International Day of Action for Rivers 2023: ‘People don’t know what a river is’, say Mumbai experts on why more needs to be done to celebrate rivers

14 March,2023 02:23 PM IST |  Mumbai  |  Nascimento Pinto

Three experts who have been closely associated with rivers and Mumbai`s coastline collectively delve into the issues with river conservation in India

Cleaning work is on at Mithi river near Bandra. File pic

When Mumbaikar Aslam Saiyad hosts the Dahisar River Walk, an interactive session with people, he takes them along the river to show them the culture surrounding it. At the same time, Saiyad, who has been hosting them since 2019 is quite honest with them because it*s the best way. He says, "I tell them you all are migrants and you don*t belong to Mumbai." This is not a way of telling them they are not welcome but for them to understand that the city is older than we know it with people that have been there much before its inner lanes were occupied.

While there are several tourist spots in the city that are really popular, rarely does one get to see or experience the rivers around it because they are surrounded by a concrete jungle, and as cliché as that may sound, there is no better way to put it for a city like Mumbai. "Apart from Dahisar river, there is the Poisar river, Oshiwara river but when they trickle down they only become nallahs, so people don*t know they are rivers." However, Saiyad*s walks have certainly been a breath of fresh air and an eye-opener for many in the last four years.

He adds, "We have water bodies in Mumbai. We all know that Mumbai is an island and mostly dominated by the sea." However, even though the sea dominates the city, Saiyad, who is also a photographer, says it is important to note that we don*t live near the sea or go fishing and do coastal activities around it and are thus cut off from it. "My dialogue is about respect for the people who are around these rivers because they are the communities who own this place. People don*t know about Mumbai*s rivers. They know only the same old Mithi river." Saiyad, whose river walks are just one of the many other kinds of walks he hosts ever since he started *Go Hallu Hallu*, says he doesn*t wish to give people ‘gyaan* and just let them walk through the rivers and then make their own connections from it. The walks are at least 2-3 kilometres long and one where they can see the flora and fauna for themselves and realise why they need to protect the areas getting encroached upon, like Coastal Road Project and Aarey Forest, he says.

Every year, March 14 is celebrated as the International Day of Action for Rivers around the world. While there are many issues plaguing rivers in India, Saiyad, who usually doesn*t believe in celebrating such days likes to start by educating people about the culture around them. He adds, "The people actually see how those who have been staying there for long have their own gardens, grow their own vegetables and how they practise sustainability." It is also a reason why he has a grouse against *international days* because he thinks they only celebrate the environment and not the community around it. "It is only when people know about the community around the rivers, will they acknowledge the rivers," he states.

Cause for worry
On the other hand and on a wider scale, Kolkata-based Siddharth Agarwal, who has been walking along the rivers of India since 2016, has seen a wide variety of issues plaguing rivers in India. Since 2014, he has walked over 6,000 kilometres including the rivers Ganga and Ken, and Betwa and Sindh since 2019. While one of the major concerns is that of sand mining, he says, the biggest challenge right now for river conservation is very basic. "It is the lack of understanding of what a river really is among citizens, bureaucrats and politicians. So, how do we protect and conserve something that we don*t even understand?" he asks. The 31-year-old who is also the founder of Veditum India Foundation, a non-profit research organisation, has made *Moving Upstream*, a film documenting the rivers in India. It is only one of the other initiatives that they have undertaken over the last few years apart from fellowships.

A common concept in river conservation, which he mentions is the ridge-to-valley approach that is usually adopted and needed but is unfortunately not being used. This simply means that any river is a drain and whatever water falls in the area to form it, becomes the basin of the stream and that is what we know as the river basin. Agarwal says, "Imagine pouring water in any part of your wash basin and it will come to the drain, which is essentially your river. On a larger scale, if your basin is dirty, broken or unhealthy, whatever is going out of the basin is also unhealthy." This means that if we keep trying to clean the drainage point, and not the basin, it will never get clean, and that is exactly the major challenge today to protect rivers as the focus is always on the exit point rather than the area leading to it.

It is not only the lack of understanding about rivers but also the dams and hydropower projects on rivers that are another big challenge, which Agarwal says is dependent on the changing nature of world politics and the need to measure progress. While more often than not the onus is slowly being put on individuals due to active community participation in certain activities, Agarwal says neo-liberalism and neo-capitalism is to blame. "We are putting the responsibility of protecting the environment solely on individuals but they can*t do it alone. They can contribute towards finding solutions and ensuring that the systems in place work, because we pay taxes," says Agarwal, who is also a steering committee member of the India Rivers Forum.

Mumbai*s river woes
Mumbai-based conservationist Shaunak Modi, associated with Marine Life of Mumbai (MLOM), the flagship program of the Coastal Conservation Foundation (CCF), an organisation involved in marine research and conservation agrees with Agarwal. It is the same issue he has with local governance and highlights the need for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to take responsibility by forming sewage treatment plants. "I have nothing against people doing beach cleanups but it is a whole lot of work for nothing. While it is a good exercise, it doesn*t help because the waste once collected goes to the landfill, which doesn*t have proper segregation and thus leads to decomposed dry waste forming rivulets taking the plastic waste to the creek, eventually leading to the shore. Incidentally, Modi has been studying the origin of the trash found on the beach for the last six years, and has realised that all of it is only five to six days old and not years old like most people think.

Today, he says, at the ecosystem level, "Mithi river cannot even be considered a river because it is more of Mithi nullah and even a nullah is not supposed to be like this." The pollutants that are affecting all of this largely include industrial waste that he says is not being cleaned at all and thus all the sewage leads to the rivers and creeks. "Unfortunately, a part of the population eats fish fished from these nullahs or rivers." While Modi has often been turned down for his reasoning on the environment, he says, if not environment and ecology, it is important to look at human health as the main factor to motivate authorities to act swiftly.

"When all of this water comes to the coast and our near-shore water is used for fishing, imagine the water quality in which the fish have lived and we are consuming it," he cautions. While others can afford exotic fish, the Mumbaikar says there are others who have to depend on the pomfret that is available in these waters. The fact that the sewage settles at the bottom, means that shrimp and crabs are also largely affected by it. "It is a multi-tier problem that is invisible to the authorities," he complains.

The city dweller, who also hosts walks like Aslam but along the shore, says the easiest way to deal with the issue is to build an adequate amount of sewage treatment plants in the city. If not for the sake of the environment, he appeals, at least for every Mumbaikar*s health, which is at risk due to different kinds of pollution.

Three ways people can understand more about river conservation
1. Learn more about organisations working towards river conservation by actively engaging with them online and offline.
2. Volunteering with organisations working on river conservation by doing simple jobs such as a data entry that will help you learn more about the subject, instead of getting overwhelmed by it.
3. Sharing the work of individuals or organisations actively working to raise awareness about the need for conservation of rivers.

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