Friday, October 16, 2009

Restoring Serenity: Aruna's article on the Powai Lake published in Raintree

Aruna Thosar - Dixit, PRO, IIT Bombay (1986-2007) wrote for IIT's mag Raintree.

Restoring Serenity

The Powai Lake was integral to the life of every campus resident; like a leitmotiv surfacing again and again. Toddlers playing on the green slopes of the guest house lawn while mothers or grand parents or the occasional dad, sat and chatted, watching the sun set across the lake; students on steps or the slope leading to the water; joggers and walkers early morning and evening; cricket on the dried up lake bed; spotting birds in marshes and trees, BNHS nature trek around the lake; dragging willing or unwilling guests through the wooded trail to the old boat-house to view the incredible expanse of water – the lake-pictures and lake-associations retained in the memory are too numerous to narrate.

Powai Lake made its presence felt in another way in my role as the PR officer for the Institute. In the early years, contact with media or local officials, environmentalists and even “concerned” campus residents, often brought accusations that IIT was the major culprit in the degradation of the lake. Its untreated sewage was flowing into the lake creating a nutritious base for the water hyacinth to flourish; the lake depth was decreasing, consequently leading to the sorry sight of a dried lake bed for many months.
I recall more than one large meeting with government officials in the Director’s Conference room in the nineties, maybe relating to campus land encroachments, settlement of the slum along our eastern wall or the development of Adi Shankaracharya Marg (yes, its been a decades-long project). More often than not, IIT would be targeted for polluting the lake. One felt it was a diversionary tactic from the main topic under discussion, to put the IIT side of the table on the defensive. And it did. In spite of explanations of sewage treatment plant etc, it did put us on the defensive.

Thinking, naively, that this issue needs to be tackled, this negative perception of IIT needs to be corrected, I felt that a PR campaign could be carried out. Pro-active PR was not part of the system, but my enthusiasms (often misplaced) were then not subdued. Trying to get the data right, I met up with the Dean Planning and the campaign suffered an early demise and went into long cold storage. The Dean, a patient and gentle professor, opened my eyes to the true facts – of our out dated sewage treatment plant releasing half treated sewage water into the lake, the attempts to make it more efficient, the growing campus population creating growing wastewater, all going into the lake. His wise advise – leave the issue well alone, it will only focus more prominently and negatively on us.

There were others on Campus, who viewed the lake and what was happening to it with anguish. Some decided to do something about it. A “shramdan” project gathered some momentum. A scheme was worked out in detail, to show that so many volunteers working for so many hours a day could cover so many acres of the IIT side of the lake, which would de-weed the area! Students and residents physically removed the hyacinth and growth and pilled it up on the sides. IIT came up with trucks to carry the weeds to the vermiculture pits beyond the pipeline. Volunteers brought their own gloves and anti allergic ointment for the itching experienced by some! While the campaign got attention (including some good write-ups in the local papers), of course it had its critics. Was the problem too vast to be tackled by shramdan? Would the hoped for volunteer numbers ever materialize (considering the water snakes and muck)? After all the effort, would not the weeds grow again? It was seen as a quixotic venture. After about two years, this effort fizzled out.

Meanwhile the Powai region, so far a no-development zone, was opened up for development. This was to impact the Powai Lake in a big way. The construction activity was fast and furious. Un-authorized settlements were also coming up at a bewildering pace. Powai Lake was a catchments basin for rain water fed through the numerous storm water nallas from the north and south hills. The southern nallas had earlier carried clear rain water. Kids of the lake side area of the campus were known (escaping parental vigilance and inviting punishment) to mess about in the nallas, catching fish, floating paper boats, building dams. But now the nallas were drains carrying sewage, garbage, silt from the quarries, and debris from construction sites, all being dumped into the Lake.

On the other hand, as Powai developed, civic amenities had to be provided. The most important being a municipal sewage line, leading along Adi Shankaracharya Marg down to Kanjur Marg and joining the BMC sewage system.

With the commissioning of the BMC sewage line, IIT became the first to divert its sewage. IIT waste water no longer flowed to the sewage treatment plant, and then into the lake. This was at no little cost and effort – the figures were in crores of rupees, as the flow to north had to be diverted towards south, joining the BMC drain at Y Point Gate.

At last IIT could come out of hiding on the lake issue.

2000-2005 was an important period. Not only was the sewage line commissioned, but the Save Powai Lake campaign began in true earnest. With complete certainty and sincerity, must one give credit for the dynamic leadership provided by Mrs. Rashmi Misra, wife of the Director, Prof. Misra. She had an uncanny ability to attract, organize and lead. Soon a loosely formed Save Powai Lake Team was evolved; a team small in numbers but persistent in its efforts.
Over a number of meetings (frustrating to some of us for the slow progress), the Save Powai Lake Team analyzed the issue, identified the problems, gathered scientific and ecological facts, decided on issues to be raised, worked out action plans! I am not going into the details of the experience as a Team member. In brief, it was an education, satisfying and frustrating and in retrospect, fun and rather funny!

The Team initiated awareness campaigns to draw attention to the deteriorating lake. It arranged talks, children’s’ walks along the lake; postcard campaign addressed to Delhi and Mumbai Environment Ministries; interacted with IIT Students to enthuse them. A significant activity was the Human Chain on 26th January 2001, with participation of almost 1000 students from 8 schools, besides Powai residents. A very successful awareness campaign, to focus on lake water pollution was the Eco-friendly Ganesh project held over a number of years beginning 2003. After a lot of brainstorming and trial and error, the Navsrugan workshops were carried out to demonstrate making of Ganesh idols from soil from Powai Lake and use of eco-friendly colors.

The Human Chain and the Eco friendly Ganesh campaigns caught the attention of the media and Powai residents, officials and local authorities in a big way. The interest and response was overwhelming.

Considering this an IIT PR activity, without any hesitation, it can be mentioned here that the resources of the PR office were utilized in these efforts, particularly to get the involvement of the print and electronic media.

The Team’s awareness activities drew the attention of the then sitting MP, Mr. Kirit Somaiya. His intervention in the issue, his petition in Parliament on Powai Lake, his follow up with the Environment Ministry(MoEF) and the State level bodies, were invaluable. It assisted in the sanction and release of Rs. 6.5 crores by the Ministry to BMC for a bioremediation project for improvement of water quality and for beautification of the lake front along Adi Shankaracharya Marg. After some hiccups (one remembers attending innumerable meetings at BMC or elsewhere including a tender opening meeting at BMC), the project was implemented.

IIT too, now officially, had a Powai Lake Committee. IIT was now on many an official body relating to the Powai Lake set up by the State government and Municipal Corporation, including on the Monitoring Committee for the implementation of the Rs. 6.5 crore MoEF bioremediation project.

Unfortunately, the BMC was unable to do any work in the IIT Bay area of Powai Lake in its restoration work. IIT stepped in. The Estate Office employed labor to physically remove weeds and grasses from the Bay periphery, particularly in front of the Guest House and the Devi Temple. Similarly, some part of the lake bed in front of the Guest House was de-silted by machines, in the dry season.,

The snowball rolled on. The Save Powai Lake Team’s efforts attracted the Alumni Class of ’80. The Class held its Silver Jubilee reunion in December 2005 and raised funds for a Powai Lake Legacy Project. This was mainly for the improvement of the IIT Bay of Powai Lake and the development of the Lake side road from Devi temple to H-8 with gardens, jogging track, boat club. etc.

As the modern mantra goes, it was almost as if the Universe conspired to bring together support from various quarters to save Powai Lake! (Not to forget the probable pressures and influences exerted by probable lobbies, as Powai was now a prime and prized suburb).

The Powai Lake in the nineties, with all its natural eco wealth and beauty, gave us IITians a sense of anguish and despair. In the next decade IIT came into its own. The efforts at creating awareness of the issue, the active involvement in positive action, brought a turn around in public and media perception. From being the offender for the condition of the lake, IIT was now the champion for the Powai Lake, a concerned Institution, struggling for environmental preservation and restoration of one of its most precious assets, the Powai Lake! IITians could now sit by the Lake at sunset enjoying the peace and beauty. Serenity was restored.

IIT Bombay -

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