By: Shreyan Gorantala
How would you feel if you lived beside a river that had deteriorated into a stinking sewage drain? Angry and frustrated, I am sure. Sadly, the residents of the Bandra East in general, and the Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) in particular, have had to deal with this environmental crisis for decades. And I should know. I happen to be one of those residents. My family has recently moved into the Bandra Kurla Complex which has become our primary residence. Based on what I observe daily, the biggest culprit is plastics.
Plastics. A word so strong that it could ruin an entire environment. Indeed, it almost did. If it wasn’t for the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) and its efforts to clean up the polluted Mithi River, trash and plastic would still be floating in it.
The Mithi River is crucial to the community of BKC, and Bandra East. It is the longest of the four rivers in Mumbai and served an important environmental function. According to Wikipedia’s entry on the Mithi River, “It is also less well known that the Mahim bay area, where Mithi River meets Arabian Sea is a nominated bird sanctuary where migratory birds come for nesting. This part is full of mangroves.” Indeed, the Mithi River at one time was filled with mangroves, which played an important ecological role in preventing soil and water erosion. Mangroves also supported birdlife. Migrating birds from as far away as Siberia were once known to congregate on the banks of the Mithi River in the winter months. According to the World Journal of Environmental Biosciences, “The Mangroves along the path of the Mithi River, especially at the Mahim Creek, act as natural lungs for the city. They are part of the natural ecology which is biological in nature, and cannot be uprooted and substituted with artificial gardens.”
Apart from the environmental impact upon the natural world, the Mithi River was hugely important to human life. Wikipedia also states that, “When the river was not as polluted as it is today, it used to serve as an important storm water drain for Mumbai.” Unfortunately, the use of the river changes dramatically. As the population of the neighbourhood grew, housing construction proliferated. Multiplied residential colonies mushroomed. Snazzy high-rise apartment buildings sprouted. Lax legislation and careless enforcement of environment rules, gradually created conservation disaster. Indeed, Wikipedia also mentions, “but as it has been used as a sewer over the years, its importance as a storm water drain has reduced.” Misuse and abuse of the river’s potential has made it a callamati rather than an asset. More information from Wikipedia provides the knowledge that, “on the contrary, it poses as a hazard during high tide bringing polluted water into the city and flooding it.” The river can no longer support natural life such as amphibians like frogs which ate up the pesty mosquitoes that bothered the residents or migratory birds that added to the natural beauty and visual interest of the area. The river mouth and the rich mangroves in the area began degrading gradually.
The ruined Mithi River today stands as a silent symbol of deliberate and wanton environmental destruction. The destruction began as a result of population expansion, construction work such as the Metro Project, and expansion of urban areas. But the time for change had come. Just when it seemed that the Mithi River was beyond redemption, the BMC finally took notice and decided to take charge of the situation. According to Kalpana Pathak of the Mint, dated 28th August 2021, the UN provided support and helped collaborate with the BMC to start the global UN project. The project’s goal was to eradicate trash and plastic from the river.
I asked some students in Ascend International School about their thoughts on the project as their school is in the vicinity of the river. I wondered if they noticed any change since the time the project was launched publicly in 2018. Had the BMC shared any information with the students or was it a silent project? An eighth-grader named Veer Gondal, who has studied in Ascend for eight years, was happy to comment on the subject. He had watched the river change colour over the years and emit a nasty smell. Describing his experience of the river, he said, “Whenever I passed by the river, I noticed that the water was brown and polluted, and I was always quite puzzled and disgusted. The floating cans and the dead fish tormented me. Coming back after the lockdown, the impact is major and clearly visible. The water is much cleaner, and you can easily see the difference from three years back; now it looks like water. Formerly, it simply looked like a sewage drain.”
Gondal’s statement provides evidence of the fact that the government is serious about cleaning up the Mithi River and protecting its environment. It also wants to teach the community about the problem and what they can do to help fix the issue in order to make the global project successful.
Gondal added, “I think I first became aware of this project when I was in the third grade. Somebody had given us an educational talk on the Mithi River and the UN project. We (the students) also collaborated on the project and conducted experiments with the organization that sponsored the talk. The project gives hope, as the entire community believed that the Mithi River could not be cleaned up. It is good to see the current state, know that the project is possible and that we can successfully help our ecosystem.” Gondal’s testimony gives insight into the BMC’s efforts to educate community members about the project. The only goal is to make the Mithi River clean again.
Yohaan Dalal, another grade eight student, shared his feelings about the river. Dalal alluded to the monsoon seasonal flooding that occurs in the vicinity of Ascend International School — a direct result of the fact that the Mithi River no longer serves as a storm drain. In regards to the UN-funded BMC project, he too was pleased to finally have the opportunity to express his thoughts about an issue dear to his heart for he is deeply involved in matters pertaining to sustainability. He said, “I feel that the river is mainly polluted due to construction work and lack of awareness of the ecosystem in and around the Mithi river. Luckily, after returning from lockdown, we have seen a huge positive change. I am hoping this project will continue, to make the Mithi river perfectly clean and then be extended to other rivers in Mumbai.” Gondal and Dalal’s testimonies are proof that change and transformation has started becoming visible in the Mithi River.
Arnav Gorantala, a grade ten student, also stated that he was happy with the progress of the Mithi River and its current look. However, he was less optimistic than the others and was worried that human carelessness would destroy the purity of the water. He was quick to point out, “Even if it looks clean now, I don’t feel it will continue to remain clean. Most likely, it will get polluted again because of the waste chemicals that are constantly dumped in the water. Construction work nearby and the continuation of the Metro project will further contribute to its pollution. That said, this is a great initiative. I hope that it can enable the Mithi river to stay clean. I hate to sound pessimistic, but I don’t feel that this will be possible.”
These testimonies bear witness to the impact of the government’s plan and progress. However, they make questions flow, such as: How long will the government’s project continue? Are they taking the Mithi rand the dying fish seriously? With other important government projects, like the Metro and vaccination drives taking priority, how will they ensure that the Mithi River remains in focus?
The BKC community are worried about upcoming challenges. How will the river look? Could other government projects ruin their hopes for the Mithi River? Is this really the best way? Or is there something more and better to ensure continued consciousness of environmental protection?
The Global-run project is only a starting point but cannott be the only one. On-going measures should be taken to ensure that the problem doesn’t recur. For example, strict legislation should be passed to prevent waste-dumping. Violaters should be severely prosecuted and fined to ensure the implementation of new environmental laws. Furthermore, this initiative should be entended to focus on other rivers as the Mithi is not the only one in the city. There are other rivers in Mumbai, and the government must ensure that our ecosystem remains alive and pristine in order to save them from similar destruction. State measures should ensure that both residents, and administrators, keep up their enthusiasm to be successful in maintaining our goal of sustaining a safe, clean, and preserved ecosystem in Mumbai.