From lifeline to a glorified drain: Will Telangana's plan to restore Musi River work?

As one looks at the river today, it is hard to imagine that the water was once filled to the brim and full of life.
From lifeline to a glorified drain: Will Telangana's plan to restore Musi River work?
From lifeline to a glorified drain: Will Telangana's plan to restore Musi River work?
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‘Jo hum ne saha hai, na saha hoga kisi ne

Dekha hai jo kuch hum ne, un dushman bhi na dekhe’

(What we have borne, no one else may have and what we have seen, even our enemies shouldn’t)

These were the words of famous Urdu poet Amjad Hyderabadi, in his poem ‘Qayamat-e-Soghra’, which was penned after he saw his entire family being washed away by the strong currents of the River Musi.

The river was in spate after heavy rainfall on September 28, 1908, and had caused the death and destruction of a large part of Hyderabad. This later came to be known as the Great Musi Flood of 1908.

Almost 110 years later, as one stands on any of the bridges in Hyderabad's old city area that were built over the river, it is hard to imagine that the water was once full of life and was full to the brim.

Now, massive amounts of garbage and debris are strewn everywhere as a thin stream of visibly filthy water passes underneath.

Like all civilizations, Hyderabad was established along the banks of a river, Musi in this case, which was the city's lifeline for centuries before it turned into the massive drain that it is today.

The Telangana government has presently chalked out ambitious plans and has promised to restore the river to its former glory. This would mainly involve the restoration and beautification of the water body, which is easier said than done.

Image: MRDC

A 'truly Telangana' river

The Musi river originates in the thick forests of Vikarabad district in Telangana, near Anantagiri Hills, parallel to another tribulet of the river called Esa.

From there, it makes its way to Hyderabad, passing through an over 50-km stretch of the present-day city, before merging with the Krishna River in the state's Nalgonda district.

"We can say that the Musi, by virtue of originating and ending in the state itself, is a purely Telangana river," says Professor K Purushotham Reddy, a retired teacher who used to head the Department of Political Science in Osmania University, now a well-known activist.

Over a cup of tea at this residence in Vidyanagar, 76-year-old Purushotham narrates his vivid memories of the Musi as a youngster in the ’50s and ’60s.

"As a precautionary principle, the Nizam had issued a firman (royal decree) that said that no one should pollute the water. The roads were well-planned and they were flanked by storm-water drains and footpaths on either side. There even used to be public taps that one could drink out of," he says.

The Musi river flows along Hyderabad's Salarjung Museum. Image: Wikimedia Comons/Mohammed Mubashir

Flood proofing the city

The flood in 1908 had rattled the city and changed the city's approach to urban planning.

"In the late 1890s and early 1900s, the Musi was flat and low-lying. It was only after the devastating flood that the government of that particular period realised that if such a calamity occurs again, it will be disastrous. They raised the embankment on both sides and some of the city gates that were weak were removed. For example, the Afzalgunj Bridge had two gates on either side, to allow people to enter the city. The flood washed away one gate and when they reconstructed the bridge and renamed it 'Naya Pul', they removed the other gate as well," says city-based historian Mohammed Safiullah, who is also the cultural advisor to the Nizam's trust.

After the flood, the Nizam had requested the services of noted engineer Sir Visvesvaraya to develop a flood-protection system for the city.

Visvesvaraya had recommended two balancing reservoirs to control the flood waters from Musi and Esa, which still stand today, known as Osmansagar and Himayatsagar.

Besides ensuring that the river did not flood, Visvesvaraya also drew plans for an entire underground drainage system for the city, which was implemented.

In fact, a sewage treatment plant (STP) had been set up at Amberpet so that the reservoirs also met the drinking water needs of the city.

"As people largely relied on organic materials for everyday activities, the STP did not need to deal with chemicals and it largely sufficed," Purushotham says.

"Till the ’60s as well, during the monsoon, the river would be filled from bank to bank. Later on, as events played out, Musi was not considered important in the scheme of things. The huge construction that took place in the catchment area resulted in a drastic fall in the amount of water flowing in the river and now it is just a glorified nala," Safiullah notes.

Industrialisation at the cost of ecology

Until 1960, Hussainsagar also remained relatively clean and the water that would flow downstream towards Musi, and this was used to irrigate paddy and other such crops.

"After 1960, things changed as several Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) came into the picture, from IDPL, HMT, ECIL to BHEL and BDL. While there is no doubt that it greatly helped the economy, the banks liberalised their lending policy, which resulted in a proliferation of industries," Purushotham says.

"By 1985, Hyderabad had become the pharma capital of the world and bulk drug production had become highly profitable. All these industries began discharging their waste into the Hussainsagar and eventually the Musi, which made it a cocktail of domestic sewage and chemical effluents," he adds.

The Hussainsagar nala

Meanwhile, the world had also begun looking at the effects of such industries on the environment and started looking for ways to tackle it with policies.

After the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, a Parliamentary committee was constituted in India, which later resulted in the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974.

Soon Pollution Control Boards (PCBs) were constituted and the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and Air Act, 1981, followed.

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy which struck India in 1984 soon resulted in the Environment Protection Act,1986.

"After 1986, the Supreme Court began to act and started taking up environmental issues and ruling in favour of the people," Purushotham states.

Present status

The river has been back in the news after two first-year law students, Mohammad Nayeem Pasha and Syed Aftab Ghori, from the Sultan-ul-Uloom College of Law in the city, moved the National Green Tribunal (NGT), over the state of affairs earlier this month.

Pawan, a native of Hyderabad, who is a student in Delhi University, is also helping them out.

Speaking to TNM ahead of the first hearing on July 27, the petitioners explained how they laboriously collected all the data and evidence required, along with photographs, and submitted it to the tribunal.

Moving the tribunal citing Article 48(A) of the Constitution, which deals with protection and improvement of environment, they have accused the state government of dereliction of duty.

Contending that the river was public property entrusted to the government, the petitioners also pointed out that the Musi joins Krishna River and is used for further irrigation, so it is an inter-state and national issue.

Some of the main points raised by them in the petition, include the failure to preserve heritage structures, like retaining walls and gazebos that were built by the Nizam, besides the massive encroachment along the river bank.

The students have also detailed the extensive pollution seen in the water and sought a response from the authorities.

"The gazebos are being used by the GHMC as storehouses, while the retaining walls have also been largely encroached. A little ahead of Chaderghat, many are even cultivating banana and coconut trees with the polluted water. Large amounts of grass, mainly used for cattle fodder, is also being grown. Closer to the outskirts, other vegetables are also being cultivated using this water," points out Nayeem.

A clear sign of the encroachment is to see how many arches the water can cover while passing through the bridges of old city. While there are at least 10 to 12 arches that once allowed water to pass through it, today the stinking drain is barely able to cover more than three.

Activists allege that the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) itself has been violating rules and occasionally dumping garbage into the river.

Despite this, the threat of a flood is not too far away.

"There is no space for storm water to exit the city. Water used to come from Osmansagar and Himayatsagar. Later, it shifted to Manjeera reservoir and then to Singur reservoir. Now, we are pumping it from the Godavari river. Water is constantly being pumped in, but nobody is tracking all this. If one year, there is more inflow and more rains, the city could be flooded," Nayeem explains.

Pollution: Domestic sewage and industrial effluents

As far as the jurisdiction of the river is concerned, it spans across many bodies in Hyderabad alone.

For example, the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (HMWSSB) has data on the domestic sewage entering the river, but there is no separate data on industrial effluents, which is generally tracked by the Telangana State Pollution Control Board (TSPCB).

According to the latest figures put out by the HMWSSB and accessed by TNM, the civic body is presently maintaining 20 STPs, the total capacity of which is 750 million litres per day (MLD).

However, Hyderabad generates 1,483 MLD of domestic sewage, which means that at least 733 MLD goes untreated every single day.

Additionally, the HMWSSB estimates that at least another 500 MLD of sewage is generated from other sources, which takes the total of untreated domestic sewage in the city up to 1,233 MLD.

While there are six STPs along the Musi River, their combined capacity is a measly 462 MLD.

Taking this into account, the HMWSSB has recently appointed a technical consultancy firm to prepare a Comprehensive Sewage Master Plan, up to the limits of the city's Outer Ring Road, and asked it to submit Detailed Project Reports (DPRs) for the same.

However, the deadline for the firm to even submit its proposals is in July next year, even as the damage continues to grow by the day.

Coming to industrial effluents, the most polluting companies generally manufacture chemicals, pharma products, dyes, rubber, etc.

The more direct result the polluted river has on public health is that water-borne diseases have become more prevalent along its banks.

However, the indirect results are far more grave. As a result of industrial effluents, the water in the river has seen a steady increase in the presence of heavy metals.

A 2012 study on the impact of the pollution on downstream villages found that there was a high incidence of diseases such as arthritis, skin allergies, stomach pain, malaria, food poisoning, eye diseases, paediatric problems and jaundice.

A recent study titled 'Effect of water pollution in Musi river', published in March 2018, showed that eating contaminated fruits and vegetables grown on the riverbed was causing miscarriages among pregnant women in the area.

Dr Narasimha Reddy, an independent policy expert, who has been working on the Musi River for decades, tells TNM, "The lead content is increasing and so has the presence of other heavy metals. It is just that specific tests have to be conducted to establish the quantum of pollution."

"This could potentially lead to lead poisoning, brain-related issues, epilepsy in children and many such problems. There are also studies which establish contaminants in buffalo milk, as the fodder came from the riverbed. Vegetables and fruits found in the city have also been contaminated, so it doesn't affect people living along the banks alone. A detailed human-impact study is yet to be done," he adds.

Another adverse effect is that the industrial effluents have also polluted the ground water.

"The quality has been dropping consistently, as the flowing water continuously seeps into the water table, thereby contaminating the groundwater as well," Narasimha Reddy says.

Additionally, as more industrial waste is pumped into the water, the Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) levels take a hit. Aquatic life can't survive and eutrophication takes place, which means that a large number of plants start growing on the surface, further choking the water's oxygen supply.

The point where the Hussainsagar nala meets the Musi river

While BOD levels below 3 mgpl can be considered clean, anything above 4 mgpl is considered polluted.

According to the PCB's own data for May 2018, the BOD level of the Musi at Nagole, by which time the river has passed through large parts of the city, is a shocking 22.

The PCB's data also shows the presence of E.Coli and Fecal Coliform bacteria, which indicates a high amount of fecal content in the water.

As far as the Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) level of the river at the same point in Nagole was concerned, the number was 1,184 mg/L. For context, anything above 150 TDS is considered unfit for human consumption.

Downstream from Hyderabad, the Musi River has 24 bunds or 'weirs' for irrigation, locally known as kathwas, the first one at Edulabad.

Water froths at the kathwa

TNM has repeatedly highlighted the condition of the locals in Edulabad, who witness frothing water in their village due to toxic chemicals released by Hyderabad's various pharmaceutical industries.

A solution?

Taking note of the pollution, the ruling TRS-government in Telangana has maintained that cleaning up Musi and restoring it to its past glory was one of its major priorities.

To facilitate this, the Musi Riverfront Development Corporation (MRDCL) was constituted as a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV).

According to the corporation's own website, "MRDCL will act as a nodal agency and will monitor and coordinate the activities of various departments/agencies like HMWSSB, Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA) and GHMC for preparation and execution of comprehensive plan for abatement of pollution of Musi River and riverfront development."

After a meeting between officials of the corporation and Municipal Administration and Urban Development Minister KT Rama Rao on Thursday, the state government claimed that it would clear several lakh tonnes of debris over the roughly 57.5-km stretch of the Musi that passes through the city.

However, though it came into existence via a Government Order dated March 25, 2017, hardly any work has been done.  

While JCBs have been pressed into service to demolish some encroachments which were identified, the cleaning process is yet to begin.

"Water will be diverted and treated before fresh water will be released into the river. It is too premature now. Plans are still being drawn and that's all we can say," an official from MRDCL told TNM.

However, activists say that it will be years by the time the corporation even begins to act.

The petition with the NGT has demanded an independent body to over the cleaning mechanism, and the main demand is to restore the river and halt further damage. It also asked the state to ensure that it effectively stops dumping and incentivises treatment at source.

After hearing both parties on Friday, the tribunal has presently posted the matter to August 21.

The respondents include the GHMC, HMWSSB, Chief Secretary of Telangana, the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) at the state and the Centre and the PCB, besides other parties.

"The pollution by domestic as well as industrial effluents is a modern phenomena and if the government is really interested in the environment, they should take strict action against anyone violating the law. The elected representatives, who are there only for a few years, can't wash their hands off this," Safiullah says.

"We care more about the restoration of the ecosystem, while compared to the development of the riverfront. The government has made it very hard to lead our lives in a symbiotic manner with nature. Sustainable development is the only way forward," Purushotham concludes.

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