Does the river come first or human settlements, customs and traditions do?
We arrive at the bank of Mutha river at 6:45 in the morning. We silently stand on the bank and we admire the river in its imperial magnificence, at sunrise. Everything is quite: no horns, no engines, nor a single bird’s chirp. The noise of the city is annulled, together with the sounds of nature. The riverbank represented an Heterotopia, an “other” space where reality is mirrored and—simultaneously—distorted.
Anuradha’s voice is shrill and confident. She is a volunteer from Jeevitnadi, a local Non Governmental Organization which, since 2014, has embraced the cause of reviving the fluvial heritage of the city. Soon I find out that Pune is crossed by five rivers: Mula, Mutha, Pawana, Ram and Dev; all of them are in danger, either dried out by inconsiderate artificial interventions or polluted by human megalomania. Does the river come first or human settlements, customs and traditions do? Devoid of clean water, Pune’s rivers are, in a nutshell, landfills of chemical debris. Here is where Jeevitnadi comes about: it safeguards the existence of a green corner in the city through a twofold strategy. One the one hand, the NGO is putting the local council on pressure, highlighting the urgency for policy adjustments—which would, for example, discourage companies from releasing chemicals waste in the body of water or interdict construction on land other than between the blue and red line of rivers. On the other hand, Jeevitnadi organizes awareness-raising campaigns and tours along the riverbank because, if it is undeniable that the misuse of the river affects the public health of the city as well as it seriously compromises future development, it is also true that “River revival is not possible without people participation”. That is why promoting a sustainable awareness among the citizenry is so crucial: how to start impacting the everyday life, if not by making the change ourselves?
When we visit the funerary monument of Annasek, a doctor—and then river activist—who during the colonial period used to collect ingredients for his medicines right on the bank of the river, Anuradha passionately shows us pictures of how the river used to be, with high water level and enriched by its prosperous biodiversity. Looking at the river today, the gulf appears indescribable. Responsibility cannot be attributed only to the not exactly sustainable environmental policy of local business and international corporations; if the river has become so drastically neglected it is also because citizens have not developed a green consciousness, prioritizing customs and traditions to the detriment of the river. Ganpati festival is a glaring example of this. Occurring every year in September, the festival still brings people to immerse the Ganesha idol in a nearby body of water thereafter the idol dissolves and Ganesha is believed to return to Mount Kailash to Parvati and Shiva. Needless to say, such a ritual is deleterious for the rivers, especially if, like in today’s era of consumerism, statues are made of chemicals and not, like in the past, of clay or biodegradable materials. Nowadays, the immersion in the river is only partially allowed—namely, only for some selected idols in the city—instead replaced by the more sustainable submersion in big, drab tanks. Luckily, I thought.
Around 2 weeks after the excursion and in the last day of Ganesha festival, however, I was observing the immersion of Ganpati idols from Maharishi Vitthal Ramji Shinde Bridge. With the sound of the drums in the background, the immersion arose to be a colorful ritual, majestic and spiritual, spectacular and intimate at the same time. Does the river come first or human settlements, customs and traditions do? In that moment, the answer to this question appeared more blurring than ever.
October 2018, Pune, India.