Will Mumbai Lose Its Sea Front?

Citizens are worried that a an expensive coastal road project could be very destructive for the environment and the city’s waterfront

Mumbai citizens protesting against the proposed coastal road project (Photo: Satyen Bordoloi)

Mumbai citizens protesting against the proposed coastal road project (Photo: Satyen Bordoloi)

Mumbai’s citizens are gearing up for what could be a prolonged struggle against plans to develop infrastructure, plans they say will damage the city. Experts, activists and ordinary citizens are fearful that not only will the environment be seriously affected, but even the city’s unique beauty could be destroyed for all time. And instead of just accepting this onslaught, they are making their voice heard.

Their biggest target is the coastal road, a pet project of the Maharashtra government which will run from south Mumbai to the far north for over 34 kilometres across the city’s western coast and is expected to cost an estimated Rs 8500 (8.5 billion rupees), though past experience shows that costs invariably balloon over the years. Building this will involve not just reclaiming additional land from the sea – almost 170 hectares — but constructing underwater tunnels and bridges along the route. The government says it will facilitate smooth movement of traffic; the activists say it will obliterate mangroves on an unprecedented scale, to say nothing of affecting traditional fishing communities.

Moreover, they point out, it will be an expensive boondoggle, made for the benefit of just the 7 percent who owns cars and will be built at a time when the traditional north south axis of the city is becoming redundant and population and traffic are moving away from the southernmost tip of the city. The Bandra Worli Sea Link was estimated to carry 1,25,000 vehicles per day; it has barely reached 50 percent of the target.

The unkindest cut of them all is that instead of looking out to the sea, Mumbai residents will see a motorway–the famed Marine Drive and its Queen’s Necklace would become history. Pedestrians will have to cross an 8-lane highway to look at the sea.

Flyovers no answer

“During Nitin Gadkari’s tenure in Maharashtra as PWD minister, in the 1990s, countless flyovers were made. The argument was, they would solve the endemic traffic jams in the city. What happened? Traffic only increased. The answer is to restrict cars and promote public transport, which is what London and Singapore have done,” says journalist Darryl D’Monte, who is among those spearheading the movement against the coastal road project. Citizens groups have been demonstrating against it and trying to raise awareness of the implications of this plan.

The activists fear that the Ministry of Environment and Forests will speed up clearances, given that all the BJP-Shiv Sena are in all three rungs of the government – municipal, state and central – and none of them are likely to create any hurdles. Permissions to get around the Coastal Regulatory Zone, which prohibits any construction near the coastline, are still awaited. The previous Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra, which had discussed the Coastal Road simply did not have the political will to push it through.

Environmentalists claim that Mumbai can no longer handle the monsoons and each year, the city gets flooded at least once or twice whenever heavy rains and high tides coincide. This is blamed on rampant construction, dumping of waste in the sewage system thus blocking it and the rapid disappearance of mangroves which used to absorb the excess water.

Mumbai’s fishing community – which calls itself the original inhabitants of Bombay, tracing their history back centuries — too are agitated about the possibility of a road which could destroy their villages – or koliwadas, as they are called — on the western side of the city. Earlier projects, such as the Sea Link, affected their catch they say—reclamation would almost finish it off.

Another project that has angered residents in different parts of the city is the 3rd phase of the Metro which will run from Colaba in the south to SEEPZ, an old export promotion zone in the northern suburbs.

This will involve underground digging and clearance of many areas, including dense residential neighbourhoods. The Shiv Sena is in the forefront of agitating against it because some of the buildings that will be demolished are in areas where they have supporters. The government has been looking around for open spaces where Metro yards, to service and maintain the trains, will be built.

Digging up Oval Maidan

One such was the pristine Aarey Milk Colony, a vast green space of over 1200 hectares, where cattle are reared and is a popular picnic spot but a huge outcry made the government back off. Reports now suggest that the government is eyeing the 16 hectare Oval Maidan, venue of club cricket matches and one of the few open spaces in the city.

The Fadnavis government has made no secret of prioritizing development in Mumbai and monetizing open spaces, such as the 1600 hectare eastern docklands, which is home to old warehouses, small businesses and slums. The land is owned by the Mumbai Port Trust. Gadkari, who is now the Transport Minister at the centre, has painted a picture of massive redevelopment involving gleaming apartment blocks, hotels, entertainment centres and a giant wheel on the lines of London Eye. There is some talk of “affordable housing” but citizens are skeptical after the experience of the mill lands in central Mumbai where the promised housing for workers never came up.

For the coastal road project, the Indo-French company STUP Consultants and Ernst and Young were paid an estimated Rs 80 million for a report, but not many know what it says. Activists say this lack of transparency shows that the government plans to push through the project at any cost and therefore must be resisted.