How the Mithi was destroyed

The Mithi is sweet only in name. Over the decades, the river has been systematically ravaged by pollutants, settlements along its banks, and governmental neglect. Afroz Shah, who spearheaded the Versova beach clean-up, is doing his bit here as well, but is it enough, asks Jyoti Shelar

Updated - February 18, 2019 09:39 am IST

Published - February 18, 2019 12:01 am IST - Mumbai

 MUMBAI:   A man collecting plastic waste for recycling from the polluted Mithi River running through Dharavi Slum.    Photo: Paul Noronha

MUMBAI: A man collecting plastic waste for recycling from the polluted Mithi River running through Dharavi Slum. Photo: Paul Noronha

On a crisp Sunday morning in January, 20-year-old Mohammad Aqib, a resident of Best Nagar in Filter Pada, Goregaon, joined over 100 people from various parts of the city to clean a patch of the Mithi river covered in water hyacinth, plastic and other waste. Nestled in the greenery of Aarey Colony, this patch is the beginning of the 17.9-km-long river.

“I want to swim here all year long. But I only manage to do soduring the monsoon when the garbage flows away,” says Mr. Aqib, a Commerce student from Andheri’s GPM College, pulling out pieces of plastic along the stream with his gloved hands. “My father tells me there was a time when this river was sparkling clean all year round. But we have destroyed it by dumping garbage in it every single day,” he says.

Mr. Aqib’s friend from the locality, Ismail Shaikh, a 19-year-old make-up artist, has joined him in the clean-up. The youngsters are among half-a-dozen local residents who team up with lawyer Afroz Shah to clean the river every weekend. After spearheading the Versova beach clean-up in October 2015, which won him international acclaim, Mr. Shah has moved on to a more intense challenge: the Mithi river clean-up. And he hopes local participation will help bring the river back to life.

“Right now, the local people simply watch us from a distance. From 5,000 people, only five will come forward. But these five will influence the others,” says Mr. Shah. In the past three months since he started work on the Mithi, about seven local people have joined him. “I hope to create core teams of local residents for every one-kilometre patch along the river. They can sustain the clean-up in their patch as we move forward.”

He says it will take about five years for him to cover the river’s course.

The challenge

Saving the Mithi is imperative from various perspectives. Rivers provide natural protection from floods, and for a congested and over-concretised city like Mumbai, choked rivers mean a disaster during the rains.

But this is by no means easy. Disposal of solid and liquid is a big issue along the Mithi [see box: ‘River, interrupted’]. “Lakhs of people live along the course of this river (there are more than 15 lakh tenements on either side). Without any garbage disposal system, all the solid and liquid waste is being thrown into the river. Ultimately, all this waste is landing up in the sea,” says Mr. Shah.

In 2015, Environment Minister Ramdas Kadam had said the Mithi contained 93% domestic waste and 7% industrial waste. There are more than 1,500 industrial units along the river, most of them discharging waste into the water body.

Over the past three months, Mr. Shah and his dedicated band of volunteers have removed over 1 lakh kg of plastic and a similar amount of water hyacinth from the 350-metre patch near Filter Pada. By March-end, he hopes to clear the first kilometre of the river. For the liquid waste, the volunteers are trying a bioremediation method by placing activated charcoal in the soil below the nullahs flowing through the slums into the river, and growing vetiver grass, a natural purifier. “This method of treating liquid waste is successful worldwide. We have tried this in four nullahs flowing from Best Nagar,” says Mr. Shah.

Changing mindsets

Cleaning is just one aspect of the plan. The bigger challenge, says Mr. Shah, is to instil a sense of belonging among residents. In Filter Pada, every Sunday, Mr. Shah forms a core group of volunteers who go from house to house asking people to use dustbins.

The lack of a garbage disposal system in the slums forces them to fling solid waste into the river. “No one likes to do this,” says Babita Singh (40), who lives on the river bank in Filter Pada. “But our garbage is not collected every morning like it is in buildings.”

Mr. Shah says, when they started, an elderly man shouted at him saying they don’t have dustbins. He has now placed 20 large bins along the border of Best Nagar.

Another resident, 80-year-old Shahzadi Khan, says she has grown up drinking water from the river. “The water was clean and sweet. When more and more people started living here, the gutter lines opened directly into the river,” says Ms. Khan, whose father owned a cow shed in the area. Gradually, the river deteriorated so much that even the water at its source is not fit for drinking.

Government apathy

A 2004 report on the Mithi’s pollution, submitted to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, had revealed that the river was polluted at source. “As the river flows through thickly populated areas, cumulative discharge of sewage has converted this river into the biggest combined sewer of Mumbai as it carries a storm drain from its catchment area,” the report said.

The government sat on the findings, and a deluge hit Mumbai on July 26, 2005: 944 mm of rain in a day, which killed over 1,000 people. The flooding brought the Mithi centrestage: Besides excessive rainfall, the neglect of the river was said to be the main reason behind the deluge. A report by a fact-finding committee on the floods had said inadequate width of the Mithi channel due to encroachment on both the banks greatly aggravated the situation by constricting the flood flow and creating a movement towards the upstream. Soon after the floods, a government resolution (GR) was passed and an independent Mithi River Development and Protection Authority (MRDPA) was formed. The role of this authority was to set development plans, rehabilitate people living on the banks, etc.

In the past 13 years, over ₹1,000 crore has been spent to revive the river but precious little has changed on the ground. “It is amusing that MRDPA has been formed under a GR. What we need is a law, a Mithi River Authority Act. Under a GR, there is no responsibility. If there is a law, the Comptroller and Auditor General can audit the work and the expenditure,” says Mr. Shah. “For the authority, ‘clean and rejuvenate’ is the aim, it means simply putting machines into action. But who will teach the local people not to throw garbage?” he asks.

Slow death

Experts agree. Himanshu Thakkar, who is also the coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, says that instead of reviving it, the authority is working towards killing the river. “It is the duty of this authority to ensure that the solid waste does not enter the river and the liquid waste is treated before it enters it. But after all these years, there is absolutely no change in the state of the river.” Sewage channels and storm water drains should remain separate, but in Mumbai and most other Indian cities, both these lines are mixed up. “There is also no solid waste management system in place.” To make matters worse, huge concrete boundaries have been built on its banks. “This is nothing but murder,” he says. “The river has to be in its natural state, free from all sides, longitudinally, laterally and vertically.”

The authorities, on their part, say a lot has been done since the 2005 floods. The MRDPA claims the Mithi is safe from floods and their focus is now on pollution.

“Post the floods, various committees were appointed to look at two aspects of Mithi: flood control and pollution. From the flood control point of view, deepening and widening of the river were suggested. This has been our focus since the past several years and we have managed 95%,” says MRDPA Member Secretary, S.C. Deshpande. Only areas that are under court’s intervention have not been touched, he says. “Due to this work, the velocity of water has increased and self-purification has begun.” The Biochemical Oxygen Demand and Chemical Oxygen Demand values that determine pollution levels for the rivers have reduced considerably, he said.

Social problem

Mr. Deshpande says the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has already started sensitising people in the Vakola to Goregaon patch of the river that falls under the corporation. “Throwing of garbage is a social problem. We have to start tackling it now,” he says

Last year, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and his wife Amruta featured in what they called Mumbai River Anthem. The song that also features State Finance Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation Commissioner Ajoy Mehta and the then Police Commissioner Datta Padsalgikar called for public participation in keeping the city’s rivers clean.

“The river anthem is laughable,” says Mr. Thakkar, adding, “Because the government authorities are doing the exact opposite on the ground. They are not saving the rivers, they are killing them.”

Activist Godfrey Pimenta who recently wrote to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change about the spending of taxpayers’ money on Mithi says there is absolutely no visible change in the status of the river. “The BMC has floated a tender to improve the water quality of the river at the cost of Rs. 111 crore. What is MRDPA doing with crores of rupees when the river continues to be filthy,” says Mr. Pimenta. He has demanded demolition of all illegal tenements along the course of the river.

Something as drastic as that is probably the bitter medicine the city needs to swallow. Else, everything that the likes of Mr. Shah are doing to save the river may be too little, too late.

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