Riverine tragedy

Published : Feb 01, 2008 00:00 IST

The Oshiwara river has been partially filled at its mouth at the Malad creek.-

The Oshiwara river has been partially filled at its mouth at the Malad creek.-

A deep disregard for lessons from the 2005 floods has made Mumbais rivers the most abused ecological feature in the city.

The Oshiwara river

It has been over two years since a freak rainfall paralysed Mumbai. The 2005 floods that wreaked havoc in the city were a wake-up call and the citys administrators and developers vowed that they had learnt a lesson. But the current trend of development in the city throws up doubts on whether those warnings have been heeded. The mistakes acknowledged by the administration have just not been rectified. Worse, they are being repeated. Scattered across the city are examples of dangerous development, which are especially visible in the suburbs, which suffered the most during the floods.

The floods brought Mumbais rivers into prominence. In the normal course of events, the rivers would have served as effective storm-water drains, channelling the floodwaters swiftly into the sea at a pace that cannot be matched by any manmade construction. But Mumbais obsession with concrete has not spared even the rivers. They have been encroached upon, their natural course has been forcibly altered by the construction of roads and retaining walls, and they are used as sewers and as a dumping ground for debris. Their natural capacity as a disaster-prevention system has been disabled. The rivers are themselves, ironically, disasters in the making. They are Mumbais most abused ecological feature.

To most people it comes as a surprise that there are rivers in Mumbai. This has more to do with the misleading official nomenclature than the lack of awareness. The citys development plans and municipal authorities refer to them as nullahs literally small water channels, but conveniently interpreted to mean open drains. And that is exactly how they are treated. Sluggish with raw sewage, chemical and other untreated waste, these rivers have been reduced to noxious quagmires.

The city has four rivers the Oshiwara, or the Jogeshwari, the Dahisar, the Poisar, and the Mithi, or the Mahim. Varying in length from 10 to 12 kilometres, they have their origins in the forested areas around the city. They also serve as tail-water discharges of the freshwater lakes that supply water to the city. In fact, the location for the lakes (which are manmade) was selected based on the presence of the rivers so that overflow from the lakes would be channelled into the rivers and then out to the sea.

The Oshiwara gets filled at Andheri, a suburb that had suffered extensively during the floods. The river originates in the Aarey milk colony. On its 10-km journey through the relatively unspoilt environment of the national park it is a clean stream. A cocktail of industrial pollutants empty into it as it crosses the Oshiwara Industrial Estate and slums and cattle-sheds lining its bank pour in raw sewage.

As the Oshiwara nears the sea there is a small mangrove forest. It is a shadow of its former self, constricted as it is by housing colonies that are literally squeezing it out of a region that it once sprawled across a process that continues with debris being dumped into the river on a daily basis. In the past three months debris dumping has narrowed the river and created approximately 20 square metres of new land. About 200 metres downstream, a bridge is being constructed on land reclaimed similarly. As always, lack of accountability makes it easier to carry out illegal activities.

When attempts by local resident Chandraprakash Dwivedi to make inquiries about the construction hit a wall, he and a group of people tried to lodge a complaint with the police. But they were told to go to the Gardens Department of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation since the matter involved mangroves. Even as the residents were being given the run-around by the authorities, the reclamation continued unhindered.

The reason for the dumping is not known, but one thing is clear: that the municipal authorities are solely responsible for the unloading of debris in the river. Debris can only be dumped at designated dumping grounds, says Chandrashekar Prabhu, former President of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority, and an activist. He points out that riverfronts and all water bodies come under the Coastal Regulation Zone rules and this is further protection against dumping.

Mangrove conservation regulations also safeguard the rivers. In December 2004, the Bombay Environment Action Group filed a petition in the Bombay High Court seeking its intervention against the wide-scale destruction of mangroves in the State. The petition sought the protection and preservation of mangroves and incorporated complaints from citizens about the systematic destruction of mangroves in various localities by land-grabbers and encroachers. The petitioners pleaded that pending further hearing of these petitions, the respondents be restrained from destructing or denuding mangroves by dumping, obstructing water supply, cutting mangroves or by any other method.

On October 6, 2005, the High Court passed an order to prevent further destruction of mangroves and to ensure the conservation and rejuvenation of the mangroves in Maharashtra.

The order says that:

(i) There shall be a total freeze on the destruction and cutting of mangroves in the entire State of Maharashtra;

(ii) All construction and rubble/garbage dumping on the mangrove areas shall be stopped forthwith;

(iii) Regardless of ownership of the land, all construction taking place within 50 metres on all sides of all mangroves shall be forthwith stopped;

(iv) No development permission whatsoever shall be issued by any authority in the State of Maharashtra in respect of any area under mangroves; and

(v) The Municipal Commissioner of Greater Mumbai shall forthwith issue the necessary directions to the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai Building Proposals Department not to entertain any applications for development (as defined in the Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning Act, 1966) on or in respect of the mangrove lands, regardless of the nature of ownership.

Despite this, mangroves all over the city are being destroyed in what Chandrashekar Prabhu describes as an act of sheer negligence and connivance with the municipal authorities. There is photographic evidence of recent dumping of sludge and debris on mangroves in the Manori, Malad and Mahim creeks some of it being done by the municipality.

The Dahisar river originates in the Borivli National Park and empties into the Manori creek. It is possibly the most abused river in the city. Industrial effluents from small industries and raw sewage from cattle-sheds flow into it, pylons are built on its riverbed, and the high retaining walls no longer allow it to alter its course. Bad urban planning has added to the Dahisars problem. A flyover, built to ease traffic flow, has its supporting pillars on the riverbed. Local residents blame the structure for the rising level of floodwaters.

A view from

M.S. Telang, who has lived for 30 years on its banks, says the river has always risen during the monsoon but ever since the flyover was built there have been more problems because the pylons impede the water flow.

There was a plan to raise the retaining wall (even though this is an environmentally unsound idea) to prevent water from entering the dwellings along the banks but the low height of the flyover prevents this. The flyover was initially planned to go alongside the river but the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority ran into hurdles over slum clearance. Residents who objected to the riverbed pylons say they were warned that it was a politically sensitive matter and could not be moved. And the pillars were constructed on the riverbed.

Post-flood management plans also recommended the widening and cleaning of the rivers. It was equally vital for the administration to come down strongly on the dumping of debris, the cutting of mangroves, the building of retaining walls, the dredging of flow channels and the reclaiming of marshlands. But these crucial concerns were ignored. Debi Goenka of the Conservation Action Trust shrugs when he says, It was politically uncomfortable. It would have meant taking on slums and builders and everything else that the government has turned a blind eye to so far.

Some amount of cleaning, widening and removal of illegal constructions did take place but most of this was along the Mithi. This river was in the public eye largely because of the scale of destruction along its banks, and more so because it runs alongside the international airport and the Bandra-Kurla complex Mumbais showpiece for international business.

Illegal industries were shut down, the river was dredged and shanties that teetered on the riverbank were demolished. But the administrations efforts were as short-lived as public memory. And unplanned development has firmly established itself once again.

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