These days, barricades and bulldozers obscure the view of Mumbai’s Arabian Sea coastline. Signboards that read “connecting people and places” watch over construction crews that have made good use of the pandemic lockdown to ramp up work on the ambitious Coastal Road project.
The 29-km road will link Marine Drive in the south to Kandivali in the north. The anticipated benefit? Reduction in travel time by about 70 percent in the second most in the world. Is the intended benefit worth the estimated cost in public resources, livelihoods, and environmental damage?
The project an eight-lane partly elevated road, a 2.31-km main bridge, a 13-km interchange bridge, a sea wall, and India’s first undersea tunnel. About 68,000 vehicles are on the road one way per day. It entails the reclamation of 111 hectares of land from the sea, a plan lambasted by environmentalists who say the consequences of taking from nature could be devastating.
The project, for better or worse, will fundamentally alter Mumbai’s iconic coastline, particularly the 10.58-km stretch from Marine Drive to the Worli end of the Bandra-Worli sea link, likely to be completed by 2023.
The road project is divided into three “packages”. Package 1, from Priyadarshini Park to Baroda Palace, and Package 3, from Princess Street flyover to Priyadarshini Park, are being constructed by Larsen & Toubro; Package 2, from Baroda Palace to the Worli end of the sea link, is being put in place by a joint venture of the Hyundai Development Corporation and the Hindustan Construction Company.
Construction work started in 2018, but it wasn’t until well into the lockdown – and Rs 12,721 crore, 17 NOCs, multiple court battles, a nine-month suspension of work, and chief ministers from three parties later – that the project finally .
Much to the chagrin of environmentalists, citizen groups, and local fisherfolk who have had their lives disrupted. While environmental activists believe the project will irretrievably harm the ecology, the fisherfolk fear they won’t be provided adequate compensation for the loss of livelihood.
However, the state government and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, unsurprisingly, hail the project as a gamechanger for the megacity.
Construction work for India's first undersea road tunnel is in full swing at Priyadarshini Park.
‘They have taken away our homes and livelihood’
On a sunny Friday afternoon at Lotus Jetty, which overlooks the Haji Ali dargah, fisherfolk watch a lone boat sail off. It’s a rare sight now, they say. Over the past four months, their lives have been upturned by the ongoing work to reclaim the sea for the Coastal Road project, and they fear what it’ll yet bring.
“Severe injustice has been done to us. They’ve taken away our homes and our livelihood,” says Ganesh Armadeva, a fisherman who has five boats in the area. “We aren’t getting income from anywhere. It has been so many years since our country has got freedom, but we still don’t have the right to speak up.”
Noises and vibrations caused by drilling have been scaring away the fish, say the fisherfolk, most of whom come from families that have been engaged in fishing for generations. Fish that were easy to catch and provided a steady source of income to the fisherfolk have moved deeper while the waters where crabs were found have been wrecked by the construction work, they claim.
They take longer to catch fish and their problem is compounded by at a time when they can barely make ends meet. They also claim that fish are dying as construction work dirties the waters.
“Ecological sensitivity is completely absent in the planning, execution, even the attribution of this,” complained Stalin Dayanand, an environmentalist with the NGO Vanashakti who was one of the first people to challenge the Coastal Road project legally. “Fishing communities are never considered even during conceptualisation of the project.”
The Bombay High Court last month of a plea by fisherfolk demanding “unhindered access” to the Lotus Jetty after the BMC promised to build a navigational bridge that would enable fishing boats to move freely. Describing the apprehensions of the petitioners “misconceived, baseless and devoid of merits”, the municipal body claimed the fisherfolk's livelihood wouldn’t be affected.
The court then directed the petitioners to approach the Fisherfolk Rehabilitation Assessment Committee, which the BMC has formed for assessing whether fisherfolk would be affected and, if so, work out a compensation plan for them.
The committee “will soon come out with a policy”, Vishal Thombare, executive engineer with the BMC coastal roads department, claims. “Fishing activity is carried out deep in the sea and our project is near the coast. Whatever fishing activity is affected, experts are studying and will come up with a policy,” he says. “The affected people will be compensated accordingly.”
Boats at Lotus Jetty, where reclamation and construction work has severely affected fisherfolk.
The fisherfolk are especially upset with Maharashtra’s environment minister, Aditya Thackeray, who is also the legislator from the Worli constituency, which encompasses the Haji Ali area. The fisherfolk claim to have played a major role in electing him in 2019, and are convinced he could solve their problems if he wanted.
“We voted for him, we campaigned for him. He should be standing with us at the front,” says Armadeva.
Aditya Thackeray was not immediately available for a comment. We have emailed him a set of questions about the project and the fears of the fisherfolk. This story will be updated if there’s a response.
In January this year, Thackeray a Zebu Bull sculpture next to the Haji Ali coastline, where the fisherfolk live and work. He was just a few feet away from the fisherfolk and their problems, but failed to speak with them. Due to the heavy security they could not approach him either. “He saw the statue, but did not see us,” says a fisherman who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. “They talk about humanity, but don’t do anything for it.”
Sanjay Baikar, president of the Vanchit Machchimar Haji Ali Sahakari Sanghathan, says the situation has never been this dire for the fisherfolk in the area. “This has completely destroyed us. The fishermen are barely getting through,” he adds.
Baikar’s association represents nearly a hundred fisherfolk and their families from around the Hajji Ali coast. Many of the fishermen, faced with the loss of their traditional livelihood because of the construction work and mounting debts, have taken to dailywage jobs, while some fisherwomen have been compelled to work as domestic servants.
This is happening at a time when fisherfolk, like other marginalised communities, are struggling to recover from the heavy blow of the coronavirus pandemic. Baikar speaks of the desperation that swept their community at the peak of the lockdown. “Had you been there and seen the situation you would have had tears in your eyes,” he says. “I invite the chief minister to come live with us for two days, and see how we live. We do not even have vegetables to eat with rotis sometimes.”
Sea reclamation work is going on along the Haji Ali coastline.
‘Traffic will be seamless’
Larsen and Toubro workers sit under a tree in Priyadarshini Park on Napean Sea Road, where construction work on India’s first undersea road tunnel is in full swing. A tunnel boring machine called “Mavala” is digging 70 meters under the Malabar Hill. It is India’s largest such machine. It was manufactured by a Chinese company and in Mumbai in April 2020. The underwater dual tunnel, 2.07-km long, is proposed to run from Priyadarshini Park till Chhoti Chowpatty on Marine Drive.
The main purpose of the project, explains Thombare, is to decongest the city’s traffic and create more open spaces for Mumbaikers.
Mumbaikers rely mainly on public transport, however. According to a by Mumbai Vikas Samiti, a forum of transport experts, 77.1 percent of daily passenger trips in the city in 2015-16 were by public transport and only 22.9 percent by private vehicles.
So how many people will benefit from the project? “The entire Mumbai city will,” claims Thombare. “If travelling takes an hour now, it will only take 12 minutes after the road is built. There will be no tolls, signals. Traffic will be seamless. One lane will be dedicated to buses.”
While the road will undoubtedly make commuting to the suburbs easier for people in South Bombay, many cityfolk are concerned it may actually increase the traffic. And, of course, they lament the loss of the coastline view.
Gayatri Nair, an assistant professor at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, who has done research on the Koli fishing community, calls this a “skewed idea of planning”.
“This kind of planning caters to the interests of a certain section of people – those commuting by cars in Mumbai – and is to ease their mobility even as it directly impacts lives of vulnerable communities,” she adds.
The idea for the Coastal Road is credited to the transportation firm Wilbur Smith and Associates, which proposed a similar plan in 1962. It was formally adopted by Prithviraj Chavan, then chief minister, in 2011.
Construction work began in 2018, but was in July 2019 by the Bombay High Court, which quashed the project’s Coastal Regulation Zone clearances ruling that they had been granted without “proper scientific study”.
In December 2019, to the relief of the BMC and the state government, the Supreme Court the high court’s order and allowed the civic body to reclaim land from the sea for the project.
The BMC claims they have been transparent about the project, even as activists allege that there has been a lack of public dialogue. “We have been uploading all information on the website since the very first day and will continue to do so,” says Thombare.
The municipal body is also to deposit 2 percent of the total project cost with the state-run Mangrove Foundation. So far, it has deposited Rs 175.33 crore. The fund will be held in a fixed deposit and used for improving marine and coastal biodiversity. Scientists from the National Institute of Oceanography have the corals at Haji Ali and Worli.
A construction site at Worli.
Though the BMC had been issued clearances to reclaim 90 hectares of the sea, it claimed last year that it needed . In response, an expert committee of the union environment ministry an amendment to the clearance for the project. Once it is ratified by the central government, the BMC will have the authority to reclaim all 111 hectares.
The reclamation work is changing the flow of the water and shifting the tides, the fisherfolk point out, and this will harm Mumbai during monsoons when the city tends to get flooded.
“Our beaches will go underwater, the currents will change, the shoreline will start eroding faster, there will be loss of biodiversity, and the livelihood of fishermen will be destroyed. This project is an exercise in extravaganza which could very well have been avoided, or at least executed in a less damaging manner,” warns Dayanand. “This belief that you can restore nature has to vanish from every human’s mind, and the judiciary’s.”
Pictures by Tanishka Sodhi.
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