Our friend’s son turned 1 recently. We asked him what gift he bought for his son. He said I made a promise to him this birthday. What kind of promise, we wondered. He said I promised my son that on his 10th birthday, we would go for a swim in Mutha river.
River? This River? This sewage canal, the garbage dump that flows through the city? THIS RIVER you are talking about? Are you serious? Why? Of all the places, why the hell this river? Aren’t there enough swimming pools in the city?
He smiled and said there is a promise within this promise. I in turn promised him that this river will be clean by the time he turns 10. I wish to leave behind a “Living” river for him and his generation.
Our first thought was he is mad; does he have any idea what he is talking about? It’s a herculean task and he surely is no Hercules.
But if he is mad, believe me he has pulled us into his madness. Since our conversation, this river has been on our mind constantly. We started hunting for material about it, its history, transformations it has gone through and started wondering about why it has come to this state it is in. This river which starts its journey in the Sahyadri ranges and finally drains into the Bay of Bengal is more ancient than Ganga and Yamuna.
In the past, its banks had dense forests with animals like elephants inhabiting there. Like all civilizations, earlier settlers resided near the river banks. Some stone tools were discovered in the area indicating human settlements near its banks as back as 40,000 years.
Confluence of two rivers is considered holy in our culture and hence the city located on confluence of Mutha and Mula river came to be known as Punya nagari (Holy City), later Pune.
In the year 1961, Pune city faced devastating floods in the aftermath of Panshet and Khadakwasla dam collapse. Along with the loss of lives and sever damage to property, Pune city lost beauty of its river bank, probably forever. Even till then, banks boasted beautiful shrubbery and graceful gardens from Peshwe era. A survey conducted by Dr. Vartak in 1954-55, had revealed 400 species of flora, including some 200 varieties with medicinal properties, useful to humans. There were large trees, groves, farms and gardens along the banks.
Floods destroyed these gardens and the silt they carried got deposited on banks that provided breeding ground to mosquitos. Prior to this incidence, Pune city was not infected with mosquitos, which is now really hard to believe.
From October 1982 to March 1983, Ecological Society conducted a survey in the same area to understand the situation then. Survey was based on parameters like water quality, pollution level, flora and fauna in and around river water and banks, land use pattern of river banks etc.
Ambil and Nagzari streams have dense populations on the banks and hence bring a lot of polluted water which they drain into Mutha near Dattawadi. From this point till its confluence with Mula, what Mutha carries is really sewage water not suitable for any kind of use. River banks once green and beautiful are mere garbage dumps now.
Waters of Mula is equally polluted if not more. Pavana, a tributary to Mula brings with it pollution from the industrial belt of Pimpri and Chinchwad.
Polluted water contains less of oxygen which affects flora and fauna. Only those plants and insects that can survive in lesser proportion of oxygen flourish here. Such plants mostly are what we call weed. They are useful neither to humans nor to cattle. The biodiversity that Dr. Vartak had observed and noted in 1954-55 was almost gone by the time of survey by Ecological Society, and situation would be more tragic now.
Even the fish found in the river is not of good quality. It is hard to imagine now but once upon a time, fishery used to be a major activity on this river. Now fish, big enough and suitable to eat are found only for a short time period, right after monsoon. Depleting levels of oxygen kill off fish in large numbers.
Birds act as indicators of health of ecosystem. Unlike flora, they are mobile and they can move to areas favorable to them easily, compared to other animals. When ecosystem conditions change, the birds adversely affected move away and that niche is occupied by those species for which new conditions are favorable. With changing water quality of Mutha, the bird species that can be observed in and around the river have changed. Birds like Egret, Stilt, Pond Heron, Wagtails, Cormorants that eat worms and insects flourishing in sewage water have increased. They especially are seen in large numbers where Ambil and Nagzari streams merge into Mutha. Kingfisher is not as abundant as it used to be since it needs clear water to spot fish from a height. Even the migratory ducks here are those that survive on the insects on or near water surface. The ones that dive into water to catch insects or eat plants no longer visit. Plants that need clean water are gone and so the birds that survive on them like Jacana (kamalpakshi) and Water hen (pankombadi).
Aldo Leopold writes in Sand County Almanac, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”
In that quote lies the reason why we are so indifferent to our river, whose very water we depend on for our survival.
As the settlements started growing around, the river was the only source of water. In the 18th century, under the reign of Nanasaheb Peshwe, first well was dug. Eventually all major ministers in the Peshwedarbaar had well in the court yard of their residence. This reduced people’s direct dependence on river for drinking water, though washing clothes and utensils in river water continued.
Almost all residences (Wada) had their own well by the time of Sawai Madhavrao Peshwe, i.e. late 18th century. In his era itself, under the guidance of Nana Phadanwis, water from streams near Katraj and Kondhwe was brought into the city though an intrinsic network of underground canals. This reduced daily contact Pune residents had with the river water. The year 1860 brought a major change to this city when the British declared Pune as their “Monsoon Capital”. British Governor started residing in the city and Mutha River saw a major transformation in the form of Khadakwasala dam. Dam construction was complete by 1879 and through the right canal water was transferred to the Water Purification Centre to be distributed to the city. Now water requirements were fulfilled completely through dam reservoir. River became only a water body which one occasionally comes across while crossing the bridge. Now with fast paced life where crossing the bridge is merely going from one signal to the other, the existence of river underneath is forgotten. An exceptional heavy monsoon some year provides a glimpse of what this river would have been once, but that lease of life is really short-lived.
Disconnect towards this very vital resource breeds indifference towards it. The settlers who went to river every day to fetch drinking water could have littered the bank and water? Wouldn’t they have been worried about changing flora and fauna of river? Wouldn’t they be sensitive to these indicators of nature? Wouldn’t they have wondered what they should do to ensure a living river for their future generations?
Unfortunately this is not a story of a river; it is the story of almost every river in India.
Easter Islanders cut down all the trees, which were vital for their survival. What the islander that cut down that last tree must have thought? Or he did not know it was the last tree until all the tree cover was gone? What he must have thought in the retrospect? Will he do the same thing again if he has to do it all over again?
What is the relevance of Easter Island story with the story of our river? Are we down to that ’last tree’ as far as the river is concerned? Is my friend totally unreasonable in supposing he can do something to revive it? And if not, what should we be doing?
– Aditi Deodhar
Prakash Gole, Ranawa
Avinash Sovani, Ek Dubaki Muthechya Itihasaat, Maze Punyabhushan, Diwali 2013
Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed