Weaving a dream around Mithi

June 05, 2011 12:00 am | Updated 04:13 am IST - MUMBAI:

As the boat moves deeper in the estuaries, the nose gets immune to the stink. Mithi, Mumbai's 18-km-long river, slowly reveals its warp and weft.

Along the water which is nothing less than a sewer is a blanket of mangroves, desperately trying to survive itself amid growing violations and senseless bunding. The same water feeds the estuarine vegetation, home to varied species of migratory and aquatic birds. Their numbers have sharply dwindled over recent years, but one can still spot quite a few.

“Just take away the stink. Colour the water blue again. Will it then look any less scenic than the backwaters of Kerala?” I ask myself as I join a group of dreamers who wish to weave a dream along one of Mumbai's most polluted waterbodies today.

‘Making the sewer…a river again. Why Mumbai must reclaim its Mithi,' a study by the Observer Research Foundation was recently released amid the mangroves of the Mahim estuary here by Magsaysay Award-winning water conservation activist Rajendra Singh and the former Union Minister, Suresh Prabhu.

“We did this study as part of the dream that the Mithi can turn into a beautiful river with open and green spaces all around it, so that Mumbaikars can experience natural beauty so close to them. We have given recommendations in the study for redesigning, developing and beautifying the riverfront,” said Gautam Kirtane, the researcher who conceptualised and wrote most part of the report.

He showed the manmade lakes amid the mangroves, and the green cover that survived, with tenacity, amid growing encroachments and the poisonous effluents and sewage let into the river, which has now turned into a black nulla.

As I looked at it, I was reminded that it was the same black nulla which had brought the city to its knees during the 2005 floods.

“Unfortunately, Mumbai has not acknowledged the presence of Mithi, and it has violated and abused the river a lot,” Riddhi Chokhawala, one of the researchers, said.

The three-member team of researchers, who wrote the report and made a 30-minute documentary on the issue, included Dhaval Desai.

“The study recommends a 21-point programme for reclaiming the Mithi, envisaging a single and unbroken river-park corridor spanning the entire 18-km length of the Mithi with dedicated bicycle tracks, gardens, amphitheatres, sports and recreation facilities,” the study said.

“In the report, we have drawn inspiration from the best practices on river restoration across the world. This includes the Chonggyencheon river in Seoul, South Korea; Besos in Barcelona, Spain. Closer home, the ongoing Sabarmati Riverfront Development in Gujarat is also inspiring,” Sudheendra Kulkarni, chairperson, ORF, said.

‘Mangrove policy needed'

Speaking at the release of the report, Mr. Prabhu underlined the need for spreading mangrove forests. “There is a forest policy in place. But we have 7,600 km of coastline in India, which is very vulnerable. Have we decided what should be the proportion of mangrove forests? I know it sounds clichéd, but mangroves are the breathing lungs of any coastal area. The mangroves around the Mithi are the biggest life jacket that Mumbai should always carry,” he said.

The study recommended that one of the forts near the Mahim estuary be turned into a museum dedicated to the history of Mumbai. “The Mahim estuarine region has been the site of many battles between the Portuguese, the Marathas and the British. The forts of Mahim, Castella de Aguda, Sion, Riwa have witnessed the making of Mumbai's history.”

This region was the gateway to Mumbai, but “unfortunately, this history is not taught to students today and is in danger of being lost.”

Envisaging a 50-metre, zero-tolerance zone along the river banks from the Sanjay Gandhi National Park to the Mahim bay, the study said the Mithi river-park corridor must also include the Mahim beach and the Mahim fort. The Mahim estuarine region is a proposed bird sanctuary and hosts a natural park.

Some other suggestions included de-silting of the river; protecting and reviving the mangroves; studying the gabion wall; connecting and integrating nearby open spaces; providing dedicated pedestrian and cycle paths in line with the National Urban Transport Policy; developing spaces for promotion of street music and street theatre; creating children-friendly and differently abled friendly spaces; building a concert hall on the lines of the Sydney Opera House; and setting up sports complexes.

The report pointed out that there are five major railway stations; airport terminals (both international and domestic); a cargo complex and several bus stops along the river. “Taking the NUTP a step further, the ORF envisions that all these stations and bus stops be connected to the Mithi River-Park Corridor, which will allow for Mumbaikars to use multiple modes of transport in a seamless manner and in a stress-free environment.”

The report also suggested boat rides and boating competitions; and solid waste management projects. “The Mithi has been deteriorating very fast. Any river indicates the health and culture of the society around it. If a river is dead, it shows how the people around it are. All those who turn the Mithi into a nulla are our enemies. History is replete with examples of how mistakes can be rectified. We must do the same. Act to protect Mithi,” Mr. Rajendra Singh said.

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