Can the rivers be blue? Possibly not, but we are looking at cleaner water today, and wider and deeper navigation, says Maharashtra Environment Minister
Last month, the Maharashtra Government received the Inspiring Regional Leadership Award at the COP26 for Climate Action in Glasgow. Just a fortnight later, its richest civic body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation was fined ₹28 crore by the National Green Tribunal for polluting water bodies by “discharging untreated sewage in the sea and creeks”. State’s Environment and Tourism Minister Aaditya Thackeray talks to The Hindu virtually about the Mithi river, one of the oldest in the State, decarbonising public transport and Mumbai’s carbon inventory. Edited excerpts:
You took a strong stand to save Aarey Colony. Why is it that only 323 hectares of the 1,250 hectares have been declared forest land?
There are two aspects to it — one is the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. It is a huge area, which is a forest and national park and has adequate protection. There is a committee to see if the non-Adivasi people, who have settled inside, can move to formal homes outside because we want to protect their rights and privileges. Once that is done, we can add to the forest area. On the other side is the Aarey Colony. Right from its inception, there is much more forest area than what has been declared. We found that a lot of space has been turned into habitation. There are organisations that are non-governmental, settlements and buildings. So we want to start from the actual green area that has a large number of trees and biodiversity that can be called forest and has been declared as forest. If there are more areas, we will soon declare them as forest land.
After the floods in 2005, the Supreme Court directed IIT-Bombay and the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to come up with a plan to revive the Mithi river. What are the updates?
Mithi has two parts to it. There is the Powai lake, a drinking water lake. Mithi also has the backflow of the Arabian Sea. That is where Mithi is formed as a river in Mumbai. In the last few years, we have realised that the biggest problem was the deepening and widening of the river which is now being done very successfully in Kurla, Chandivali, airport area and near Powai. A couple of Sewage Treatment Plants are coming up where the sewage will directly enter two pipelines and not the river. We are also trying to resettle people from the slums into formal homes. Bioremediation is under way. A couple of projects are on with the United Nations Development Programme. We are also trying to rejuvenate the Dahisar, Poisar and Oshiwara rivers. Can they ever be blue? Possibly not. But yes, we are looking at cleaner water today, and wider and deeper navigation.
Recently the NGT fined the BMC for polluting water bodies. How can you ensure that untreated water does not enter the rivers?
Mumbai’s settlement over the years has increased. There are areas where we needed STPs and there was a delay because the classification of 30 biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) or 10 BOD went back to the Supreme Court and the NGT. Now we have gone into the tender process and as of today, Mumbai throws out almost 3,200 million litres of untreated water into the sea. We are looking at setting up six STPs and one is almost ready at Colaba. We will be treating almost 3,000 million litres per day and bringing it back to the city. This will be as clean as potable water. We are also looking at setting up more STPs in Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities.
What steps are bring taken to preserve the natural mangroves?
Only in the last 10 years, one has started realising its importance as we started losing them. In the last 11 months, we have protected 9,000 hectares of mangroves and last week, I was told it has increased to 11,000 hectares. Recently, we identified areas where there are mangroves. We are also revisiting and seeing if mangroves need exclusion from protection. We have mangroves along the coast of Mumbai so we are trying to bring in as much under the Forest Act to protect it.
Why does Mumbai rank a low 37 in the Swachh Survekshan 2021?
Navi Mumbai has done very well and is ranked 4. There are some features of the Swachh survey where we need to work harder. What we are doing with Majhi Vasundara (an initiative that works with all the five elements of nature) has a part of Swachh Bharat in it, which is segregation and composting of waste. In Mumbai, we had almost 10,000 metric tonnes of emissions in 2017. By working closely with the resident associations, we have brought it down to about 6,000 metric tonnes a day. A lot of work needs to be done. A small city like Sambhaji Nagar has 4,000 metric tonnes a day, these are the cities we really need to work on and get the residents, bulk generators, commercial establishments, restaurants and hotels to work together.
You talk about decarbonising energy and transport. What is the course of action?
Decarbonising energy and transport should be our priority as a country because they are the largest contributors to carbon footprints. Also they are low hanging fruits that the country and State can achieve in a short term goal. In terms of energy it is largely to do with Centre-State relations and how we move towards renewable energy and fossil fuel energy in the next few years. As far as transport is concerned, our electric vehicle policy is one of the most dynamic policies in the world. There are incentives to the purchasers and charging stations. We are looking at decarbonising our public sector so all new vehicles that are bought, including buses, will be electric. Mumbai has just got a 2,100 electric bus bid which will make 50% of our public transport electric by 2023.
In the coming weeks, we are holding a conference with major bankers from India for Maharashtra. We keep talking about green financing at a macro level, but when it comes to moving towards a green transition, the banks need to look at micro finance and retail finance. This way we can support individuals rather than institutions.
Mumbai is looking at setting up a carbon inventory. Why do we need it and what are the advantages of having one?
When we want to move towards carbon neutrality, you need to know where the carbon emissions are from and what you can do to offset it. With 43 cities committed to the Race to Zero (a UN campaign for zero carbon recovery) from Maharashtra, we will have a carbon inventory and a greenhouse gas inventory for all the cities. We are looking at ways to offset carbon emissions, this would be either through having a carbon sync as urban forest or direct air capture, or decarbonising transport and clean constriction habits.
What can you say is tangibly achieved by the 43 cities you just mentioned?
Under Majhi Vasundara, not just in 43 cities, but all the other cities and nagar parishads, our officers have planted 2.1 million trees, cleaned 776 water bodies, installed solar pumps, changed lights to LED, moved towards electric vehicles and collated with all the five elements of nature.
We are now looking at working with NGOs, corporates and individuals, because it all comes down to awareness and habits.