Shailendra Patel, diminutive and fast-paced, was leading me through a maze of barbed wires, construction debris and iron fences. Pigs and dogs looked up at us with surprise. This was a treasure hunt. With us was Tushar Sarode from Jeevit Nadi. After sliding down a precarious mound of construction debris, the treasure shimmered before us. In the middle of a chaotic Pune suburb, surrounded by a garbage dump, an urban drain and mountains of concrete emerged a sparkling, babbling little spring. It was this spring that Shailendra Patel has been protecting for the past 5 years. If it were not for him, this pool with darting fish and water sliders would be buried under a luxury apartment or a road.
Once we reached the spring and its sandy pool, Shailendra Bhai took off his shoes. He didn’t ask me to, which made me do so right away. He stood facing the small cave from where water bubbled and offered a silent prayer. It was dystopian to see this man clutching at his khadi bag, surrounded by towering apartments on one side and garbage dump on the other, worshipping a spring. This dystopia is typical to urban Indian waterbodies.
Shailendra Bhai calls this place Jal Devta Mandir. In the past five years, he corresponded, cajoled, requested, and made sure that several authorities, officials, ecologists, geologists, historians visited this place and put together a knowledge base which could help protect it from destruction. Shailendra Bhai’s perseverance has yielded results. Several agencies have given clear recommendations to protect the Bavdhan Spring.
Bavdhan is one more bustling unplanned suburb of Pune, a metro in Maharashtra with a population of 3.1 million. It is said that Bavdhan was, as the name suggests, “Rich with Wells” at one time. Even now, a scraggly line of ancient Ficus trees and lianas stands testimony to streams, springs and wells which once populated the suburb. Pune is a city of hills and Bavdhan is a dense watershed mostly flowing into Ram Nadi, which joins Mula River, a tributary of Bhima and further away, the mighty Krishna. Ram Nadi is heavily polluted and encroached, with most of its feeder streams and springs built over. But water has a long memory, and the region floods unerringly each monsoon: water which once flowed through streams lined with ferns and ficus trees now floods homes and roads. It washes away cars and claims lives.
Amid this chaos, lies the perennial Bavdhan Spring in a mere acre of land. 20 years back, residents of Bavdhan village collected drinking water from this spring. Even now, when electricity fails as it often does, women trudge down to the spring and collect water for household use. If conserved and set up with a small treatment plant, the spring can provide a minimum of 30,000 litres water a day to the community. Pune is not new to dismal water scarcity and such a spring offering up its gift is to be nurtured and celebrated.
A distinct community resource, the latest Development Plan of Pune Municipal Corporation shows this as “Yellow Zone” or residential zone. The land belongs to a developer who randomly cordons off the region when agitation to protect it gets louder. Pune Municipal Corporation, which should have played lead role in protecting this resource, is busy protecting builders, building roads inside rivers, concertizing river channels in the name of river-front development and putting in a metro-lines inside the river beds. When a Municipal Corporation deals in thousands of crores, perhaps it does not see value in a life giving resource.
According to the esteemed Deccan College Post graduate and Research Institute, “This is a contact spring formed between two hard rock flows of upper vesicular (porous) and lower compact Basalt (non-porous). Occurrence of water-yielding contact spring in deccan traps is a rare phenomenon. This is an endangered natural feature in Pune city. The spring currently yields water enough to run a 5 hp motor continuously. This can be an important drinking water source for the community and reduce burden on the Pune municipal Corporation. Bavdhan spring must be protected and conserved. Water can be stored in a storage tank and supplied for drinking.”[i]
A report from Central Groundwater Board CGWB official Dr. Upendra Dhonde states: “The yield of Bavdhan Spring monitored during May 2017 was 90 lpm i.e. more than 1 lakh liters per day but shows declining trend due to land use change and excessive pumping. The region needs urgent protection.” The conclusion of the study is to make community members groundwater literate and share knowledge with other local institutions who can take up monitoring and management of spring.
Ecological Society, a Pune based ecological restoration NGO created a detailed inventory of the flora and fauna of the spring region as well as a restoration plan, “Small patches of wild areas like this become important in supporting urban wilderness. These areas can act as stepping-stones for connecting fragmented urban wilderness. Bavdhan Spring needs to be conserved and restored urgently.”
Maharashtra Groundwater (Development and Management) Act (2009) and making institutions work
What is significant with Shailendra Bhai’s struggle is that he has made several agencies engage with Bavdhan Spring and take action. He has made governance sit up and work on what is important. Without aiming to do so, Shailendra Bhai made the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA) act. Under the Groundwater Act (2009), MWRRA is the Groundwater Authority of Maharashtra, but has hardly worked on the issue on ground. Operationalizing the Act is a novel exercise for all concerned including district officials who are supposed to act at District Groundwater Authorities under the Act, but never had to function in that role earlier.
In December 2018, Secretary of MWRRA visited Bavdhan Spring at the request of Shailendra Bhai. He was deeply affected by what he saw and immediately directed the Subdivisional Officer (Revenue) as the District Authority under the Groundwater Act 2009, to notify spring as a Public Drinking Water Source. Section 20 of Groundwater Act (2009) states: Power to notify public drinking water source: “The District Authority Shall, by order notify a public drinking water source.”
Once a source is notified as Public Drinking Water Source, the District Authority is bound to protect its quality and integrity under Section 21 of the Act.
Pune Municipal Corporation loves developers, not waterbodies
The letter also directed the District Authority to give necessary orders to Commissioner, Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) as the local self-governing body to protect Bavdhan Spring. In July 2019, the Subdivisional Officer of Maval-Mulshi Tehsil simply pushed the letter on to Commissioner Pune Municipal Corporation, requesting it to notify and protect the source as it falls under the Municipal Corporation Limits.
Since 2017, Shailendra Bhai has sent more than 150 letters to Pune Municipal Corporation to protect Bavdhan Spring. He has received no answer. He has filed several RTIs, sent multiple copies of MWRRA order to the PMC to no avail. Once, as he returned from the PMC after serving them one more copy of the SDO’s letter about protecting the spring he found that the private developer had put up a tin fence in record time to keep away anyone wanting to visit or study the spring. It appears that PMC is efficient towards protecting the interests of only some real estate developers.
In Dec 2020, again after dogged follow up from Shailendra Bahi, MWRRA convened a special video conferencing meeting with all members, SDO, GSDA Officials and Commissioner, PMC. In the meeting, PMC was asked repeatedly why it has not taken any steps to protect the spring and was directed not to allow any construction in the vicinity of the spring. Even after this meeting, absolutely no action has been taken by the PMC.
In informal conversations, PMC officials tell Shailendra Bhai that acquiring one acre of land will cost tens of crores, to which he says if the Corporation can spend thousands of crores on roads and flyovers, is it a prohibitive price for protecting a living spring?
Living springs make living rivers, not concrete channels
Struggle goes on. Students, experts, curious residents keep visiting the debri-surrounded place of respite. As we walked along the spring bank, Shailendra bhai and Tushar Sarode from Jeevit Nadi casually took away debris and garbage. Under each mound glistened a small trickle and as we cleared this trickle, it became a steady flow. We unearthed more than 10 such living springs along the bank of Bavdhan Spring and NDA stream. In a place where tankers ferry for six months a year, this resource is nothing less than a treasure: a treasure buried under garbage.
What will happen to these living springs if NDA stream and Bavdhan Spring are channelized? The answer is simple. The life giving springs will be smothered. Riparian ecosystems around the spring will be destroyed. And yet all around Pune, Maharashtra and also India, channelizing streams and rivers is the first step in the name of river rejuvenation, river front development, beautification. As a matter of fact, channelization only opens up new land for real estate development. It is rejuvenation of land developers, not streams.
As we walked around the riparian area of Bavdhan Spring, we came across older men sitting leisurely under a Peepal-Neem-Banyan grove. This was once called the Odhyacha Paar, or Spring Grove. Curious spotted owlets peered at us as we talked. They told us of how they drank water from the spring, how they would love it if there is a water storage tank made here preserving the sanctity of the place. They are bewildered as to how a community resource can just be walled and made off limits for us and them, one fine day.
Bavdhan Spring now flows over just an acre of land. We have buried and reclaimed most of the streams and springs of this region. Saving Bavdhan Spring is not a small act. If a city cannot save one acre of land which gives crystal clear water thourghout the year, then it is matter of shame for all concerned.
Shailndra Bhai’s struggle is not small, it is not symbolic. Saving a living water source is one of the most significant achievement in these times. He needs your support and encouragement. And more importantly, engagement.
On the occasion of World Water Day 2021, we urge the Pune Municipal Corporation, District Groundwater Authority, CGWB and the MWRRA, Maharashtra government, including Chief Minister and Environment Minister to:
- Immediately protect Bavdhan Spring from any developmental pressures. Declare the small plot admeasuring roughly an acre as Biodiversity Park.
- Remove all illegal construction debris dumped by developers into the spring and its banks.
- Restore the spring using ecological techniques in its natural form.
- Restore the NDA drain flowing adjacent to Bavdhan Spring.
- Install a simple water purification plant and small storage tank to provide clean and affordable drinking water to the residents of the area.
- Let the spring feed Ram Nadi.
Video on Bavdhan Spring visit made by Tushar Sarode, Jeevit Nadi. Thanks a lot Tushar!
Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP (email@example.com)
[i] Environmental and Archeological investigations of a natural spring in vicinity of Bavdhan Area, Dr. P. D. Sabale, Professor in Environmental Archeology