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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

‘Building walls along rivers will turn them into nullahs’

Rajendra Singh was in Mumbai and Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) a few weeks back to spearhead the ‘Virasat Yatra for Eco-Restoration of Water Bodies’ following which he met the state environment minister and officials and offered suggestions on the condition of water bodies that are facing challenges such as pollution and encroachment.

Written by Laxman Singh | Mumbai |
Updated: April 25, 2022 10:02:22 am
There has been no change for Mithi over the years; in fact, from being a river, it has been turned into a nullah by incarceration with the help of walls built along the banks.

Water bodies need to be conserved and protected at all costs as they play an important role in tackling extreme weather events, according to Magsaysay awardee Rajendra Singh, also known as ‘Waterman of India’. Singh was in Mumbai and Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) a few weeks back to spearhead the ‘Virasat Yatra for Eco-Restoration of Water Bodies’ following which he met the state environment minister and officials and offered suggestions on the condition of water bodies that are facing challenges such as pollution and encroachment. In an interview with Laxman Singh, the water conservationist throws further 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) subsistence, which are driving life. These include places, persons and pilgrimage that give happiness, honour and inspiration for subsistence. Without water, we can’t imagine our life. There are hundreds of places in India where water conservation has been going on for thousands of years. All these water bodies are our Virasat (legacy). They are known by different names such as dam, pond, lake, river, wetlands and creeks. The purpose of Virasat Yatra was to promote attachment and consciousness among people about these legacies so that water bodies are not encroached upon, put out or polluted. On one end, we want to make the society aware of the importance of water bodies, and on the other we aim to tell governments to take appropriate action to conserve and protect these water bodies and their catchment area.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) rejuvenation projects of three rivers – Dahisar, Poisar and Oshiwara/Walbhat — are facing criticism from environmentalists over concretisation and alleged change in natural course. What is your view on this?

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I agree with local citizens’ concerns regarding these rivers. During the Virasat Yatra, I visited these rivers. While widening these rivers, the authorities are incarcerating them with walls built along with banks. By doing this, rivers are being turned into nullah. By using cement and concrete in rivers, they are killing them since there will be no recharge. The rivers will die with such kind of actions as their natural course will be altered. These projects are not for rejuvenating rivers but for financial gains. Even in the past, I had protested when concretisation work was going on in Dahisar.

In 2004, during the first padyatra in Mumbai, it was being said that there are no rivers in the city and these four rivers (Mithi, Dahisar, Poisar and Oshiwara) were termed as nullahs. We campaigned and made the citizens aware about these rivers. They become nullah because of pollution caused by us. There are three threats to these rivers— encroachment, exploitation of water, and pollution caused by discharging wastewater and garbage into the water body.

You have also visited Mithi River. Do you find any significant change in the river’s condition over the years?

In the past, I have done padyatra from the origin of Mithi River to where it meets the Arabian Sea. During the journey, I have seen the entire catchment area and streams of Mithi. There has been no change for Mithi over the years; in fact, from being a river, it has been turned into a nullah by incarceration with the help of walls built along the banks. At many locations, the natural flow that was going through mangroves has been changed (due to development works along the river). The pollution has also increased despite so much money being spent on cleaning and rejuvenation of the river. Mithi River’s scourge is the absence of clean water and natural streams. But instead of finding a solution to that, they built walls. This will not make the river better.

Recently, a report from IPCC had warned about rise in sea level and extreme weather events such as heavy rains and floods in cities like Mumbai due to climate change. Do you think water bodies in the city will be helpful in facing the impact of climate change?

Despite the IPCC report, the government is going ahead with projects like coastal road that could prove a disaster ecologically as well as economically. Cities are facing the threat of sea rise and the government is reclaiming the coast; the ignorance of the government will not help the situation.

We need to conserve and protect water bodies as they play an important role in tackling extreme weather events.

After your yatra, you met state environment minister Aaditya Thackeray and other officials concerned. What suggestions did you give to them?

The city and nearby areas are facing water issues. One reason for this problem is pollution. There has been an increase in floods in Mumbai and nearby areas. If you want to tackle floods, catchment areas of all the rivers and other water bodies should be rejuvenated so that rainwater can be stored naturally. This will help in reducing the floods. The minister and officials were positive. However, there needs to be action on ground. In the past, suggestions given for water bodies were not followed.

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