What’s downstream? Documenting Vishwamitri

My first visit to Medhad, Virpur just downstream of the city of Vadodara on the Vishwamitri river sparked the thought of documenting this river that bears the brunt of industrial waste and urban sewage. During the visit to Medhad, I discussed the conditon of the river with locals and made some notes (http://veditum.org/environment/on-the-banks-of-gutter-ganga/).[1]

The idea was to cycle towards the ocean and document stories along the Vishwamitri downstream of Medhad, But for a first time cycler, just 100kms in 3 days and I was drained. A big salute to Siddharth, the initiator of Veditum for all his walks and cycling journeys across India.[2] The urge to still see where the river meets the ocean led me to find a riding partner in Vadodara based sculptor, Mrugen Rathore who has a sensitive spot for rivers and has done an art installation for Vishwamitri. We drove down till the ocean and stopped at around a dozen villages.[3]

The first village downstream of Virpur on our side (left bank) of the river is Pingalwada. According to our route and maps, this is where a small stream meets Vishwamitri and we wanted to go to the meeting spot. Parking our bike, we walked towards the village and a lot of fields later, we ended up on the banks where there was a sangam but not of Vishwamitri. This is where Rangaai meets Dhadhar. And then Dhadhar goes a kilometer further to meet Vishwamitri. We tried to go till this point but monsoon, slush, dense vegetation and warnings from the locals about muggers prevented us from taking the risk. Here, our guide was Jayantibhai Vasava who is a farmer.

Interestingly, downstream from here, even though Vishwamitri is the larger river by volume, a majority of the locals call the river as Dhadhar. This is important to note, because in our general discourse on rivers in India, the contribution of tributaries is not well highlighted. At times, the tributaries are much larger than the river name used in popular discourse, e.g, Yamuna is larger than the Ganga when they meet at Allahabad. [4]

Our next stop was Amod, this is on the highway and there’s a bridge over the river nearby. With a lot of dust from trucks and and industries around, Amod is a rather uninviting small town. We stopped at the bridge and were astonished by what we saw. While on one side towards the ocean, the river surface was clear, the other side was covered with some material that we couldn’t recognize. It seemed like a mixture of dirt, slush, plastic waste and plant material. A conversation with two factory workers (from Machsara) revealed that it is plant/hyacinth growth over water. Supposedly it was earlier present on both sides of the bridge, and some chemical had been used to clear it.

We also saw our first crocodile here. As we stood on the bridge, the flow of the river seemed to be in the opposite direction and we were told that this how it is during high tide. The water from the sea is actually pushing the water inwards at the mouth of the river. There’s a pretty steep fall on the banks beneath the bridge which prevented us from going closer. We’d have liked a closer look at the mugger but the stench of sewage made the river very uninviting here.

After Amod, the mouth of the river opens up and at Denva we could see the massive width where the river meets the Gulf of Khambhat. By now, it’s all sea water and the people do not have much use for it given its saline nature, but there are salt farms all around.

There are the nomadic ‘Bharwad’ and ‘Rabaris’ who have makeshift tents along these salt farms and can be seen moving around. They are nomadic pastoralists. We saw a few groups, some with sheep (50-75) and some with cows (25-30). These tribes are known to have tattoos on their bodies and the women seemed to be wearing mostly black and red. A walk with them seemed fascinating and a covnersation with one of the person’s revealed that there’s a famous temple of the Rabari community here and during some auspicious times, there are thousands of people who come over to Denva. [5][6]

Another very stark presence is of ONGC’s mini oil rigs. Every few hundred metres, we came across a yellow boundary inside of which a large drill went in and there were pipes heading for the refineries close by.

The picture of the nomadic communities roaming with their cattle amongst the oil rigs presented a very stunning co-existence of two entirely differenct worlds. On one side, you have the people living so close to earth with the ways of nature and on the other, you have officials in suits and ties in big air-conditioned cars who come over sometimes to check if the oil extraction is happening properly.

This contrast got even more stark as we closed in on Dahej, which is an industrial town on the coast of the Gulf of Khambhat. By now, we’re at a point where on the right, Vishwamitri or Dhadhar has culminated into the ocean and on the left, there is the beautiful Narmada which has culminated into the ocean… And in front of us, endless water.

Entering Dahej feels like a dooms day scene with hundreds of humongous factories. There are massive factories which are throwing fumes up in the sky, and a big labour camp which has come up to house the people working in these factories. In the evening, we could see queues of people waiting in the dusty lanes for cheap food to be served as their was another set of people ready to go in for the night shift. You wonder if we really want all the ‘progress’ and ‘development’ if it is being fuelled in this way. Isn’t there a more human way of doing this?

Interestingly, along with these factories, there are also a bunch of Ashrams which dot the coast line. I’m assuming people who come for the Naramada parikrama stop over at these ashrams and hence they’re always expecting visitors. These temples and ashrams again portray another contrast and one wonders if there can be some intermingling of values and code of conduct between the two? There is also a lighthouse here (in Luvara) close to which is a patch of beach which is clean and hardly touched. There are a few locals who had come for a dip and there are ships/boats dotting the horizon.

On our return journey, we paid an extensive visit to Denva and checked out a salt farm. People employed in the business of making salt are locally called Agariyas and a good season to come and see salt all around would be around Holi festival.

This time around, our stops were at Machhasara, Kobla, Umaj, Sokhgda Rodu, Sambhoi. The water quality deteriorated considerably as we moved closer towards Vadodara. Conversations with the locals revealed that they used to drink water or bathe in Vishwamitri/Dhadhar till about 30 to 40 years ago. The last few decades have seen the river turn into a drain and apart from monsoon season, they can’t even bear to sit near the river.

A conflicting and interesting observation was also that inspite of the chemicals, the land remained fertile and growing vegetables and other crops hasn’t been affected. One of the farmers said, “Maybe all these chemicals are helping to give us good crops right now but no one knows what’ll happen int he long run.” Any mention of organic ways of farming were responded by blank faces. “We’re depended on pesticides and chemical fertilizers now. This is how we farm.” In some villages of North India, I’ve observed that even if a farmer is using chemical fertilizers for commercial production, there’ll be a small patch they’ll maintain for themselves which is grown organically (ofcourse, it is very close the land which uses chemicals and hence can never be completely organic). This wasn’t the case in the villages along the banks of Vishwamitri.

People also mentioned that the number of crocodiles has significantly gone up in the last two decades. Earlier, there were very rare sightings but now muggers roam around freely even in the villages (more so at nights) and makes a constant presence felt. This had led to a few attacks on humans but most of villages maintained that “If we don’t go near them, they don’t bother us.” We also saw instances of groups of people crossing the river (mainly around Pingalwada when they went over to Oshipura) with their cattle.

All in all, this was the first time I made some effort to see what has become of this river which flows through the city I grew up in. As a citizen, we should be active in movements trying to protect the natural resources and it begins with our own actions. Tiny things like being aware of where our clothes are made? How are they dyed? Where is my medicine made? Does the company follow norms? How many packaged products do I consume? Can I keep a check on my habits? Together, if we raise the collective awareness, we can certainly hope for a greener, cleaner future.

Mirdad (Jubin) is an explorer of the beautiful world within and outside. After graduating as a mechanical engineer, he worked for Tata Motors for a while before moving on to YourStory.com to pursue his passion for writing. A deeper inner quest brought him to Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh where he has been living since last five years and is a part of Saadho. His interest lies in sustainability, adventure and media.

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