating insight into this argument. There are the economically underprivileged in Dharavi West on one side and the economically over privileged in Bandra Kurla Complex, Shivaji Park and Bandra West surrounding Mahim Bay where the Mithi drains. Why is it that the over privileged have not shown any interest and reaction till now?