Reaching the Other Side – Journey of RIVERse through Mumbai

The urban rivers of India, often given the mantle of mother goddesses who silently nurtured cities from millennia, if given a voice today they could play a steering role in the health of our future generations.

RIVERse exhibition at the Sprouts Earth Mela 2020. Photo credit – Water Environs

RIVERse exhibition travelled to different communities in Mumbai to engage crucial stakeholders whose lives and livelihoods are dependent on the river. Photo credit – Water Environs

RIVERse exhibition travelled to different schools in Mumbai, to engage young minds as Rivers Crusaders. School teachers have been one of the core facilitators during RIVERse journey. Photo credit – Water Environs

The Water Story – A 3-day workshop exploring the life of urban waters. The booklet has been translated into four regional languages to increase its outreach. Photo credit – Water Environs

Many years back when we started our work on rejuvenating the rivers of Mumbai, I looked at the abused mess which lay in place of what we called a water body and asked a learned friend, "will we ever be able to reason or give voice to these wasted and abused waters?" In reply she asked me a simple rhetorical question,"… for many years did women have a place in the decision-making process of a household, forget voting rights at a national level? Still today, after generations of advocacy, women are steering world governance."  In those words lay hope for us at Water Environs. 

The journey of "RIVERse" (not christened in its initial years) has entered its 10th year. It has been a decade of finding confidence and strength in a community's single voice. A strength that has come with learnings from partners and mentor’s belief. Belief in the simple objective – lets save the rivers of Mumbai City. Among the first supporters were Sprouts Environmental Trust and InHaf (Habitat Forum), who gave us public platforms to share our concerns and small funding to develop tools for engaging community. 

All this while, the RIVERse team’s efforts were pro-bono, balancing professional obligations alongside creating the dialogue and media vehicles to plant the thought of successful rejuvenation of rivers and inspire other riverine futures of the country. As a group of architects/ urban professionals concerned with the status of rivers and streams (nullahs), we stepped out of our comfort zones and immersed ourselves in advocacy via the River March Movement. This was done by contributing towards strategy building, providing technical support, creating awareness and outreach material required for the cause.  

Over the years, many partners and well-wishers invited us to present our work at various forums, even helped us create relevant forums. This led to a decade-long rich timeline of clean-up drives, academic studios where we mapped the rivers and their issues, encouraged young professionals to take up the cause, conducted workshops, curated and hosted exhibitions to mobilise communities and students. We represented the cause at media platforms periodically writing articles in newspapers as well as broadcasting features on news channels, leading us to a much-needed dialogue with the erstwhile Chief Minister. We also shared our concerns and provided eco-sensitive options to Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM). The latter led to the floating of the RFP for the "Beautification" of the three rivers of Mumbai. 

In 2017, our journey got another boost as we became part of a forum organised by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung(FES), where we were introduced to the Transformative Change Making (TCM) methodology. It threw into perspective the urban grid lock of a transformation crisis where different stakeholders have varied interests and refuse to engage with each other to achieve a common good. This was a throwback for the Water Environs team which was anyway aiming to align all stakeholders for revival and nurturing of water ecologies by synergising technical and ecological efforts with political and social will. 

FES together with Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies (KRVIA), Mumbai adopted RIVERse as a catalytic project, which would explore TCM process as a means for coalition building and creating a new narrative for urban water ecologies. The method allowed us to rethink our efforts as a team for creating collective strength by aligning our individual skill sets. In the last two years, we have continuously reinvented ourselves. We have been able to see the multifaceted dimensions of Rivers which has driven us to develop effective responses for achieving a collaborative urban dream. 

The TCM process has allowed us to view every stakeholder as an ally, the spoilers as transformative allies, the fence sitters as transactional allies and of course the converts -the natural allies. And we successfully broke ground with this revised outlook, using new methods of media explorations, collective workshops and one-to-one sessions. This has allowed us to envision "RIVERse" not just as Water Environs but as a collective of citizens and organisations making the larger narrative on RIVERse more robust and impactful. 

In 2019, we were faced with the hurdle of "how to engage with what had become the other side?" The transactional allies won’t join our forums because strong advocacy groups created a natural defensive response. So we revaluated and changed gears. We rewound to our last session in October 2018 and asked the question “how do we bridge the communication gap between us and at the same time increase the diversity of stakeholders in our collective”. We started by identifying and involving transactional allies as well as transformational allies in their own playgrounds. We engaged with proposals for water bodies rejuvenation projects which were up for Tenders.  Through our network, we met engineers and communities which were consistently troubled by the river's natural seasonal expansion, commonly seen as flooding. We started mapping and discussing the river edge with MCGM engineers, understanding the limitations from their point of view.  

Each stakeholder engagement was a window to the other side, a larger, multi-layered machinery of people that needed to be activated.  And to bring about change, all these layers will have to be addressed and aligned. 

As said in the beginning, change seems to be in a state of inertia and slow to start. But once it begins and gets the push in the right direction there is no stopping the wheels of transformational change. As stated in TCM method, the ingredients for any change narrative are to identify the catalysts of hope, threat, game changer, a shared confidence and the ethical imperative to win over the "other side". And with this, we can "Riverse' the death of the urban rivers. 

#### The RIVERse project is part of the Socio-Ecological Transformation workline of FES India office. For more information on the project, contact Program Manager Anurag Shanker anurag.shanker(at)fes-india.org or http://waterenvirons.org/

 

 

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