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Home > News> Talking Point > Diwali Special: After the Ganges, Mumbai’s Mithi river gets a rejuvenation drive

Diwali Special: After the Ganges, Mumbai’s Mithi river gets a rejuvenation drive

Mumbai-based Lawyer Afroz Shah, named UN Environment Champion in 2016, has started a clean-up campaign for the choked Mumbai river

Afroz Shah (left) with a volunteer at Versova beach in Mumbai.
Afroz Shah (left) with a volunteer at Versova beach in Mumbai. (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

The night before my first beach clean-up, I looked up the shared document that was pinned to Afroz Shah’s Twitter page.

Along with information for Week 206 (Devachi Wadi, Versova beach, 8am on 29 September), there was a short primer on the movement’s goals, and an exhortation to join the “constant work every Saturday and Sunday for past three and a half years"—work which has drawn hundreds of thousands of volunteers to Shah’s cause and seen the 37-year-old counsel with the Bombay high court named a UN Champion of the Earth in December 2016.

I reached early the following morning, expecting to be among the first volunteers. The beach was swarming. There must have been 400 people. Unlike me, they seemed to know what to do, donning disposable gloves, picking up plastic and other waste, shaking them free of sand, depositing them in large tubs. A couple of earth-movers roved around, digging up garbage that had settled too deep for human hands to pry out. Completed piles were added to the hill-like deposit away from the water, which would later be taken away by a Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC) truck.

This has been the scene on Versova beach ever since Shah started picking up garbage on his own, in 2015.

I caught up with Shah. We were both wearing gloves, so he offered a fist-bump instead of a handshake. He put the number of volunteers at 700. “This is too many people," he admitted. “One hundred would be better."

The following Sunday, I reached Filter Pada, a slum near Aarey Colony in Powai, for Shah’s Mithi River Rejuvenation drive (the same week, there were drives at Versova, Dana Pani beach in Malad and Sanjay Gandhi National Park, as well as in Goa, Kolkata and Meghalaya). It took a while for Shah’s team to reach. On the night of 4 October, 29 people protesting the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation’s tree felling in Aarey had been arrested. Several volunteers arrived on the morning of 6 October, only to find the police had cordoned off the area—and had to head back home.

The Versova clean-ups often draw over a thousand volunteers. On 2 October, a public holiday, 4,500 people turned out, volunteer Punit Punamiya tells me as we stand in a corner of Filter Pada’s Shiv temple waiting for the team to arrive. The turnout for a Mithi clean-up is usually between 50-400. There were around 40 volunteers the day I went. “Right now you can’t get inside the river," Punamiya says. “After November, we will start calling kids."

After his success at Versova—23 million kilograms of garbage cleared and, in 2018, the return of Olive Ridley turtle hatchlings to the beach—Shah had turned his attention to the Mithi. The river originates around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in north Mumbai, is fed with the overflow of the Vihar and Powai lakes, and flows into Mahim Bay and the Arabian Sea. This roughly 18km stretch runs through residential and industrial areas, its path diverted over the years by construction for the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport, the upscale Bandra Kurla Complex and other projects.

Once upon a time, the story goes, Mithi’s water was extremely clean. “I have met people who told me they would do wuzu (ritual cleaning) with that water before saying their prayers," says Murtaza Sadriwala of the Dawoodi Bohra community, which teamed up with Shah a year ago (they had been one of the larger groups on Versova beach the previous week). But years of sewage, chemical pollutants and garbage have choked the river.

In 2005, in the midst of an exceptionally heavy monsoon, the Mithi overflowed its banks, exacerbating a flood situation which claimed over 500 lives. This drew attention to the levels of pollution but matters haven’t improved since. This September, after heavy rain, the Mithi again broke its banks, submerging railway tracks, and forcing the evacuation of more than a thousand people who were living it.

The day I visited Filter Pada, the Mithi’s waters were too high for a proper clean-up. As a dozen or so volunteers picked and bagged whatever waste they could find on the banks, Ranveer, a long-time volunteer, showed me a bioremediation method they had set up earlier this year: activated charcoal placed in the soil which intercepts the sewage emerging from Filter Pada and releases relatively clean flow into the river. It worked until the rains started in earnest and it got choked, but Shah says they will get it running again, this time with a cover that will keep the mud out.

From its inception in November last year, community outreach has been a big part of the Mithi clean-up drive. “They used to burn the plastic before we got them to stop," Ranveer says. Sadriwala adds: “We would wear masks. Now we don’t have to do that." Shah realized that convincing people living along the river to not dump or burn their plastic was as crucial as the actual cleaning, if not more. So he and his team started knocking on Filter Pada’s doors, asking the people to store their solid waste, with the assurance that they would come by every weekend and pick it up.

Initially, they were ignored. Some assumed they were workers with a political party. Aaqib Shaikh, a third-year college student and resident of Filter Pada who now volunteers with Shah, says: “We had seen a few cleanliness drives before, so we didn’t pay much attention. But when they kept coming back week after week, we took them seriously." The volunteers would also cook food for about 50-100 people, and take it with them to the colony. They began by canvassing with 1,500 houses, Punamiya says, and now cover 3,000 houses every week.

I walked through the narrow lanes behind Ranveer, a gunny sack in my hand. He stopped at each door, knocked once if it was closed, and shouted cheerily: “Sookha kachra (dry waste)." Someone—generally a woman or a child—would emerge and empty a pile of plastic into his sack. If a household told them they didn’t have anything, he would ask them to collect and keep the following week. A couple of the rooms had already hung the dry waste outside in a packet.

All this was happening at almost a running pace, with volunteers in multiple lanes. The colony is divided among them, with individuals taking responsibility for collection and education in their assigned territories.

I was walking down a gully behind a young volunteer, Dinesh Awari, who was stressing the importance of turning up week after week, so that “his" houses eventually tired of reminders and started saving their plastic. Midway, he turned and said we could head back. The families up ahead hadn’t been explained how to segregate yet; he would get to them in the coming weeks.

As we stood in a clearing, waiting for empty sacks to arrive, three boys from the chawl, likely between the ages of 7-10, came up to us. A volunteer took the opportunity to impart a quick lesson—don’t throw your chips packet away, it makes its way to sea and fish eat it. One of the boys seemed worried that we were going to skip his house, reminding me twice to come by. Another ran off, singing “Plastic, apun ka (my) plastic."

It’s no wonder Shah’s efforts have increasingly focused on capturing the minds of younger volunteers. He does speaking engagements in schools on a regular basis, and has a dedicated team just for outreach with this demographic.

After the collection is done, a tempo carries the waste to Andheri, where it is first segregated and then sent for recycling. In a few weeks, the river cleaning will start in earnest as well. “It’s not as exotic as a beach clean-up," Punamiya says drily. It’s also less likely to show encouraging results, at least in the short term—in a year, they have cleaned 1.25km of the river. Shah estimates it will take them at least five years to cover the Mithi’s 18km. “It will take much more until we hasten. We have over 20 million people. The whole city seems to be sleeping."


Need to know: Volunteers should be prepared to work in unsanitary conditions.

You could also: Help with outreach and plastic collection in your own neighbourhood.

Essentials: Gumboots are advised for Mithi clean-ups. Disposable gloves are provided.

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