Aug. 19: A part of India went to sleep on Friday wondering how pure its cola is.
Another part — 50,000 at last count — helped itself to bottle after bottle of murky water straight from the sea that contained 43 times more impurities than the tap water you get at home.
The delirious drinking spree unfolded because word sloshed around that the sea water had “miraculously” turned sweet, giving it curative powers.
All this happened in the country’s financial capital, Mumbai, in the middle of a raging debate over pesticide residue in soft drinks.
The presence of a revered shrine nearby fed the frenzy so much that mothers clutching infants thought nothing of jumping into the sea near Mahim Creek in central Mumbai and forcing the young to sip the toxic water.
The scenes were reminiscent of the mania that swept the country in 1995 when Ganesh idols were reported drinking milk.
This time, the wave was largely confined to a 2-km stretch between two beaches of Mahim and Dadar. However, late in the evening, people in Valsad, a coastal district in south Gujarat, also tasted “sweet” water.
Many on the Mumbai beaches attributed the “miracle” to Maqdoom Fakir Ali Paru or Baba Maqdoom Saheb, a 14th century saint who is buried at the Mahim dargah next to the beach. “The water is especially sweet about 100 metres into the sea. That’s the spot where Baba Maqdoom is believed to have conducted a religious discourse. This is nothing but Baba’s miracle,” said a devotee.
Preliminary tests revealed that salinity did go down sharply at Mahim and Dadar as compared to the water in Juhu.
Scientists attributed excessive rainfall to the dip in salinity.
Scientists from the National Institute of Oceanography today picked up samples of water from Mahim in an attempt to fathom the change in salinity and its perceived sweet taste.
The tests on the water will examine salt levels and oxygen content, and look for natural, telltale microscopic marine organisms that might help scientists determine how and why the salinity and taste of the water changed.
“The test results are expected by Monday,” said Mahesh Zingde, the scientist in charge at the institute’s Mumbai laboratory, who collected samples of the water every hour for several hours this morning to track changes in the salinity with changes in the tide.
Marine scientists say changes in sea salinity are not uncommon during the monsoon or during low tide at sites where rivers run into the sea. Heavy rains over the past few days might have contributed to extra load of freshwater seeping into the sea, said Zingde.
“We can't speculate anything now about the reported sweet taste,” Zingde said.
Doctors and government officials repeatedly warned that the water is “dangerous” to drink. “There could be severe gastro enteritis and acidity. The heavy water could also lead to poisoning,” said Hemant Thackeray, a cardiologist at Breach Candy hospital.
Still, thousands of people of all age groups gulped down the water.
Does this mean that the awareness drive on safe food has largely remained superfluous'
Asked about the significance of the campaign on pesticides in colas, Sunita Narain, whose report has prompted restrictions on colas in some states, said: “The question undermines our work.”
Since the mid-1980s, the Mahim Creek has been dubbed one of the most polluted zones along the Indian coastline. The beaches at Dadar and Mahim have sewage pumping stations.
According to official statistics, the Mahim Creek alone receives an estimated 64 million tonnes of domestic sewage, and 0.9 million tonnes of industrial effluents annually.
A miracle did happen, though. Despite guzzling such water, no one reported sick till late tonight.
The jury is out on whether the credit should go to divine intervention or the famed resilience of Indian tummies.