Driving assessment

“Building walls along rivers will turn them into nullahs”

Water bodies must be conserved and protected at all costs as they play an important role in combating extreme weather events, according to Laureate Magsaysay Rajendra Singh, also known as the “Waterman of India”. Singh was in Mumbai and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) a few weeks ago to lead the “Virasat Yatra for Eco-restoration of Water Bodies”, after which he met with the Minister of Environment and state officials and offered suggestions on the state of water bodies that are facing challenges such as pollution and encroachment. In an interview with Laxman Singh, the water advocate sheds additional light on his visit, his assessment of rivers in the city and beyond, and climate change. Excerpts:

What was the purpose of your recent visit to Mumbai and MMR for “Virasat Yatra”?

Virasat means life and (means of) sustenance, which is the engine of life. These include places, people and pilgrimages that give happiness, honor and inspiration for sustenance. Without water, we cannot imagine our life. There are hundreds of places in India where water conservation has been going on for thousands of years. All these bodies of water are our Virasat (legacy). They are known by different names such as dam, pond, lake, river, wetlands and streams. The purpose of Virasat Yatra was to promote attachment and awareness among people of these heritages so that water bodies would not be encroached, extinguished or polluted. On the one hand, we want to raise awareness in society about the importance of water bodies, and on the other hand, we aim to tell governments to take the appropriate measures to conserve and protect these water bodies and their catchment areas. .

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) three-river rejuvenation projects – Dahisar, Poisar and Oshiwara/Walbhat – are facing criticism from environmentalists over the realization and alleged change of the natural course. What is your opinion on that?

I agree with the concerns of local citizens regarding these rivers. During the Virasat Yatra, I visited these rivers. By widening these rivers, the authorities enclose them with walls built along the banks. By doing this, the rivers are turned into nullah. By using cement and concrete in the rivers, they kill them since there will be no recharge. Rivers will die with such actions that their natural course will be altered. These projects are not aimed at rejuvenating the rivers but at financial gain. Even in the past, I had protested when concretization works were taking place in Dahisar.

In 2004, during the first padyatra in Mumbai, it was said that there were no rivers in the city and these four rivers (Mithi, Dahisar, Poisar and Oshiwara) were referred to as nullahs. We campaigned and raised awareness about these rivers. They become nullah because of the pollution caused by us. There are three threats to these rivers: encroachment, water exploitation, and pollution caused by the dumping of sewage and waste into the water body.

You also visited the Mithi River. Do you find a significant change in the state of the river over the years?

In the past, I have done padyatra from the origin of the Mithi River to its meeting point with the Arabian Sea. During the trip I saw the whole catchment area and the streams of Mithi. There have been no changes for Mithi over the years; in fact, from a river, it was transformed into a nullah by incarceration using walls built along the banks. In many places the natural flow through the mangroves has been altered (due to development works along the river). Pollution has also increased despite so much money being spent on cleaning up and rejuvenating the river. The scourge of the Mithi River is the lack of drinking water and natural streams. But instead of finding a solution to that, they built walls. It will not improve the river.

Recently, an IPCC report had warned of rising sea levels and extreme weather events such as heavy rains and floods in cities like Mumbai due to climate change. Do you think the city’s water bodies will be helpful in coping with the impact of climate change?

Despite the IPCC report, the government is moving forward with projects like the coastal road which could prove to be a disaster both ecologically and economically. Cities face the threat of rising waters and the government reclaims the coast; government ignorance will not help the situation.

We must conserve and protect water bodies as they play an important role in combating extreme weather events.

After your yatra, you met with Environment Minister Aaditya Thackeray and other relevant officials. What suggestions did you make to them?

The city and its surroundings are facing water problems. One of the reasons for this problem is pollution. There has been an increase in flooding in Mumbai and neighboring areas. If you want to combat flooding, the catchments of all rivers and other water bodies must be rejuvenated so that rainwater can be stored naturally. This will help reduce flooding. The minister and officials were positive. However, action must be taken on the ground. In the past, the suggestions given for water bodies were not followed.