Mumtaz lost the original papers of her load-bearing house many years back and there is no sign of her getting those back. She is only blameworthy for living in a chawl that falls in the low-lying area in the Jarimari, a sub-locality in Sakinaka in Andheri East from where a part of the Mithi river and the 2005-built bridge over it are very close. Due to heavy rainfall every year in Mumbai, the water level increases here in the river, and the first ones to suffer are people like Mumtaz whose houses are submerged with not just the water but also the enormous amount of dirt, muck, and garbage with which Mithi river is filled. What is more awful and alarming is the fact that Mumtaz is not alone in facing such a problem every year in the slums of Jarimari, majorly dominated by Muslims.
Mumtaz sharing how she has to leave her house as the water from the Mithi river fills in her house.
Mithi River, one of the four major rivers in Mumbai alongside Dahisar, Oshiwara, and Poisar rivers, gained significant public attention after the financial city was inundated by heavy rainfall on July 26, 2005. Mithi is considered a vital sewer and natural storm drain system essential for protecting the city from flooding. However, inefficient drainage, exacerbated by solid waste accumulation and the constriction of the riverbanks with concrete boundaries, significantly reduced its drainage capacity, resulting in the loss of more than 1,000 lives in Mumbai.
Contrary to its name, Mithi, which translates to 'sweetness' in English, was never "sweet" but rather salty, as 'meeth' in Marathi also means 'salty.' Fiona Fernandez, a historian and author, elucidates in her book, 'H For Heritage: Mumbai,' that in the past, during high tide, seawater would infiltrate the Mithi River in areas like Khar and Kalina, where villages were once surrounded by salt pans. Historical records indicate that the water was sufficiently saline to enable fishermen in areas like Kalina, Sion, and Dharavi to catch fish typically found only in saltwater.
It is unfortunate that the incident involving the river did not lead to any positive experiences for the people of Mumbai. While the catastrophic events of 2005 disrupted the river's redevelopment and beautification efforts, the past 18 years have witnessed the issuance of ten committee reports, the allocation and expenditure of billions of rupees by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA). However, the condition of the river and the human settlements near it remains unchanged from what it was before.
The common dumping area for the slum residents of Jarimari right before the fencing that separates the Mithi River and the Chawls
Speaking with Local Samosa, Mumtaz stated that she and her family follow the routine of changing homes almost like a ritual every monsoon. "As soon as the water starts filling in from the river, we leave everything and go to our close ones," she says, referring to her acquaintances who reside in the same area but at a comparatively higher elevation in Jarimari. "But we cannot remain in peace," she continues, "as we have to keep coming back to our house to check if the water is still there." Additionally, Mumtaz mentions that the water damages almost everything in the house and leaves every single corner extremely filthy.
Water flowing above the ground from the drainage in the Jarimari slum area.
Pointing to the drainage outside her house, Mumtaz also highlights its poor maintenance, which causes dirt and water to flow above the ground as it gets filled during the monsoon. "How can our children study or do anything in such filth?" she asks. However, can she pose the same question to the waste pickers from the BMC who come daily to collect the garbage? She says, "There is no point in complaining because no one takes it seriously," indicating toward a corner filled with garbage at the end of the land in the Jarimari chawl area, at around 2:30 p.m., a time when the BMC waste pickers have already collected the garbage.
The son of the shop owner shaing how they lose the stuff of the shop every monsoon.
Just behind Mumtaz's house lies an old and small general store that mostly sells snacks and refreshments but not year-round. The shop is also one of the establishments that fall victim to the calamity caused by the rising level of the Mithi river every monsoon. A teenager, who prefers to remain anonymous and handles the shop on behalf of his father, the shop's original owner, mentioned that he and his family have to leave the shop and its contents behind when the water fills in. "We try to carry as much stuff as we can but that is never enough as we can't vacant the whole shop. By the time we come back after the water is drained, we lose most of our stuff, he says.
Why is Jarimari fed up with Mithi?
The small space from where children and other residents reach the river bed.
Originating from the Vihar Lake outfall and having an inlet from the Powai Lake further downstream, the Mithi River flows through various residential and industrial areas before finally reaching Mahim Creek and merging with the Arabian Sea, covering a stretch of not less than 17.4 km. Environment Minister Ramdas Kadam stated back in 2015 that the Mithi River had become "more of a sewage line than a river" as 100 percent of the water flowing through it was sewage dumped by nearby establishments.
Before the river meets the sea, it also passes through the areas of Andheri East, where the construction of the international airport is said to have altered the river's original course. Jarimari is one such area located right behind the grandeur of the lustrous international airport. When the disastrous rains of 2005 alerted the administration to the constricted river channel causing flooding, the residents of Jarimari mentioned that they witnessed the construction of a bridge over the river and the installation of fencing that separated the river area from the chawls. Subsequent years also saw the addition of fencing around the airport's runway and the Mithi River, but it brought no relief.
Sushil (changed name) recounting the incident of kids gone missing and later, found out to be dead after falling into the river.
A few days ago, a child from this slum area went to play in the bridge area, which is separated from the chawls by blue-colored iron gates but never returned. When Local Samosa accompanied Sushil (changed name), another chawl resident, he pointed out the spot from which the boy had fallen into the river, and only his body could be found. "There are many kids in this area who do not listen to their guardians and go to the area to play, so such incidents happen quite often," he says. The fencing in the area has created various open spaces for people to pass through, and the boundary separating the river area from the chawls is not high enough. As Sushil claimed, and even during our visit, many children and teenagers could be seen walking on the boundaries, and a few were even sitting on them above the river."
The BMC toilet at the end of the Jarimari slum area
As we walked toward one of the open spaces atop the riverbed, we encountered waste of all kinds, including torn clothes, human waste, and garbage that had littered not only the river but also the entire riverbed. While the residents of the area complain about cleanliness and the menace, there is no doubt that many of them have become accustomed to dumping domestic waste into the riverbed area, which is clearly visible from all sides. Sushil, walking with us to the riverbed, pointed to various spots filled with human waste, mentioning that it's the residents who come here to relieve themselves every day. "The women from households whose windows open up to this side witness this sight daily, and we do not like it at all," he says, adding that proper fencing would prevent people from defecating in the open near the river and the bridge. He also pointed out a few houses that open to the river's side, whose owners have abandoned them for good. "Who would want to live here and see these sights every day?" he laments. Although there is a BMC toilet near the boundary, many still prefer to go to the river, according to Sushil. As a result, the residents of Jarimari want fencing to be installed all around the river to separate their chawls from it, similar to how the runway has been separated from their residences.
Citizens as the changemakers
Unfortunately, Jarimari is not the only area with residential settlements around the Mithi River. Areas like Moraji Nagar, Bhim Nagar, Kranti Nagar, Gautam Nagar, and many others, from the source of the river to Mahim, also experience the impact of the river's flow. Consequently, residents' problems with the river, and vice versa, remain consistent across all these areas, including Filterpada, which is the first human settlement after the Mithi River's inflow. Just like other areas, Filterpada, too, grapples with the same challenges posed by the river. In such cases, is there a solution that citizens can undertake? Elsie Gabriel, the founder of the Young Environmentalists Programme Trust which has been awarded the UNESCO Green Citizen says, "Awareness among the locals and the citizens of the city can only change the equation."
From an 'Ocean Literacy Programme Mithi River' feild trip conducted by Elsie Gabriel with the students of Gopal Sharma School, Powai back in 2018
While the work being carried out by the BMC and the MMRDA may still take years to bring about noticeable change, it was only last year that the BMC decided to collaborate with a few NGOs to raise awareness about river protection and cleanliness. However, even this initiative does not seem to be making a significant impact at the moment. Nevertheless, individuals like Gabriel have continued to work on solutions that involve residents in areas like Filterpada. Gabriel's NGO, established in the same year as the floods, organizes various tours to places like Filterpada for school-going students, aiming to educate them about the persistent issues facing one of the city's important rivers. These tours include students from international and private schools, as well as state-run schools, with children from nearby settlements along the river also taking part.
In the last many years, these tours, have been advocating the problems of the Mithi River and its solutions by educating the students through engaging them in various activities. "We help them indulge in photography, teach them Marine Biology, Oceanography and try to impart ocean literacy to them," she says adding that the Mithi River acts as a reference. Gabriel has observed that these projects help the students living in the areas to further educate their parents in keeping the areas clean. "Even the smallest activities like making an idol out of the silt of the Mithi river help in this regard," she adds. However, not always is it easy to motivate students to make them part of such initiatives. "Many students do not find it as 'glamorous' to be working around these while they do want to be part of beach clean-up programmes," says Gabriel whose organization has conducted various beaches and lakes clean-ups in Mumbai. However, she believes that only continuous efforts can change the mindsets of the students and the residents of the local areas and other urban areas.
What civic bodies can consider?
Elsie Gabriel (extreme left) on another feild trip with students aiming to teach 'Ocean Literacy'.
Discussing the geography of the Mithi River, Gabriel highlights that the major problem lies with the fact that the river crosses through poverty-stricken areas and a lot of encroachments and commercial establishments need to be relocated in order to revive the river. "Merely cleaning the river would not result in any change unless these establishments are officially relocated by the government," she says. Moreover, Gabriel opines that a half-ban on plastic has not been able to solve the problem and a demand for a complete ban is important. "The people living in these areas are not aware of the heavy or light plastic and nor do they have the time to understand which ones can cause less or major harm to the environment. They already have a lot of issues to deal with. So, apart from the awareness programmes, it is important to impose a blanket ban and fine on the production and the usage of plastics," she says adding that plastics are one of the major causes of blockage in the Mithi River.
Having worked for years, Gabriel also states that the government can take small steps like pasting posters on the doors of the settlements aiming to make them aware of the problems of the river they live around. "Mumbai, irrespective of the municipalities and the government doing their work still gets flooded every year during the monsoon. Hence, it is high time that things like 'Ocean Literature', 'Climate and Environmental Education' should be enforced by the government in the curriculum so that the young minds can go back to their communities with the same knowledge," she says. "We want young students to retrace their steps: take a step back and study why the plastics end up in the ocean. To determine and understand the source of plastic is more important for both citizens and the concerned officials," she adds.
A still taken by Parmatma Prasad during the tenure of his experimental project on the Mithi River
Parmatma Prasad, who worked on the revival of the Mithi river, along with professor Shyam Asholekar and Rakesh Kumar of the IIT-Bombay for three years on an academic project funded by the European Union further highlights that during their time of research between 2013 to 2016, they had observed that no development had changed the condition of the river since 2005. Prasad who took out several samples of the silt deposits in the river realised that it was already covered with enough pollutants leaving no chance for even the minimum level of water purity and hence, was hazardous to use. As a matter of fact, the ICAR-CIFE had, long back, already declared that Mahim Creek "cannot sustain the aquatic life". "To date, the silt deposits have made the width of the river narrower and nothing much has been done in that regard," he said.
A few years ago, both the BMC and the MMRDA began constructing retaining walls alongside the river in their designated areas. However, Prasad, who is currently involved in the waste management business, argues that the construction of these retaining walls, without proper consideration, has restricted the flow of water and has also disrupted its interaction with the surrounding forests. "The river needs breathing space, which has been obstructed, causing it to eventually become nullahs," he says. In the early months of this year, the BMC initiated the filtration of water and established a sewage treatment plant near Powai Garden. Still, Prasad, the founder of Natural Environmental Engineering and Management, emphasizes the importance of setting up smaller systems for local residents first to prevent waste from entering the river.
Parmatma Prasad suggests the installation of such decentralised bins to prevent the waste being thrown to the Mithi river.
Prasad, while talking to Local Samosa, proposes various plans to meet the problems of the Mithi river and discusses the solution by saying that the usage of decentralized plants and composting bins in the human settlements can help in solving the problem. He, who has provided such small composting bins to various private and government buildings in Mumbai mentioned that composters can fit into the small space and help the citizens to compost their waste easily. "Currently, the BMC sells the waste and is involved in the monetisation process out of it but if the civic body considers the installation of such bins that segregate the wet, recyclable, and disposable garbage and put up the human resources for the handling of such machines in the local settlements, a lot of waste can be stopped from getting thrown at the river," the 39-year-old says. Moreover, as the rainwater descends with a lot of debris from the hilly areas of Mumbai to the Mithi River, Prasad recommends a high level of silt traps in these regions, to protect both the river and the local community.
During one of the interviews with Local Samosa, A. Sharun, the Chief Design Officer from the Environmentalist Foundation of India, a Chennai-based wildlife conservation and habitat restoration group mentioned that as compared to the lakes, the size of a river is big, and hence, becomes hard for the restoration. He also said, "We have spoken a lot about the environmental issues and are already aware of the problems. It's only the actions that can make a difference. And, it's time to take action and turn the thoughts into acts." Unfortunately, similar has been the case with the Mithi river for a very long time now, and even after various such deliberations on the solutions, the fact is, the ill-fate of the Mithi and the people living around it have remained the same — both of whom without which this river ecosystem can't sustain for longer.