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Monday, April 2, 2012


Call for Mumbaikars to join fight to restore the city's rivers and nullahs and for the BMC to reserve space for public use on either side of the channels

 Mumbai needs to grow close to its rivers, with citizens being able to interact and relax on the banks of these natural assets. This is the dream of conservationists. But, looking at our four rivers today — the Mithi, Oshiwara, Dahisar and Poisar — it wouldn't be amiss to say this dream will remain just that. 
    This city has mistreated its rivers, reducing them to little more than nullahs along vast stretches. The four rivers have been narrowed and dirtied by slums and factories that line their banks. Garbage and effluents flow freely in the water. 
    Activists say the rivers' restoration, which is key to protecting the ecosystem and mangroves, will not become a reality unless citizens get involved because, after all, it is the citizens who have to first feel pride in their natural assets and also use them to improve their quality of life. 
    Janak Daftary, a member of the Mithi Nadi Sansad, says that educating even children about the importance of Mumbai's water bodies is crucial. "If people feel the river is part of them, it will ensure sustenance," he says. "There has to be a sense of belonging. It has to begin in the child's mind. You have to allow children to interact with local rivers. Once that happens, the kid might turn to river protection when he or she grows up." 
    Activists add that authorities are also ignoring the most immediate and critical function of rivers — natural channels for rainwater drainage and flood control. 
    The Open Mumbai exhibition, currently on at the NGMA, suggests that the city's Development Plan include data about the city's rivers and nullahs, and that these channels be then restored, beautified and integrated with neighbourhoods and other public spaces. Riverfronts have the potential to be beautified spaces where the public can relax and unwind, adding to quality of life. Developing riversides would help protect the channel and opens up the possibility of creating vegetation and tracks for walking and cycling. 
    The suggestion is that 30 metres on each side of the rivers' banks be reserved as compulsory open space. Around 10.8 lakh sq m of space along the Mithi could then be developed. The Oshiwara River could see 4.3 lakh sq m of development along its banks. The Dahisar and Poisar rivers could see similar development and beautification. In all, 24.4 lakh sq m of riversides would be beautified for public use. Similarly, if six metres of space is reserved for public along the banks of 17 nullahs, 15.6 lakh sq m of space could be created. 
    Efforts to reclaim rivers and clean up nullahs are already on at some locations. Since the devastating floods of 2006, Mithi's dredging and desilting has been a work in progress. The revival of the Irla nullah is another example of community-driven development and integration. TOI presented the Irla example in the March 24 edition. Juhu's residents got encroachments around the nullah removed four years ago and procured funding for the plan from the BMC. The project, designed by architect P K Das, envisions cycling and walking tracks along the nullah and connecting the stretch to neighbourhoods and other public spaces, including the beach. 
    Ashoke Pandit, filmmaker and resident of Juhu who is involved in the Irla project, says that before the monsoon, residents intend to plant 2,000 trees to replace the ones cut by authorities. He adds that the BMC is currently cleaning the nullah and constructing walls along its banks. "It's the citizens' active participation that encourages the system to work," Pandit says. "For instance, we saw a builder covering the nullah five days ago. Within ten minutes, there were 50 citizens questioning the builder. Seven to eight members of the BMC came to question the builder." 
    Dhaval Desai of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) says that even slumdwellers living along the banks of rivers and nullahs must be roped in to restore and beautify the channels. Ideally, the slums that pollute rivers should be removed. But that's difficult given the "thick nexus between the authority operating there and local politicians and slumdwellers", he says. Instead, Desai suggests that the government provide garbage collection and sewage treatment facilities to communities along the river. Daftary says, "One way to clean rivers is to use biotechnology. Current sewage treatment plants use inorganic technology that release a cocktail of inorganic materials, like nitrates, carbons and heavy metals, into the water." 
    Desai says the ORF is working on a plan to get Mumbaikars to engage with the Maharashtra Nature Park in Mahim. The 37-acre park is a patch of mangroves sustained by the Mithi. "Thousands walk in the park, hardly realizing what's on the other side of the road," he says. "We are studying how to make it one of the best maintained parks, comparable to any in the world." 
Define, reserve, beautify 
Open Mumbai's proposals to conserve and improve rivers and nullahs: 
Define river boundaries in the Development Plan Reserve 30 metres on both sides of rivers as compulsory public open space Reserve a minimum of six metres on both sides of nullahs as compulsory public open space Limit construction to public conveniences, like toilets, drinking water fountains & security/assistance booths Permit landscape development to paving, walkways, plantations, seats, lighting, signs, drains, cantilever decks, railings and retaining walls with porosity 
Greening the Grey 
    Open Mumbai has proposed developing leisure areas along Mumbai's rivers, so that the public can get some space to relax in neighbourhoods and other pockets. Below is a graphic impression from Open Mumbai of how the banks of the Mithi in the BKC area could be transformed, so that the river is protected from encroachment and littering, the mangroves are conserved and people have greened, public zones within which to relax and unwind. COURSING THROUGH THE WORLD

Birds, fish at home in Seoul 
The Cheonggyecheon stream in the South Korean capital has been popular with locals and tourists ever since it was opened to the public in 2005 after a major overhaul. In the early 1950s, after the Korean War, migrants settled along the stream in shanties. The river became a dump for the settlements and, in 1958, was covered with concrete. A highway was built over it in 1976. In 2003, the mayor of Seoul decided to restore the stream. One of the successes of the projects is the restoration of a natural habitat that attracts birds and fish. However, the project has also been criticized for being too expensive and not entirely beneficial for the city's ecology.

Olympic makeover in Barcelona 
Treated as a drain till the mid-1990s, Besos was known as one of Europe's most polluted rivers. As a reaction to a flash flood in 1962, city authorities had concrete walls built on either side. Industries that came up along the banks dumped waste and effluents into the river. The 1992 Olympics, which took place in the city, spurred the government to turn Barcelona into a financial and tourist centre. Besos was cleaned up and integrated into the landscape of the city. This was done by building parks, walking tracks and cycling paths along the river.

Seine back from the brink 
At the start of the 1960s, the Seine was considered a dying river. The water demands of the numerous industries along its banks had severely strained it. And effluents from farms and industries had damaged its marine life. From 1968, the Seine-Normandy Water Agency began rehabilitating the river by managing its water, reducing pollution by setting up wastewater treatment plants and restoring wetlands.

Sewer to sanctuary in New York 
The Bronx River was treated as a sewer for most of the last century. It was a dump for heavy industries along its banks as well as local residents. In the 1990s, community groups and local politicians collaborated in a plan to revive it and, in 1993, $30 million was sanctioned for its restoration. The water was cleaned up, fish were reintroduced and parks were created. The river and its banks now draw walkers, cyclists and canoeists.

RIVER OF DIRT: While retaining walls have been built along the Vakola nullah, an offshoot of the Mithi River, they haven't managed to keep the water free from the filth dumped into the channel

REWIND, NO FAST FORWARD: How the Mithi appeared in the Bandra-Kurla Complex area in 2010 when the cleaning and beautification was in progress. Much of the work still remains to be done


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