Life giving lakes, dams and damnation

DSCN4906While Mumbaikers look forward to the monsoon (those some of us who are fortunate enough to have a pukka home which does not flood and who don’t have to travel on the edge of death by local train)….and to walks on Marine Drive and eating bhutta and drinking adrak chai, taking trips to Lonavla to stand under waterfalls, there are some who are busy counting (like the Counting Man from the Little Prince) the inches of rain that fall in the suburbs and the rise in the lake levels.

These are the people tasked with ensuring water supply to Mumbai from the end of one monsoon to the beginning of the next one! Usually the countdown begins in March which tells us –only 60 days of water left. Only 50 days of water left. There is apparently even an emergency evacuation plan in a report somewhere in the BMC offices if the monsoon fails altogether!

dam overflow

We enjoy a better water supply than most of the country but not many of us think about the Tansa, Vihar, Vaitarna, Bhadsa and Modak Sagar lakes. Where are these lakes and how did they come to be so conveniently placed to Mumbai? Well they are not really! They are more like 80-100 kms away. Vihar lake work was completed in 1860, during the governership of Lord Elphinstone. (As an aside, the local station named after him will now be renamed Prabhadevi station. Since the erasing of history will throw away the good and the bad. Also the newly named station will continue to have beggars, be dirty and get flooded. For a fascinating insight into the man and the area around the station and his Governor’s residence being converted into the Haffkine Institute read more here ).

The Tulsi Lake was completed in 1879 and the Tansa reservoir in 1892. Imagine that! Mumbai, the megapolis, which politicians want to transform into Shanghai while they invest almost nothing in it, is still surviving on the water being supplied by lakes built 150 years ago. By the British.

Post- Independence the number of migrants to the city increased enormously and Mumbai stood poised for unprecedented growth. The Vaitarna cum Tansa scheme as conceived planned and executed by a team of Municipal Engineers under the leadership of Mr. V.N Modak after whom the lake is now called Modak Sagar. (Apparently he was the man responsible also for the design and planning of Shivaji Park and the area around it but suprisingly I could not find any reference to him on the internet).


We had gone to Modak Sagar for a picnic/visit two years ago right after the monsoon and it was the most amazingly green place, just hours from the city.


rural landscape

The water supply to Bombay from various sources is about 563 million gallons per day (MGD). The monsoon precipitation is collected in six lakes and supplied to the city through the year. 460 MGD are treated at the Bhandup Water Treatment Plant, which is the largest in Asia.

Water is brought into the city from the lakes after treatment, and stored in 23 service reservoirs. Since two of the major sources, Tansa and Lower Vaitarna, are at a higher level than the city, not much power is required to pump the water.

Since the BMC manages to supply only around 75% of the water needed, there are also tankers and of course an emerging Water Mafia.


If we survive Donny Trump and his BFF Kim Jong Un’s pissing contest over nuclear weapons, the next war will be for fresh water….

Meanwhile the Chairperson of Nestle declared that water is not a human right! And then retracted and claimed to be mis- represented.

And Coca Cola of course thinks all ground water is their right and have systematically been sucking it out for almost free and selling it right back to us at 2 USD a bottle !

Is there any other renewable source of fresh water in Mumbai? Well, almost a decade after the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) made it mandatory for new buildings in the city to have their own rainwater harvesting systems, only one-third have installed it. If half of a developed area on a building’s rooftop is utilized for rainwater harvesting, around 590 million litres of water could be generated every day.

While North India has Ganga Yamuna and the tributaries and branches, the rest of the country has been battling over the rivers and building dams.

Hemant Kumar and Gulzar ask us in Kabuliwala –Ganga aye kahan se ? Ganga jaye kahan re ?

And now we are asking Narmada aye kahan se Narmada jaye kahan re ?? From Nehru’s temples of modern India we have reached the time of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) being led by Medha Patkar and others.


Here is what the Friends of NBA say-“In brief, the Government’s plan is to build 30 large, 135 medium and 3000 small dams to harness the waters of the Narmada and its tributaries. ……It is well established that the plans rest on untrue and unfounded assumptions of hydrology and seismicity of the area and the construction is causing large scale abuse of human rights and displacement of many poor and underprivileged communities. We also believe that water and energy can be provided to the people of the Narmada Valley, Gujarat and other regions through alternative technologies and planning processes which can be socially just and economically and environmentally sustainable.”


Those of you who have seen Avataar will remember that it is the commercial potential of the mineral under the land which the Americans feel is a justification enough to displace and when resisted, then even attack the Na’avi tribes.

It’s kind of like– if your neighbour who is better off and more powerful than you says that the floor of your flat needs to be broken so he can get easy access to his duplex and since you can no longer live there and obviously cannot afford a new flat in that area or even anywhere in Mumbai now, you can go live in Pandharpur. Yes of course your kids will find school there, maybe even an English medium one, not more than a 2 hour’s commute away and yes of course you and your spouse can find some job. You do speak the local language don’t you ? No? And no school leaving certificate either? Oh well. Surely you can get some work on a building site or as a domestic help.

India is progressing and someone has to sacrifice….

Remember an earlier post where we considered who owns our bodies? Here Arundhati Roy asking similar questions after visiting the NBA site:

From being a fight over the fate of a river valley it began to raise doubts about an entire political system. What is at issue now is the very nature of our democracy. Who owns this land? Who owns its rivers? Its forests? Its fish? These are huge questions. They are being taken hugely seriously by the State. They are being answered in one voice by every institution at its command – the army, the police, the bureaucracy, the courts. And not just answered, but answered unambiguously, in bitter, brutal ways.”

This is not the first time, and maybe it will not be the last time either.

We will request you to move from your houses after the dam comes up. If you move it will be good. Otherwise we shall release the waters and drown you all.”– Morarji Desai, speaking at a public meeting in the submergence zone of the Pong Dam in 1961.

“Why didn’t they just poison us? Then we wouldn’t have to live in this shit-hole and the Government could have survived alone with its precious dam all to itself.”– Ram Bai, whose village was submerged when the Bargi Dam was built on the Narmada. She now lives in a slum in Jabalpur.”

So, as we reach close to the end of the monsoon 2017, and about 500 million litres of water have run down all the multi- story buildings in Mumbai, through the slums and  drains and straight into the salty sea, here is a song about water and existentialism all in one.

Oh re, Taal mile nadi ke jal mein, nadi mile sagar mein, sagar mile kaun se jal mein ? Koi jaane na….


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