It’s dawn in late July. The early morning sun rays barely pierce through the thick grey clouds. The Mula-Mutha that flows between Kalyani Nagar and Koregaon Park in Pune has more water today than can be seen through the year. It’s not the best light to view birds, but pond herons, little egrets, or a lone painted stork can be seen on the south bank foraging for food. Wading Spotbill ducks occasionally dipping their heads, a cormorant skimming the surface, perched purple herons on trees in the middle of the shimmering river, an odd grey heron poised in stately fashion - these are the vistas that greet the eye. It’s a picturesque landscape, with the rocky river banks, green islands of silt creating eddy currents that attract fish, which in turn attract birds in large numbers. Except that the river is fast disappearing, and so are the river banks.
A sanctuary for birds
The idea of a water bird sanctuary was mooted by the famous ornithologist, late Dr Salim Ali in 1977 along the banks of the river on the Nagar Road side, when they saw the plethora of birdlife here. When a strip of private land along the river was donated to the Forest department, the Bird Sanctuary came into existence. Over 40 years this bank was afforested by the Forest Department which in turn attracted more arboreal and terrestrial birds. With about 250 species it created a vibrant ecosystem. But this is still only the recent past.
As much of our mythology and our past as the present
Not far from here were found pot shards, multi-coloured cherts for making tools, as well as wood, bone and stone tools, which can be traced way back to the Middle Stone Age about 40,000 years ago. This thinly forested area along the river was home to the hunter-gatherer Stone Age community. There was abundant game and raw material easily available in the surrounding hills and in the stream channels. Large mammals such as the elephant, aurochs, and ostrich walked its banks.
It is almost the best kept secret that the Mula-Mutha - which now ranks among the world’s most polluted rivers - has been among the most habitable rivers of India with flourishing civilizations and rich history since prehistoric times.
The banks of the Mula-Mutha have been witness to clashes of great kings; its waters have quenched the thirst of freedom fighters. This is where the seeds of the freedom struggle were sown and nurtured. What was once among the most habitable of India’s rivers with flourishing civilisations since prehistoric times has now been sadly reduced to one of India’s most polluted rivers.
A mythological tale mentions the Mula and Mutha rivers. King Gajanak, who ruled in these parts, sat in penance in the ancient Sahyadri mountains. The mighty king of the Gods, Indra, who became insecure because of King Gajanak’s penance, sent two apsaras (beautiful celestial maidens) down to earth to distract him from his penance. An enraged Gajanak cursed the apsaras and turned them into rivers Mula and Mutha. When they pleaded for pardon, Gajanak told them that they could attain salvation when they flowed down to meet as the Mula-Mutha and together join the river Bhima. The Bhima later meets the Krishna river which eventually drains into the Bay of Bengal. The curse of Gajanak seems to still linger on.
As Pune’s population burgeoned, attempts were made to exploit other sources of water such as Katraj lake to meet the needs of the people. Dams were built across the rivers to harness energy and provide water. Industry mushroomed and the city continued to explode. All this came at a cost to the environment. To make matters worse, the authority’s ambitious river beautification project seems to have scant regard for the floodlines and the natural river banks which still are home to many creatures.
The river that once gave life is slowly dying
Where once flowed a majestic, free-flowing river with a plethora of aquatic and bird life, it is now nothing more than a gutter, having been dammed at two places. What remains has become an outlet for more than 50% of the city’s untreated sewage. The scanty river water takes with it all kinds of waste – chemicals, garbage bags, cans, polythene bags, bottles, and a white froth, some of which gets stuck amid the abundant water hyacinth – clear evidence of the river’s death knell unless some action is taken.
Some however benefit - scavenging birds such as crows and kites along with stray dogs and pigs forage along its banks – and make hay, even when the sun isn’t shining.
Would Dr Salim Ali have despaired?
The Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary in particular remains an oasis in the concrete desert. The stretch of river - with clumps of trees on little silt islands houses heronries, and foraging birds along the edges - makes a pretty picture with Koregaon Park's banks marked by a thin line of green shrubs. Especially when the sun is beginning to rise, painting the sky and bathing the waters with a beautiful warm orange-gold glow, and the birds are whistling sweet melodies, and insects chirping incessantly, for a while, it is paradise regained.
But in the resulting paradise, only man is depraved. Much of the damage to the river ecosystem has been caused by so-called progress, development and greed - for land, money, power – and the ensuing toll on the environment only magnifies climate change impacts. A 17km road along the river continues to be built in parts, and each time a stretch is built, several hundred trees face the axe.
The pheasant-tailed jacana, pied kingfisher, or the river tern, have in many places disappeared and have been replaced by the pond heron, little egret, black kite, crow, who are not only less finicky about the putrid waters, but seem to breed faster in them, at least for now.
The Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary has been given a good scrub-down recently by groups of citizen volunteers who together formed the ‘Friends of Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary’. NGOs and amateur/expert birdwatchers have been regularly supporting the Friends to help raise awareness of this fast-shrinking green patch. For now it is the longest stretch of green left for the ruddy shelduck this side of town, when he comes visiting in the winter.
The river is a living being and we must protect it
If Pune's rivers are ever again to be home to as many varieties of creatures as they held even 40 years ago, an enormous amount of work still needs to be done. The moot question is: A start towards saving the river is being made on many fronts, but is it really worth the effort? Government and industry needs to take the onus to ensure our rivers are clean and living; the voices of those citizens who devote time and effort only to ensure a better world for our children needs to be heard. But, is anyone really listening? Or will someone perhaps say a few years from now: “a river once flowed through here...”?
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