Mumbai, the city of seven islands has been plagued by reclamation plans and development schemes. Since its existence, it has been a ‘work in progress’. One such project is the construction of the coastal road. The Mumbai Coastal Road Project (MCRP) is an under construction 8-lane, 29.2 km expressway connecting the Princess Street Flyover in south Bombay with Kandivali in the north. With an estimated cost of 12,700 crore rupees, the coastal road will be the most expensive road per kilometer in India (Kadri, 2020).
The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification of 1991 by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) was a key landmark in Indian environmental policy and legislation (Chouhan & Parthasarathy, 2016). It aimed to protect the coastal environment and its resource dependent population by regulating the use of land along the coast. However, over subsequent years, the CRZ has undergone multiple amendments in the name of ‘economic growth’. The 2015 amendment permits the construction of roads by reclaiming land anywhere along India’s coastline without receiving any environmental clearance, albeit in “exceptional cases” the definition of which was left undefined (Kadri, 2020).
The CRZ amendments over the years have nullified several laws and regulations due to which it poses a threat to the environment and its resource dependent population.
A Threat to Livelihood and Marine Ecosystems
As Mumbai’s development projects expand more and more into the sea, it threatens the livelihood of the local fishing community and economies dependent on it. Alibaug is a tidal influential coastal area situated towards the south of Mumbai.Tidal influential coastal areas are places where tidal water flows during high tide. The Mumbai coastal road construction has negatively impacted the Uran-Alibaug area. During construction, the water that gets pushed back ultimately flows to other low-lying areas. Pawar shared that thousands of hectares of paddy fields have been destroyed permanently due to the influence of tidal water into the fields. Farmers have abandoned these fields because they are no longer suitable for any plantation or rice cultivation. Construction of such mega projects like the Mumbai Coastal Road don’t just impact the immediate vicinity. Its negative ramifications are far reaching and unravel over a period of time.
The Mumbai coastal road project is just one among many such projects that are damaging our fragile coastal ecosystems and the economies dependent on them.
The Mumbai-Trans Harbour Link (MTHL) is a 22 km bridge that connects Sewri in central Mumbai to Chirle in Navi Mumbai. With a stretch of 16.5 km above the sea, the MTHL will be the longest sea bridge in the country. This bridge will also link the Mumbai Coastal highway beginning from Marine Drive to the end of the Bandra-Worli sea link.
Pawar explained that hundreds of pillars have been constructed into the tidal water creek area. The sludge and waste material obtained from drilling and boring these pillars have not been disposed of scientifically. During the high tide, liquid mud and waste material gets deposited on fish spawning grounds due to which fishes are unable to lay eggs and multiply. Even their marine food chains have been disrupted due to the filtration being deposited on their homes.
A few kilometers away from the MTHL bridge is a Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) project that has been set up at the mouth of the Thane and Nava Sakhi creek. The mouth of these creeks serves as an entrance through which the fishes enter into the Thane and Nava Sakhi creek. “The mouth of the creek which used to be 1500 meters wide and 10 meters deep has now been reduced to only 100 meters wide,” Pawar emphasized. Due to the reduction of the mouth and the waste deposited on it, the strength and quantum of water has drastically reduced. All the sludge has been deposited on the marine food and their habitat has completely been destroyed.
Such a top down policy approach fails to consider the inputs of stakeholders who get affected by the decision making. As stakeholders, the views and opinions of fishermen should be considered during the planning and decision making process. The indigenous knowledge that they possess can aid in sustainable development. Pawar shared that most of the development projects in Mumbai are being constructed on fishing grounds. Whether it is the Mumbai Coastal Road project or the Bandra-Worli sea link or the Bullet train. Majority of these portions are intertidal fishing zones. “Our community is facing a huge challenge. We have lost our livelihood, we have lost our heritage and our culture. Our identity is under threat now,” Pawar explained.
The Mumbai Coastal Road project not only affects fishing activity but also poses a threat to the coral species. Corals are endangered marine species that are found across the rocky intertidal regions along the coastline of Mumbai. They preserve the quality of the coastal biosphere and act as ‘wave breaks’ between the sea and coastline and minimize the impact of sea erosion. Corals are protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA), 1972, and permissions are needed from the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF-Wildlife) to translocate these species (Chatterjee, 2020).
During the Mumbai Coastal Road project, a survey by Marine Life of Mumbai identified 11 species of corals out of which nine were hard corals and two were soft corals. The study also found reef building coral species at Haji Ali, where land is being reclaimed (Bavadam, 2020). Since these corals were falling in the project’s way, they were shifted to a new location at the southern end of Mumbai Island. A large number of corals may have already been destroyed due to reclamation and excess sedimentation prior to the first biodiversity assessment (Chatterjee, 2020). Pawar explained that the survival rate of these translocated corals is very low because corals are accustomed to the local conditions of the area such as the temperature of the water. The fact that they have grown in Mumbai’s coast implies that these corals are resilient to have survived the stresses of the city, but probably not enough to survive a move (Singh & Chandrashekhar, 2020).
Across the globe, coral restoration and transportation has been carried out with varied success. In India, pilot projects to study the survival rate, method and site of coral translocation have been undertaken in Lakshadweep and Andaman Islands and off the coast of Kutch (Bhalerao, 2020). This process is still at a nascent stage along the coastline of India.
The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) audit revealed that the BMC hired consultants to prepare an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report for the Mumbai Coastal Road project. that “lacked holistic ecological evaluation and failed to identify the key ecological risks and downplayed potential ecological impacts” (Desai, 2022). This reflects the lack of transparency through which development projects are sanctioned.Such projects prioritize economic development over sustainable development.
High Opportunity Cost
Along with economic, environment and social costs, the Coastal Road has high opportunity costs. Opportunity cost is the value of the next best alternative that is foregone in order to allocate resources to that single product. For instance, spending thousands of crores on the Mumbai Coastal Road Project means forgoing the benefits of, say, investing in improving the local railways, increasing the fleet of public buses or improving the pedestrian infrastructure. Imagine the outcomes achieved by spending on such alternative projects.
In the majority of Indian cities, private cars account for a low modal share in spite of their high vehicular share, with an overwhelming segment of the population using public vehicles as a means of transportation (Kadri, 2020). In order to reduce congestion and traffic in cities, the world is shifting towards public transport. Whereas, our solution to this issue is the opposite: constructing more roads.
Proponents of the project claim that the coastal road will decongest Mumbai’s roads along with reducing commute time. However, research has observed correlations between increase in road capacity and traffic (Choudhury, 2022). When more roads are constructed, people are incentivised to use their personal vehicles more which ultimately leads to an increase in traffic and pollution.
Are the intended benefits of the coastal road worth the loss to livelihood and ecological damage? It’s time that we rethink our approach towards development. People- centered development needs to be our focus where economic development and sustainable development go hand in hand.
Such lopsided development projects undertaken at the cost of the environment and marginalized communities seem to benefit only a small section of the population. At best, the Mumbai Coastal Road is a short-sighted project that poses a serious threat to our coastal ecosystems. It does not take into consideration the long-term impact that it is creating for the future generations to face.
The writer wishes to express her gratitude to NandaKumar Pawar for an interview that supported the article with primary data. Pawar is a fisherman by profession. He heads Sagar Shakti, the marine wing of Vanashakti that addresses coastal issues and community welfare in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.