The Coastal Wash Out

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The western shore of Mumbai is set to get a 35-km-long road stretching from Nariman Point to Kandivali. With the principle nod given by the environment ministry, after years of being kept in suspension, the dream project of former Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chauhan might soon be realised. “The approval of the Environment Ministry is monumental as the coastal road will help relieve 60-70 percent of Mumbai’s traffic,” said Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis after the meeting with Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar in New Delhi.

For the purpose of construction, the government proposal entails reclamation of over 9.8 km of land from the sea and utilisation of 0.68 km stretch of mangroves. Since such a move is illegal as per the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification, 2011, the state government had approached the central environment ministry for permission to amend the existing law. “We are making efforts so that cm (Fadnavis) can inaugurate the project by August 15, 2015,” said Javadekar while announcing the ministry’s decision.

The first proposal for building a coastal road on the western shore of Mumbai was brought in 2011 by a joint committee chaired by former municipal commissioner Sitaram Kunte. In its report, the committee called the project one of “eminent public interest” and highlighted decongestion of traffic as its main purpose. “The need for new roads in the city to facilitate speedy travel between different parts and reduce transport related pollution is clearly indisputable,” stated the report.

There are 2,14,88,152 motor vehicles in Mumbai as per the motor vehicle department data available till 2013. Of these only 14 percent are cars. Experts say that the project will only benefit a handful of the society since the proposed road will only allow the movement of cars. “If you look at the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, instead of the estimated 75,000 cars per day only 30,000-40,000 are found plying. The same thing will happen here,” Darryl D’Monte, president of Bandra West Residents Association, tells Tehelka. “What is needed instead is the improvement of mass transportation”

Residents are also up in protests against the so called benefits for the public. “The fundamental question is what percentage of the public will the coastal road benefit?” asks Arup Sarvathikary, chairman, Bandra Bandstand Residents Trust. The Trust, along with other resident associations, maintains the promenade alongside the coast, which it fears may be demolished with the construction of the proposed road.

Experts also point out that the city is at risk of losing its seafront to projects like these. “The safety of the Mumbai coast is in question. The increasing instances of the sea entering the mainland reflect the increasing pressure it is being subject to,” says D Stalin, director of Vanashakti, an environmental ngo.

The government, on the other hand, has been parading it as a project of immense benefit to the public saying that a metro line will be constructed parallel to it and space for the Bus Rapid Transit System will be provided along the road. “The cm after putting across the idea of the Metro, simply retracted from his statement soon after and is now pushing for the Bus Rapid Transit System,” points out Debi Goenka, executive trustee, Conservation Action Trust. “All these are nothing but to give public a veneer,” says Monte.

The Mumbai City Development Plan 2005-2025 noting that, “The coastline at a number of places has been pushed back due to reclamation starting with Cuffe Parade at the southern most end and with the Versova Reclamation at the northern end,” concludes that, “While they are an integral part of Mumbaikars’ life, they (coastlines) themselves are dying.”

In 2014, the coastal authority had declassified areas under the CRZ as ‘bay areas’ opening them up for construction. Chowpatty, Cuffe Parade and Churchgate were some areas which were left open for developers. Coastal land was also reclaimed for the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) which took over 14 hectares near Uran in Raigad district causing massive destruction of mangroves and affecting the livelihood of over 1,500 fishermen.

The National Green Tribunal (ngt), rapping the Trust had passed a judgment in March this year stating, “The stand of the jnpt, is obstinate, complete denial and even though there are various references, yet, non-halting of reclamation work and destruction of mangroves by jnpt continues reclamation of the land (sic).” Many such instances have already scarred the pristine coastline of the metropolitan city.

Also caught in the crossfire is the eco-sensitive mangrove patch which may either be obliterated or used to construct stilts for the project. In the year 2004, the Central Institute of Fisheries Education (CIFE), the Centre of Studies in Resources Engineering (CSRE) and the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT-B) had undertaken a study on the mangroves and had recommended that there be a “strict implementation of CRZ to safeguard the mangroves”.

Contrary to the recommendations of scientific studies, the Centre is looking to amend the notification to allow the Maharashtra government to start construction of the coastal road. “Fadnavis, Javadekar and Nitin Gadkari (Minister of Road Transport and Highways), are a toxic trio for the environment,” says Monte.

Offering an alternative to the displacement of mangroves, the government’s 2011 report proposes ‘compensatory afforestation’; a concept that is difficult to implement given its complexities. “The sad reality is that it is an environment illiterate government. Wetlands cannot be recreated elsewhere,” Stalin tells Tehelka. “If there is no place but the coast to make their roads, where will they find space to replant the mangroves?”

Goenka whose organisation works for the preservation of the mangroves says the compensatory afforestation scheme will never see execution. “The municipal body of our city can’t even manage its gardens, leave alone replant and maintain mangroves!” he says.

Also niggling is the dearth of information in the public domain about the project. “Not a single public information is available about the project pegged at over 12,000 crore for which the taxpayers money will be used,” says Monte. “Is this democracy? Is this achhe din for the commercial capital where projects of this magnitude are being pushed without any public consultation?”

Despite frequent emails and calls, attempts to reach the transport department and the municipal corporation were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, 50 km from Mumbai the Uran beach is facing a rapid erosion of its soil. Once a rich wetland, it is now turning into a mud bank due to the intensity of displaced sea water; perhaps a sign of what is soon to come.

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