Mixing Business & Filth (Pix: Author)
"No one has spared the Mithi river. Not the slums, the encroaching factories, the MMRDA, the BMC and definitely not Mumbai's airport," says Virendra Dube sounding more sad than upset as he points in the direction of the terminals and aircraft in the distance. We've walked in from the main Kurla-Andheri road in north Mumbai, dodging all forms of garbage puddles and piles of excavated earth. We are standing on a patch of field that's covered with mud gouged out from the little hills behind us and gazing at the aircraft lining up for take-off.
There is little that separates us, the shit, the stray dogs poking through the garbage, a few small boys playing cricket and the Boeing 737-800 presently hunkering near the end of the taxiway. I am gripped with a sudden urge to wade through the foot-deep `nullah' (better known as the Mithi river), cross the breached wall and charge onto the taxiway, perhaps waving my shirt as I go.
Not much would be accomplished, except that the pilots and passengers would get a royal scare. Maybe the terminal would shut down for a few hours..so much for airport security anyway.
Last Opportunity ?
The Boeing's turbines power up with a huge roar, the aircraft shudders and is off, tearing down the runway before lifting off in the distance, banking right as it climbs into the sky. Virendra Dube has seen this sight many times, he lives near by. He is a BJP party worker and my tour guide for the day, in our journey up the Mithi river. The patch of field we are standing on housed a large group of slums which were demolished only a few months ago and will soon become an extended taxiway to the main runway.
The High Court initiated demolitions of the encroachments along the river have already begun and this is perhaps one of the last opportunities to get a final close-up view of what really turned the river into a monster that on July 26, 2005 destroying life and property. And there is Dube - who, a member of the Mithi River Monitoring Committee, knows every bend in the river, so to speak.
The journey shows up what is already well documented: reckless encroachments, indiscriminate polluting of the 14.5 km river and the collective failure of the authorities to spot, prevent and control both. What it does not show goes beyond the sheer filth and decay; it reveals a (human) disregard for environment which is so basic and so staggering that no amount of demolitions can ever address it. And that is an issue Mumbai is not even close to grappling with and no court can ever hope to resolve.
Mixing Business & Filth
Dube and I started out earlier at the Bandra Kurla Complex, a commercial district which must be unique in the contrast between the riches that lie within its mammoth glass paneled buildings and the decay that flows outside. From a vantage point on a bridge that crosses the Mithi river, one can see a mini skyline of the National Stock Exchange building and pharmaceutical major Wockhardt's HQ on one side, the slums of Bandra East on the other and the river, a turgid mass in its final lap before it hits the Arabian sea.
Mounds of plastic, industrial and other wastes lie on both banks, rising to the point where the shanties begin. There is no organized waste disposal here except perhaps to chuck it behind and forget about it. The shanties typically have their backs to the river, almost like they can live with it as long as they don't have to see it. And for all the debate that was generated about the wastes choking the river, here, on ground, nothing has changed.
As we begin driving north, we stop at several points, including a few which are now marked by the visits of politicians. "This is where Gopinath Munde began his tour," says Dube as we get off the car and walk into a group of three, somewhat dilapidated buildings, not far from the airport. Garbage lies everywhere we walk ahead. There is no gate so no one stops us. Three little girls skip past, hand in hand, singing a song which appears to imply harmony.
Are'nt We To Blame ?
We reach the edge, rest a foot on a low wall and look at the river flowing past. To the left, through the wall of the river bank, a pipe discharges a viscous liquid, an industrial effluent of some sort. A little further upstream, a few young boys are actually playing around in the water. To the right, where the river curves past us, on the other bank, men sift through heaps of plastic rags.
An hour or so later, we crawl into the sprawl that's Saki Naka, an industrial and now residential suburb of north Mumbai. The river seems to flow more freely here though like everywhere else, the banks of the river are a favourite dumping ground, even where spanking new residential complexes have come up. Everyone treats their wastes similarly.
While the likes of Dube admit that no one can escape blame in turning the river into a flowing weapon of mass destruction on July 26, local residents blame airport authorities, the MMRDA and so on. The airport authority has for instance built walls, forcing the river to turn almost 90 degrees. It was in these very areas that the water rose close to 15 feet, killing scores. Yet, no one appears to be blame themselves.
For now, demolitions are expected to clear upto 15 metres on either side of the river and then go upto 30 metres all the way. At one of our stops, near his building society, Dube points to a small independent house more than 30 metres away from the river. "They've been here for more than 30 years. And they've got notices. What do they do ?" A few men huddled outside a small cigarette shop stop Dube and show him a story on the forthcoming demolitions in the day's paper. He assures them they will not be affected.
The city is sinking. Under the weight of its own garbage which it does not want to dispose off and would, in large parts, live with it. The area along the Mithi river, particularly in the Kalina, Kurla and Saki Naka areas, is extremely vibrant as a hub of commercial activity. A whole variety of small businesses thrive in the bazaars here. Shops hawk everything from mutton to lathe machines and auto parts to scrap and recycled lubricants, often cheek by jowl.
And for all the throb of commerce and for the profits that are surely generated, there is no desire not to stuff pollutants into the environment, leave along keeping it pro-actively clean. A businessman may recycle oil illegally but must he also discharge the effluents right in the backyard ? Can he not comprehend the damage that he is doing to the environment and possibly himself ? These are questions that come to mind and the answers are not quite there.
Dumping The Problem
The Mithi river cleanup action, triggered by a petition filed by former BJP MP Kirit Somaiyya does not and quite rightly cannot address the fundamental issues of environmental engagement - incidentally Dube works with Somaiyya. Dumping garbage is not just a Mithi river problem. Its a phenomenon that permeates the entire city – the Mithi was convenient because people thought the flowing water would wash everything away. Addressing it means educating grown-up adults about basic civic sense and responsibility. Unless that is done, the river will return to where it started.
Gently As She Overflows
We finally reach the mouth of the Mithi in the afternoon, at the Vihar lake up north. The lake looks picturesque, shimmering silently against the hills in the background, overflowing gently into a small pond where a group of young boys are bathing and splashing around. There is no sign of the man-made devastation that will begin a few kilometers downstream.
To Work & Back, Without Polluting Anywhere (Pix: Author)
Vihar is surrounded by villages. We stop to ask two old ladies carrying wood which one they hail from. They answer and trudge along. They seem to be more aware of their environment than the rest of the city. They perhaps respect it as well and have not suffered the way the rest of the city has. The city folks could learn a few things from them.
(The original appeared in Hindustan Times, Mumbai on 11 October, Pix to be posted !)