On a cold January morning last year, Astik Kumar Pandey stood by the banks of the Morna river in Akola, Maharashtra, with his gloves and gumboots on, unsure of whether weeks of appeal had had any impact on residents.
To the surprise of the newly appointed district collector, nearly 6,000 farmers, government officials and locals arrived. That was the beginning of the citizens’ movement to clean the Morna river. In the three months that followed, 28,000 locals participated in the weekly clean-up drive. According to district records, 19,300 water hyacinths and 8,440 plastic articles were removed from the ‘river-turned-nullah’.
Now, a year-and-a-half since the drive was initiated, two sewage treatment plants to treat the city’s liquid waste stand near the river. Its mud-caked banks are lined with 182 new solar lights, and the area, which was once an open defecation spot, is slowly transforming into a jogging track.
On August 21, Pandey was among 15 district magistrates to be honoured with The Indian Express Excellence in Governance Awards that celebrated the finest work done by DMs across the country.
“It was challenging but the citizens of Akola were very energetic. They came forward, and with the help of the district administration, the municipal corporation, tehsildars and local NGOs, participated in the drive. It gave a new direction to the whole city, citizens began to think about pure air and water,” Pandey said after receiving the award.
The Morna flows through the centre of ‘cotton city’ Akola for nearly eight km before joining the Poorna river. A native of Lucknow, where rivers hold high value, when Pandey first saw the Morna in 2017, it was choked with hyacinths. Thirty-two major and minor nullahs running haphazardly around the city also dumped their waste into the river. Till then, the Akola district office had been paying private contractors an annual amount of Rs 38 lakh to clean the river.
The collector’s office decided to cancel the contract. In January 2018, as part of a measure that district officials and locals thought would be a “failure”, Pandey announced he would visit the river every Saturday and clean it. “When the collector’s office first floated the idea, people feared they would get infected if they got into the river,” says local corporator Kiran Borakhade.
Soon, newspaper ads inviting participation and funds were published. Local politicians were urged to shoot a minute-long video pledging support to the campaign. And, before the drive began, seven meetings were held to chalk out the modus operandi. Eventually, 128 NGOs also joined the drive.
To begin the cleaning process, 14 points were marked along the banks of the river for locals. Kailash Shirsath, a Class 12 student, had joined the drive with two of his friends. “We would pick plastic bottles floating in water and help load hyacinth removed from river onto trucks,” he says.
With a paucity of funds, some residents and government officials developed their own tools to clean the river — like a volleyball net to remove hyacinths — while others donated funds meant for their birthday celebrations to the drive. In all, Rs 17 lakh came in from public donations.
For the solar lights on the riverbank, scrapped poles of the Maharashtra electricity board were repainted and used, said an administration official. “Forty expert divers would dive to the middle of river to push the waste towards the banks, after which locals would pick it up and transfer it to the trucks. It took 12 weeks for the stench from the river to go… We call this a citizen-private-government model. It was a ‘jugaad’ clean-up,” says Pandey, who has since been appointed the district collector of Beed.
Kamlesh Shah, a hotel manager who lives near the collector’s office, says the drive picked up pace when Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised the initiative on his radio programme Mann ki Baat. “It made the collector a popular figure. He was always on the move,” he says.
Eventually, people also developed an emotional bond with the project, says Santosh Agrawal, a clerk at the collector’s office.
After the garbage and hyacinths were removed, a Rs 4 crore project plan was approved by the state finance minister for the upkeep and beautification of Morna river. A boating space, badminton court and recreational space on the lines of the Sabarmati river front, are planned for the future.
In January this year, when Pandey was transferred to Beed, the district administration feared that the project would fizzle out. “But when the hyacinths grew, locals volunteered and cleaned the river,” an official said.