The River That Can’t Be Cleaned: Mumbai’s Failed Urban Planning
Her name is Gunjan, they tell me. Four years old, dark-skinned, curly hair. She’s playing barefoot alongside a drain near her matchbox of a house in Bharat Nagar, Bandra (East). The drain, perhaps, warrants more description. Slimy green, stagnant and choked with plastic, cloth, metal and sewage, it announced its presence from half a kilometre away: the stench is unbearable. Gunjan is stark naked; she only has two things on her body: a black thread around her right leg, and a deep, open gash on her left.
This small drain is one amongst the hundreds of small drains, and 43 big feeder drains, that flow into the ironically named Mithi river (sweet river). It runs a distance of 17.8 kilometres from Vihar and Powai lake, through the slums and industries of Andheri East, Kurla, Dharavi, Saki Naka and Mahim. In ideal conditions, it serves as a crucial storm-water drain for Mumbai; during excess rainfall, when the two lakes overflow, the Mithi river carries the excess water and drains into the Arabian Sea and Mahim Bay. Today, the river is a putrid drain with millions of tonnes of garbage, industrial waste and debris, sewage and plastic dumped into it. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) regularly take oaths and allot hundreds of crores of taxpayer’s money – at least once a year – to clean up the river, desilt it, cordon it off and maintain it; every year, they miss deadlines and worse, completely neglect long stretches of the river around slums and shanties.
It simply cannot be cleaned.
Rapid urbanisation left to private builders has seen an explosion in the number slums that have sprung up – 55% of the city’s population now lives in temporary to semi-permanent shanties and houses; many along the Mithi river, and its prominent 4-kilometre-long Vakola drain. These localities don’t have a sewerage system, they don’t have public dustbins or toilets or garbage collection with any regularity, for that matter. Where do we expect them to throw their garbage?
But What About Social Investment?
In the island-city of Mumbai, already cramped, “slum redevelopment” is a phrase often repeated by the government. With elections around the corner, the term is everywhere: recently, MHADA has been allotted vast acres of vacant land (!) for slum development and “redevelopment” – a term used to imply tearing down existing structures for new ones.
Therein lies the fundamental flaw: the premise itself. Just like how solving the problem of flooding in Mumbai doesn’t begin or end with cleaning the Mithi river, similarly cleaning the Mithi river does not imply a frustrated attempt by the state to remove the source of the pollution – the slum dwellers – in the first place! Imposing what is perceived as middle-class condescending social order onto ‘dirty, uncouth and criminal slums’ should not be the aim of urban planning; its focus has to be more than architecturally-pleasing uniformity across the city.
Indeed, most of the slum redevelopment projects completed by MHADA, especially in areas like Deonar, Govandi and further up in the northern suburbs, are simply large concrete urban conclaves that don’t resemble the middle-class idea of a slum from the outside. But in reality, they are much the same.
Thousands of crores of rupees are spent for ‘welfare’ and ‘redevelopment’, but remain limited to creating a “neat” exterior for the slums. That can’t possibly be what urban planning is limited to in the so-called city of dreams. A lot more is included, and required for these people – lakhs of people doing tasks we consider ourselves either above doing or too busy to be doing. A certain amount of social investment is needed in these slums in the form of tackling livelihood issues, nurturing shared cultural spaces that many of these slums already have, supporting alternative forms of livelihood these slums have adopted in the absence of other options, and a massive focus on developing social infrastructure.
I was on assignment photographing the progress of the BMC in cleaning the river for the monsoons, when four ladies from the nearby locality came and dumped a week’s worth of garbage wrapped in plastic into the river.
Clearly, so long as we keep talking about removing these slums and giving the residents a socially-approved and architecturally systemised house to live in, we’ll keep missing the point.
In the case of the Mithi river, it’s very easy as an outsider to succumb to the frustration of the perpetually increasing muck, and root for an external reorganisation of the slums around the river, almost as if a complete and visible makeover will repair all fractures made by failure of basic civic administration.
Instead, sewerage pipelines should be laid on both sides of the river, and garbage collection by the municipality should be regular. A waste disposal and management plant – along with water treatment plants along Mithi – would go a long way to redirect clean water for drinking, cleaning and washing to the people of these slums.
Yes, Mumbai lacks space, and yes the floor space index (FSI) norms date back to the British-era, but to say that all that needs to be done to remove slums is to replace them with vertical, uniform cement structures that don’t look like slums is a very myopic view of the problem that only helps in immediately gratifying vote banks.
Mithi can’t be cleaned until the slums around the river are looked into with special care; giving the land to MHADA and the dwellers a plot or some money is looking at urban planning in terms of buildings, policies, and FSI only. What about health, jobs, education, hygiene, basic civic amenities demanded by the Declaration of Human Rights?
Until a dedicated and focussed shift in our attitude towards urban planning occurs, unless urban planning in Mumbai comes to include more focus on building social, economic and cultural infrastructure for communities, the crores will remain on paper, slums will remain hidden as a thing of shame, and garbage, in millions of tonnes, will continue to be thrown by them in the nearest, most convenient place available: the Mithi river.