Will you sit by the Mithi like this?

14 February,2021 07:29 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Gitanjali Chandrasekharan

A Pune photo project for a river advocacy site throws up an urban yearning for a nature commune

A man on Shivaji Pul. Pics courtesy/Abhay Kanvinde, www.sandrp.in

There are several river points in Pune where the old city and the new, divided by rivers are connected by various bridges. The phrases ‘nadi cha tya baju la’ and ‘nadi ja hya baaaju la’, are common in the language,” says Abhay Kanvinde, a Pune-based interior designer whose photographs of people standing on these bridges and silently watching the river, were recently shared along with his note on the website of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP).

Kanvinde, 39, who takes the photographs on his phone, and clarifies that he doesn’t step out with the intention of taking them, says they were clicked over a period of five years. “When I saw them, a pattern emerged and I realised that there were these people who were just sitting and watching the river. What they were thinking, I don’t know. I don’t even wish to ask them,” he says. What Kanvinde did notice is that the people who stopped at the river, communing with it, were not the ones dumping trash in it. Those were the hurried people, walking past.

A worm collector at Mutha river

But, why does a piece like this find space on a site that primarily serves as an information and advocacy network for rivers in India? Where Kanvinde says he is a man of few words, his images immediately convey the many possible emotions that the human subjects might be going through when observing the water body.
“They seem to be seeking solitude and solace,” says Himanshu Thakkar, the coordinator for SANDRP, who says that it’s important to talk about the emotional connect that we have with our water bodies. A connect we seem to be losing touch with.

Thakkar shares how, when asked where does the water they drink come from, school children are most likely to say “taps”, as probably most adults. “The problem is our disconnect with rivers. If rivers are destroyed, there is no assurance that the tap will continue to provide us water.” He says that the disconnect is unfortunate, considering that so many of Indian rituals and festivals are connected with the river. “When my mother would bathe, she would chant prayers that included the names for various rivers.”

And yet, in India, the state of our rivers is terrible. Mumbai’s Mithi, itself, encroached upon and concretised, looks more like a nullah.

Thakkar says where people have come together for the protection of their water systems, change has been drastic.

Himanshu Thakkar

Giving the example of Alwar district, he says an organisation called Tarun Bharat Sangh led by Rajendra Singh over 35 years rejuvenated and transformed its water bodies and streams to the extent that not just was ground water recharged, but five small rivers which would dry up after the monsoon, became perennial rivers.

The role of citizens didn’t end there, however. “When they had started work, the government asked them why were they doing the work. The government felt it had the monopoly over governance, but the people argued that it was their river and they would care for it. When the river started flowing at its natural capacity, the government wanted to introduce a fisheries contract,” Thakkar says, adding that the locals again objected and set up, instead, a river parliament with two representatives from the various panchayats along the river, who would meet and decide together on how the river and its waters are to be used.

Two friends looking over a bridge

Thakkar, an engineer from IIT-Bombay, who later joined the Narmada Bachao movement, started SANDRP in 1998. His group is an informal network of people from across India, and also has bloggers such as Kanvinde regularly providing their perspective.

The site serves as a go-to space to understand the various policies and policy measures affecting our river systems. Recently for instance, there’s a report on how the “National Green Tribunal last week dissolved the Yamuna Monitoring Committee (YMC) in Delhi, UP and Haryana along with Justice Pritam Pal Committee and asked the state government to implement the various measures in earlier YMC and NGT reports and directions”. But, alongside, there are also the stories such as that of Kanvinde’s that tell us why we need to care. That the policies affect our quality of life.