A River Lost: The Concretising Landscape of Mumbai’s Mithi

By Anusri Tiwari

A river in an urban setting is a production of the activities that take place along its edge, right from its source to its end. This interaction of the river with its edge and the people shapes its form and character. Here we have the story of Mithi, an urban River which flows through the “world class” city of Mumbai. 

A quick detour from Mithi’s story, to help you visualise the situation:

If you were told that Mithi is an Urban River which image would you relate to?

For those who thought it was the right one you guys have been paying attention to your cityscape and the others, well fortunately you are absolutely correct too. Both the pictures represent the Mithi, one close to the source point and other is from the downstream. distance of about 17.84 km it originates from the tail discharge of the Vihar and the Powai Lake. It is 246 m above sea level, an arterial river that spans along north-south axis of Mumbai’s mainland and flows through different sections of the city. There are 70 nallahs or outfalls which discharge their outflow into the Mithi.


The diagram gives an overview of the urban interface around the river between its source and termination. The photos show the various layers of urban form that exist which ranges from various land use, structures and activities associated with it.

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The upper stretch from Vihar Lake to Andheri-Kurla Road has a very steep gradient whereas downstream part has flat gradient thus there is a sudden discharge of water in the downstream of the river. The last stretch of the river which is about 8.23 km from the Mahim Bay is influenced by tidal effect making this section of the river vulnerable to flooding.

Mithi, an urban river is presently glorified as a nallah for the city. A nallah is a natural drainage, or in the modern terms, a sewer line for the densely packed city of Mumbai.  When one comes in its proximity the strong stench is suffocating and the view is gruesome. So how did Mithi come to be what it is today? First to give a brief hydrological overview of Mithi – spanning a total distance of about 17.84 km it originates from the tail discharge of the Vihar and the Powai Lake. It is 246 m above sea level, an arterial river that spans along north-south axis of Mumbai’s mainland and flows through different sections of the city. There are 70 nallahs or outfalls which discharge their outflow into the Mithi.

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The diagram above taken from the CWPRS Report (2006) shows the gradual drop in the bed gradient of the river. This is the downstream of the River where Mithi needs more area to expand and flow freely. Important point to note is also that major reclamation activity and new developments that are taking place in the last section of river. 

Why should we be concerned about the Mithi?

The Great Deluge of 2005 was a turning point for Mumbai, the 48 hours of floods deeply scarred the city — socially, economically and physically. At the time Mithi regained its importance in the city’s landscape. Mithi which at that time was seen as a natural storm water drain for the city wasn’t able to redirect the rainwater to the Mahim Bay as coincidentally there was high tide around the same time. The excess rainwater in the nullahs leading to Mithi were chocked with solid waste and other effluents and became a hindrance for the smooth water flow from the households to the Mahim Bay. 

Moreover, Mithi becomes crucial for Mumbai and its future with respect to climate change which will most likely result in rising sea level which is going to affect Mumbai significantly. With the city resting on reclaimed lands and much of the shoreline below the mean sea level the climate scientists have predicted the city to be gravely affected with time.  Flood of 2005 is considered as an event which is only set to take place once in 100 years but the predictions are becoming more diabolical and unprecedented. Thus, it becomes important for city of Mumbai to prepare itself and work for a climate resilient cityscape. 

Coming back to the flood of 2005, the event demonised Mithi and the citizens rose to the occasion to work for it. But the story of Mithi is a culmination of various tampering done in and around the banks. Mumbai is landlocked and is widely known for the land reclamation done to get the mainland to the present state, wherein what once used to be the seven islands of Mumbai is now a landmass which holds 22 million people. The following panel shows how morphological changes took place in the cityscape which in turn shaped the river and its form. 

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The course highlighted in blue is our Mithi, the river used to serve the drinking water demand for the city and also was fishing ground for the traditional Koli community, the early residents of the city. With the construction of the Mahim and Sion Causeway the river’s flood plain as seen the diagram was reshaped.

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The three lakes of the City – Vihar, Tulsi and Powai Lake have emerged from the floodplains of Mithi. They were created to meet the growing demands of fresh water in Mumbai. With the growth in the city in terms of the population and shift in the city’s limits, the river has undergone shift in what it means to the city and its functions. In the last panel we can see that there are two major reclamations – the Central Business District which is the BKC (Bandra Complex) in 1976 and extension of runway of the CSMIAL (Airport of Mumbai) in 2004 which have further squeezed Mithi into the course it has today.


The BKC reclamation was to be materialised by the government after certain steps which included widening of Mithi, setting up of drainage system (storm and sewerage), dredging and certain other interventions but these weren’t followed up and the plan came through. The diversion of Mithi for the Airport involved the river to be bent twice at 90 degrees.

Thus, with all this creative tampering to Mithi, it was no surprise when it wasn’t able to perform as a storm water drain for the city and was viewed as the cause of the floods of 2005 and since then has been attributed different forms of restoration processes. Restoration of a river is a process to revive a river to its natural state.

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After the 2005 floods, several committee reports were produced suggesting measures for flood mitigation, remediation of pollution and removal of encroachments on the banks of the River. A statutory body- the Mithi River Development and Planning Authority (MRDPA) was formed to manage and coordinate all the agencies around the river’s development and management. The flood was a scenario which was the result of various factors which ranges from sustainable development practices of the city and management of city services. The repeated reasons identified as the cause for the floods are shown in the diagram above.

It’s been 14 years ever since the floods hit the city, the present Mithi looks no better than the nallah it was in 2005.

A recent study done in 2017 by NEERI and IIT-B states that the river is in a worse condition, the solid waste management system is still not in place for the area close to banks and paucity of land and funds is delaying the construction of sewer lines and sewage treatment plants in and around this area, though Mithi has been widened and channelised at many stretches but the area continues to flood (this is with respect to the 2017 floods in the city). All these recommendations have been stipulated and put forth by the experts since 1990s when the city started urbanising at fast rate.
When we look at state of affairs of Mithi, the logical question that springs up is where are we going wrong?

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Good and effective governance of the Mithi by both formal and informal institutions is the key hurdle. Governance here ranges right from the perception of the river by the people of the city and decision makers, to execution of different mechanisms to achieve it and the regualtion of the activities occuring in and around it. When we see the transformation of the governance landscape of the river below we get the idea of how deeply the river has been fragemented since the floods. The river prior to 1960 was under the jurisdiction of the Urban Local Body or the Local Government (MCGM). Over the years Mithi was divided into two parts- the upper portion which fell under the mandate of MCGM and lower portion which was under the Regional Development Authority (MMRDA). With the introduction of new departments like the Forest, Mangrove, Airport and others Mithi now is managed by several body with MRDPA being the steering agency for devleopment. The diagram below shows the governance scenario post the floods of 2005.

 

The change in the form of Mithi is apparent from the diagram along with the reduction in the mangrove cover and mudflats in the lower portion. The decentralisation of roles and responsibilities along with varied instruments of governance has led to fragmentation of Mithi which in turn has materialsed as mismanagement of practices and disorganised state of affairs for it.

Before any restoration plan begins it is important to understand the arrangements in which the river flows, its hydrology as a natural process. Moreover, flood needs to be seen as an incident which can occur thus preparatory, preventive and mitigative aspects of flood management become important which can reduce the damage caused by them but they have not received much attention. The belief and acceptance that the floods cannot be prevented, and that the technical and infrastructural interventions can work towards their control, management and minimisation, inevitably leaves only the option of rescue and relief operations for individuals and civil society organisations to work in flood prone areas (Prasad, Joy, Paranjape, & Vispute, 2012). The techno-centric arguments, analysis and prescriptions to address floods in India are also being supported by academic works which focus on these details, because of which various others facets of floods remain unattended. This highlights the need to understand floods beyond structural measures. The conflicting perceptions about structural measures like channelisation of the river, constructing dams and embankments, dredging the river and other measures to either prevent or mitigate floods; as solution which aggravates to the existing problems rather than mitigate them. Moreover there are different perceptions and on the ways in which the river and flood is conceptualised and the limits to “tame” rivers as the recommendations post the crisis, the differences are in the epistemology subjects itself and this varies across different institutions. It is “natural” for rivers to flood given their nature to flow and the fact that the practices around the river where subjected to this reality in the past, where the principle was “living with floods” rather than control and managing it.

Politics of practise

The limited knowledge of the experts and the fact that power rests in the hands of few has resulted in a scenario wherein the steering body for the river’s management and development has become a toothless agency which isn’t envisioning the rejuvenation of Mithi but it is an idea to convert it into a controlled system which gives return value in term of real estate and loses its riverine qualities in the process. The idea that building concrete walls on the river’s edge is a major step in mitigating floods and promoting river’s rejuvenation and entitling the encroachments is specific to vibrant and conducive informal settlements which have been residing in the area for their entire lifetime. While, the reclamations and construction along the Mithi is for the betterment of the future. This shows the hypocrisy and contradictions in the system which clearly is not in the best interests of the welfare for Mumbaikars (welfare of Mithi is a farfetched dream). The best practices which are idolised are those which have worked in a setting which doesn’t fit in our context nor does the sustainability of the system. Flooding persist even after all the measures but all this is at a cost, a cost and trade off that we are being very light hearted about practices which will not favour us in the future.

The diagram below shows the governance framework around Mithi, the attempt was to show various agencies performing their specific roles through instruments (mentioned on bottom left corner) and the hierarchy which exists at the local to the central level in decision making.

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As shown in the diagram the politics which exists around the urban political ecology of Mithi, the MCGM and MMRDA are the key agencies which are engaged in both conceptualisation of the plan for Mithi and its execution. The Empowering Committee is the central body which consists of people who represent different agencies given here and are supreme with respect to making the last calls. Institutions like NEERI, IIT-B, CWPRS are basic advisory bodies which don’t hold much power in persuasion. The regulatory authorities have a very passive role to play though the judiciary is last resort for the citizens who can voice their rights to the city.

It is the citizens who can reclaim Mithi and make it part of the city and its vision. The new infrastructure developments that are proposed and also under construction like the Metro Line 3, BKC Chunabati Connector are all set to ram their way above and below Mithi. The externalities of these development projects are studied superficially and the holistic picture to the different urban systems operating the city is never provided until the crisis. The picture which the research here attempted to understand was the lens with which Mithi is seen in the city with respect to floods and have uncovered a lot of grey rather than blue and green which certainly aren’t giving Room for the River (A programme in Netherlands which aims to create a sustainable and resilient systems around the river and waterscapes) but are promoting activities which are not able to put a stop to the pollution, concretisation of the river’s edges and prevent risk to the city in the near future.

 


 

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