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Flood, sweat and tears

It took the near-drowning of a city and several deaths for Mumbai to acknowledge the deteriorating existence of what was once an efficient stormwater drain — the Mithi river.

mumbai Updated: Apr 07, 2010 20:04 IST

It took the near-drowning of a city and several deaths for Mumbai to acknowledge the deteriorating existence of what was once an efficient stormwater drain — the Mithi river.

This 17.8-km river — a confluence of the tail water of the Vihar, Powai and Tulsi lakes that flows through Powai, Saki Naka, Kurla, Kalina, Vakola Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC), Dharavi and Mahim — served as a natural drainage system, flushing out the city’s excess water into the Arabian Sea. Over the years, due to rampant encroachments on its banks and unchecked toxic discharges, the river has been rendered a polluted sewer, blamed for the floods of July 26, 2005.
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The authorities say the retaining wall and service roads along the Mithi will be completed by this year-end. Prasad Gori / HT PHOTO

The river is especially hazardous in the monsoon as it brings polluted waters into Mumbai during the high tide and contains direct discharges of untreated sewage, waste water from unauthorised settlements as well as sludge oil and industrial effluents. Animal waste from nearby cattle sheds is dumped into the river. The organic waste, sludge and garbage have reduced the carrying capacity of the river — raising the risk of floods every time it rains hard — that is now a threat to the marine and avian population in and around it, not to mention the danger it poses to those who live near it or on its banks.

The 2005 floods stirred the authorities into action and recommendations to deepen and de-silt the Mithi, made by the Central Water Power Research Station (CWPRS) in 2006, have been implemented by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA). The BMC was assigned to improve 11.8 kilometres of the river, while MMRDA took charge of the remaining 6 kilometres.

Now, three monsoons and approximately Rs 122 crore later, the de-silting and deepening is nearly complete. However, several blocks obstruct its transformation from an environmental hazard to an ecological wonder.

As per the recommendations of the CWPRS, the river was to be widened to 100 metres. MMRDA has not been able to undertake widening near Kapadia Nagar in Kurla and Valmiki Nagar in BKC due to residential colonies. “We have widened the river to 64 metres in this area, which will be sufficient,” Gaikwad said.

On Tuesday, MMRDA chief Ratnakar Gaikwad said the the Mithi clean-up will be completed by the year-end.

MMRDA Chief Engineer P.S. Mandpe, who’s in charge of the Mithi project, said: “Currently, we are only working on a pilot project to beautify 900 metres of the Mithi bank behind the MMRDA office at BKC.” He said at the moment there are no private parties involved in the beautification project and the work was being done by a contractor.

Uma Adusumili, project director, Mithi River Development and Protection Authority, added: “As and when public lands are available, both implementing agencies will work to beautify the area around the Mithi. As of now, some greening is being undertaken at BKC. But we hope to build facilities that will allow people to sit by the river and enjoy the view.”

However, the view of a sludgy, toxic river might not appeal to the public. While the Mithi’s water holding capacity has increased due to de-silting, the river is still a hotbed of pollutants and untreated sewage. Adusumili said: “The work done by MMRDA and BMC was only a short-term plan to increase the river’s capacity and to secure its dimensions. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board is set to undertake a long-term city-wide sewage treatment and disposal project under which the Mithi will be treated.”

Environmental activists criticised the authorities’ apathy towards the protection of Mithi’s mangroves. Rishi Agarwal, of the Mangrove Society of India, said: “The authorities have never involved environmentalists or citizens in their plans for the Mithi. Instead of taking a holistic approach to the conservation of the river and the biodiversity it supports, they have employed short-term measures.”

In response to a public interest litigation filed in 2007 by businessman and activist Jagdish Gandhi, who objected to a retaining wall on the Vakola nullah that cut off the supply of the Mithi’s saline water essential to the growth of mangroves, the Bombay High Court recently appointed a three-member expert panel to look into the matter. But Gandhi said: “By the time, the matter was brought to the notice of the court, the wall was already built. We want ecological justifications, not engineering constructions.”