Reclaiming the Mithi

The neglect and institutionalised abuse of River Mithi, which originates in Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, forebodes another disaster if the city’s infrastructure and development are not taken in hand.

Published : Nov 21, 2018 12:30 IST

The Mithi   at Filter Pada Circle, Phule Nagar, north-west Mumbai, resembles an open sewer more than a river. The wall was built after the 2005 deluge.

The Mithi at Filter Pada Circle, Phule Nagar, north-west Mumbai, resembles an open sewer more than a river. The wall was built after the 2005 deluge.

THE Mithi river came into public consciousness after the catastrophic floods of July 26, 2005, in Mumbai. Although caused by a supercell storm—a towering cloud of rain and high-speed winds that dropped rain over the city—the effect of the floods was exacerbated by the unplanned development of the city and the systematic destruction of natural flood control systems.

For many Mumbaikars, the floods were an education in more ways than one. Few knew that the stretch of stinking water that caused them to hold their breath as local trains crossed over it every day was not a drain but a river called Mithi. After 2005, the Mithi became a household name and its rejuvenation something of a mission, though not for long. In the immediate aftermath of the deluge, plans were made to revitalise its natural safety features.

The Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA), which is the regional planning agency with special powers to execute infrastructure work in the city, came under scrutiny after the Mumbai floods. The MMRDA attempted to redeem itself by commissioning at least four major studies on the Mithi. But in 2015, 10 years after the floods, State Environment Minister Ramdas Kadam said that the Mithi was a river only in name. In reply to queries raised by legislators during the monsoon session of the Maharashtra State Assembly, Kadam quoted a Maharashtra Pollution Control Board report and said: “The analytical report clearly suggests that the river is getting 93 per cent waste water from Mumbai homes and 7 per cent chemical sewage from industrial units nearby.”

A recent report of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) that analysed the health of the country’s rivers said that there were 351 polluted stretches in rivers all over India and 45 critically polluted stretches. The worst offending States were Maharashtra, Assam and Gujarat. According to the CPCB, the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) in the Mithi is 50 mg/litre. The BOD is a measure of the extent of organic pollution in the water. A BOD of more than 6 mg/litre indicates pollution. Earlier this year, yet another plan was launched to clean the Mithi. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and his wife even featured in a promotional video about cleaning rivers, but there is not much to show for it. In response to its parent body’s report, the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board said the State’s action plan would be executed with a focus on untreated sewage, industrial effluents and plastics. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has also budgeted for a new sewage treatment plant along the Mithi.

The Mithi originates in Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park and flows for 17.84 km before it drains into the Arabian Sea. The State government says that there are 40 polluted stretches along the Mithi. In its upper reaches, within the national park, the river is clean. It is only when it leaves Powai lake that it suffers the pollutants of the city. At one time, it passed through thick mangrove forests, but only a few of these remain and even these are strewn with plastic bags and choked at the roots with black sludge.

A Concerned Citizens Commission convened by the Conservation Action Trust brought out a report titled “Mumbai Marooned: An Enquiry into Mumbai Floods 2005”. The report “estimated that Mumbai has lost about 40 per cent of its mangroves between 1995 and 2005, some to builders and some to encroachment (slums). Sewage and garbage dumps have also destroyed mangroves.”

Instead of its once-idyllic path, the Mithi now flows through middle-class residential colonies, the Bandra-Kurla Complex which houses leading businesses, a posh residential enclave and the slum colonies at Dharavi, Morarji Nagar, Kurla, Sakinaka and Jai Bhim Nagar. The banks of the Mithi are walled in for long stretches, possibly leading to the impression that it is a nullah. Since the slums are illegal, they have never been provided municipal facilities, and the river has proved to be a one-stop solution for everything.

The unorganised sector flourishes in this area. Earlier, tanneries and bootleggers were a large part of it, but after the floods their presence has decreased. Barrel washing (there are special barrel cleaners who clean out drums of sludge oil, chemicals and other industrial products), scrap dealers and even large-scale fuel and edible oil adulteration units are some of the businesses carried out here. Tyres, toxic chemicals, thermocole, glass, and solid and liquid wastes that have no recycling value find their way directly into the river. At shallow points in the river, there are islands of junk.

Although a small river, the Mithi plays a crucial role in the health of the city. It existed when Mumbai was a series of seven unconnected islands. The Mithi’s catchment area of 7,295 hectares seems completely out of proportion to its size and actually emphasises its vital role in the region. Its tidal reach, or the extent to which high tides affect the river, is about 7 km. Left to itself, nature had worked out an excellent balance. Mangroves grew all along the tidal reach. At low tide, exposed mudflats were part of the balance. But rampant reclamation started in the 19th century.

A study titled “Making the sewer a river again: Why Mumbai must reclaim its Mithi” by Gautam Kirtane of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) says: “Alarmingly, about two-thirds of the streams and drainage channels in the Mithi’s catchment have also fallen prey to land reclamation and urbanisation in the same period of time (J. Kamini, 2006: Spatio-temporal analysis of land use in urban Mumbai using multi-sensor satellite data and GIS techniques). This is a worrying development as ponds play a vital role in the context of flood protection in their micro-catchments besides providing an opportunity for recreation, fishing, and siltation. The decrease in ponds and tanks is directly proportional to the increase in built-up area around the Mithi; the impervious urban surface increased from 46 per cent in 1966 to 85 per cent in 2005. This increase has drastically reduced the percolation of rainwater, thereby accelerating the run-off.”

The report also states: “The area under mudflats in the Mahim Creek has decreased from 4.47 km in 1966 to 3 km in 1987 and finally to 1.5 km in 2005. Nearly 75 per cent of the area under mudflats has been reclaimed and transformed (J. Kamini, 2006).”

One building project that severely affected the Mithi was the Mumbai airport. The estuarine area, ponds and mudflats were gobbled up for the development of the airport. A Google Earth image of 2005 reveals that the river was forced off its course. The ORF report says: “Between 1976 and 2004, airport works forced the river to deviate unnaturally, making it bend at 90 degree angles four times in rapid succession thus, rearranging its erstwhile linear flow. The river was made to pass through a channelised culvert beneath the runway, and bound with walls and embankments on both sides…the river was first bifurcated and then reunited forming a small island…. This area was subsequently reclaimed by the Airports Authority of India and was used for the extension of the runway in the late 1980s. There is no doubt that the airport expansion has adversely affected the course of the Mithi River, leading to its rapid environmental degradation and reducing its ability to effectively drain this densely populated low-lying region.”

The Bandra-Kurla Complex is another example of disregard for the role of the river and ecological spaces. The Concerned Citizens Commission report says: “With regard to Mumbai’s natural rivers, including the Mithi, the MMRDA has shown shocking ignorance, apathy and neglect. Nothing exemplifies this as much as the fact that the Mithi river and the inter-tidal region in the estuary is not shown in MMRDA land use plan for 1996-2011.”

The MMRDA and the BMC were made responsible for desilting and revitalising the river, but instead there has been institutionalised abuse of the river. Consider this example. The natural banks of the Mithi have been replaced with concrete walls ostensibly for reasons of safety like flood control. And the mangroves and mudflats, which are the best possible flood control mechanisms, have been shut off by these retaining walls. Cutting off mangroves from the daily wash of tides is a sure-fire way of killing them. Clearly, the walls are just a precursor to further reclamation.

Long before the 2005 deluge, various studies had warned the administration of disasters waiting to happen if the city’s infrastructure and development were not taken in hand. Both the BMC and the MMRDA had themselves appointed committees and consultants for this. The following six were all specific to the Mithi: The Natu Committee Report, 1975; Report on Model Studies on the effect of proposed Reclamation in Mahim Creek (Bandra-Kurla Complex) by the Central Water and Power Research Station, 1978; Dharavi Storm Water Drainage System: Detailed Project Report by Shah Technical Consultants, 1988; Paranjape Committee for development of a gated barrage across the mouth of the Mithi River in 1988; Brihanmumbai Storm Water Drainage Project (BRIMSTOWAD) Report, 1993; and “The Mithi River: Water Pollution and Recommendations for its Control” by Klean Environment Consultants, 2004.

The Concerned Citizens Commission report says: “The restoration of the flow of the Mithi river is essential if the tragedy of 26/7 [2005] is not to be repeated.” But despite the horrifying statistics of that time—914 human deaths, 20,000 animal deaths and an estimated Rs.450 crore in losses caused by 944 mm of rain in 24 hours—there has been little change. The Mithi and its ecosystem are as neglected, exploited and handicapped as ever.


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