Breathing life into the dying rivers of Pune!

Mutha, the lifeline of Pune city (Image Source: India Water Portal)
Mutha, the lifeline of Pune city (Image Source: India Water Portal)

In this year’s India Rivers Week (IRW), Jeevitnadi, an organisation working on rivers in Pune city received the prestigious Bhagirath Prayaas Samman for its exemplary work on spreading awareness and undertaking steps to change the situation of rivers in the city!

The award, constituted by India Rivers Forum, recognises the unsung heroes for their outstanding and sustained efforts towards protection and conservation of rivers.

We speak to Shailaja Deshpande, Director of Jeevitnadi to know about how Jeevitnadi was founded,  its journey over the years and the future directions.

Why and how was Jeevitnadi founded?

We, the founders of Jeevitnadi started our journey as participant alumni of the Ecological Society post graduate course on Sustainable Management of Natural Resources & Nature Conservation.

I think the course changed us, it got us thinking. We began to become more sensitive to environmental issues and our restlessness to do something got us together. We started questioning and thinking about every action that could pose as a threat to the environment. This was also a time when Professor Gole, the founder of Ecological Society passed away and we felt even more committed to take his teachings forward, but were still not sure what direction to take.

One event happened over the course of this period that showed us the way to move ahead. One of our founder members invited us to his son’s birthday and expressed the wish of his son to swim in the Mutha river in Pune, which seemed like an impossible task to all! We realised that the river was so dirty that it was impossible even to dip a finger in its waters, leave aside the idea of swimming in the river, a horrifying thought indeed!

This triggered a discussion and we all started reminiscing about the rivers in Pune and how we could swim into the river Mutha when we were young and how young kids were now missing this opportunity to connect with the river. This discussion I think served as a trigger point and motivated all of us to start working on rivers. We thought, why not collectively do something in Pune itself? We soon realised that this was a common interest and passion that we all shared and decided to start working in this direction, although we were still not sure about where we wanted to start.  

We started by first exploring the study done by Professor Gole  in1982 on the Mutha riverfront that followed the river right from the Khadakwasla dam to Yeravada area in the city and started tracing the river from the dam into the city. But we soon realised that what was mentioned in the study about the river had changed drastically over the years. We looked for stream networks, historical references on streams, which too had changed.

For example, the stream Nagzari in Pune city was known as Nagatirtha in olden times and it used to have holy waters that were used to cure skin diseases.

We were shocked as the stream is now just a nala with sewage! We were saddened, but this further strengthened our resolve to work on the water bodies in the city!

How did your work start and what are the activities that Jeevitnadi has undertaken?

We then started talking to experts and met Dr Rajguru who has done extensive archeological surveys on the Mutha river. We then went to the Mutha source and tried to understand archeological features and then thought of doing something that would help people connect to the history of the river. This is when we began our first Muthai festival in 2015 where we planned to talk to the people about the history of the river Mutha.

The river walk (Image Source: Jeevitnadi)
The river walk (Image Source: Jeevitnadi)

We launched a unique River walk to make people understand the river better, This is one of our signature programmes even today. We got a tremendous response and realised that people were interested and came in large numbers to know about their river! We decided that we would turn this into a regular activity. This is how we started our weekly river walk on the banks of the Mutha!

We also displayed the “ Story of a River”, an exhibition to narrate the story of the river Mutha. that explained the history, geography, ecology and current state of the river in a simple pictorial form. We also took this exhibition to schools and talked with students and also to people in the corporate sector, appealing to them to reach the  river.

We collaborated with Janavani - an organisation, which conducted regular heritage walks in the city and told them that we wanted to talk about the natural history of the river. We scripted the story and they provided the logistics. We continued this activity for two years, which continues even today.

The first Muthai festival was a learning process and an experience in itself, right from talking to the police and the Regional Transport Office (RTO) to connecting with different departments of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) and sending invitations and appeals to the  community. We created a variety of programmes throughout the week and organised a fifteen minute cleanup  challenge on Gandhi Jayanti on Baba Bhide bridge in the city.

We did not expect such a tremendous response! A large number of people started gathering and participating in the 15 minute cleanup challenge. In one hour we had four buses of college students coming for the cleanup and we ran out of gloves and cleaning equipment and had to run to shops to get it!

The exhibition on the 'Story of a river' too was a big hit. Last two days, we had a 'paint the river' and 'clean the river' activity for which all artists and photo enthusiasts from Pune came on the river banks and painted and cleaned with the children. We ran out of paint, pencils and crayons! Then looking at the response, we put up all the paintings in a hall on the last day. Here too, a lot of people came triggering discussions on the state of the river in the city.

One of the senior scientists from our group suggested that we work on the issue of river pollution. We got trained on issues related to river pollution and launched the toxin free lifestyle programme where we conducted workshops on toxin free lifestyle. The idea behind this was to find ways and alternatives to use water judiciously under conditions where water stress was already growing in cities such as Pune.

We also simultaneously worked on increasing awareness and citizen engagement in the movement. We took placards and stood at random locations displaying quotes like ‘Muthai is our mother’. We thought no one would look, but people stopped and asked. We asked them about what should be done to save our rivers. This helped in communication with people and everyone started asking questions. We realised that nine out of ten people wanted to do something about the river, but did not know how.

That is how we started the 'adopt a river stretch programme'. At the Vitthalwadi spot on the river Mutha, two members said that they wanted to adopt the stretch. This then became a spontaneous activity that continued every Sunday, and more and more people joined and the movement started to spread. We put this on facebook and people from Aundh and Baner area said that they too wanted to adopt a stretch.

We decided that we needed to have a template that included a cleanup at first, then looking around, and then having plastic collection drives in colonies, schools, and letting people in that stretch identify problems and find solutions.

In Vitthalwadi area in the city, there were stagnant pools near the river that were full of sewage and a live spring that was getting polluted. As a part of the river cleaning activities, three series of wetlands were created and the spring was cleaned.

Rajiv Gandhi bridge in Aundh over the river formed a part of the periurban area and a lot of garbage got thrown into the river from time to time. We stood on the bridge at random times. People started to wait and ask, and we started telling people to stop throwing garbage into the river. We realised that we needed to provide solutions and established a 750 kg composting unit in the Vitthal temple near the bridge. As people started noticing our work, a number of people and organisations also came forward to help us as part of their CSR activities.

We also got connected with fishermen. Baner and Pimple Nilakh Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) were not working, and sewage was polluting its waters, having an effect not only on the biodiversity of the area, but also reducing the fish catch and affecting livelihoods of the fisherfolk. We intervened by meeting people, making connections with the corporation and giving them evidence of the problem. The Baner STP is now functioning well and the fish are now in plenty, which has greatly helped the fishing community.

The Mula Mutha confluence is a fragile ecosystem with a surviving forest of 2 to 3 hectares. When we realised that this needed to be protected, we launched events by the river that included storytelling, paintings, drawings and urban sketches. Activities started happening at different stretches. We got CSR funds to do these activities.

Now people ask and more and more of them are interested in awareness events. Just before Covid -19, we had a great music concert on the banks of the river organised by a group of young artists. Our activities stopped because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cleaning the banks of the river Mutha (Image Source: Jeevitnadi)
Cleaning the banks of the river Mutha (Image Source: Jeevitnadi)

What is the state of the river now?

Last two years have been witnessing heavy rains and extensive flooding of the city. One must remember that Pune is flood prone city! We have five rivers and more than six watersheds, each having a peculiar character. For example, the river Mutha originates and flows down from a steep mountain that has very less vegetation. The erosion is thus very high leading to deposition of a load of sediments that get carried along with the water into the low lying areas that get flooded.

There are a number of settlements in the pediment zone and runoff is very high and flows with a tremendous velocity carrying a lot of silt along with it when there are heavy rains. We have not made efforts to treat the source with Continuous contour trenches (CCT), grasses in subwatershed regions. Stormwater drains are not well maintained and concretised heavily. Many of them do not function to their full capacity thus leading to flooding of water on the roads.

Pune must be declared a river district as we will continue to have floods with heavy rains. The sad thing is that we do not seem to learn from the past. Floodlines were made much later in 2010. Many constructions have been given permission in flood lines even after they were drawn and the width of the river is very narrow. To make it worse, there are large developmental projects like Metro and ring roads in the river bed. The bridges on rivers get constructed without any thought of minimising the environmental stresses on rivers and without using  better and alternate designs.

Pollution is another threat to the river and there are many cases awaiting hearing in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), but no political party seems to be interested in reviving and restoring the river. We have riverfront development plans, but nothing for the river per say!.

Developmental projects under the JICA also seem to do little to help the river. Sewage treatment continues to be inadequate, and no one has taken into account groundwater, but only dam water while thinking about the wastewater generated in the city. The capacity of the Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) continues to lag behind as the real estimate of the capacity required for STPs has not been given consideration.

Water filtration still follows conventional norms of chlorination, and as high as forty percent of the water is wasted.  All this is adding up to the water safety and security of the city and needs serious attention. I am afraid newer problems are getting added to the list. As we are going deeper in search of water, fluoride has already started emerging as a serious problem in recent times!

Sewage being deposited into the river water in the city (Image Source: India Water Portal)
Sewage being deposited into the river water in the city (Image Source: India Water Portal)

We have very high amounts of heavy metals such as iron, lead, chromium, cadmium, insecticides like DDT and E coli in the river waters! No wonder we are having increasing incidences of diseases like cancers, renal failure etc. All this is scary!

What are your plans for the future?

Jeevitnadi has been engaged in increasing awareness, initiating a dialogue and encouraging people to join the movement to save rivers. We now would like to engage more at the policy level and make efforts to bring about changes in governance mechanisms at the institutional levels. We have already started the process and we were recently invited to contribute in the making of the floods report by the Wadnere committee. We will continue to remain facilitators for people and support them to bring about changes.

We are also working on some research projects, one involves exploring the use of water hyacinth to filter river water to make it safe for use. We are also working with the College of Engineering, Pune to develop a prototype model where biochar can be used to filter water and make it potable. We also wish to do more research on fresh water invertebrates in urban waters as phytoplanktons and zooplanktons are the basis of river water quality and help in the survival of the river ecosystem.

Urban rivers have so far been looked at differently. The focus always has been on harnessing urban rivers and their spaces for gains without consideration for the health and well being of the river. We wish to change this perception and help rivers be naturally flowing, clean and safe for generations to come!