Imagine calmly listening to music, while driving home from work on a smooth and plain four-lane road that is devoid of traffic. The view is scenic, the road winds along the coastline of Mumbai and you can see the sun setting on the horizon. There's a light breeze that refreshes you as the car moves along. On each side, there are parks, promenades and patches of little forests.
You zip by in a jiffy, and reach home in 20 minutes, rather than 2 hours of noxious journey through traffic snarls and incessant jams.
Doesn't this sound like an idyllic future?
Of course it does. Except for the fact that promises don't transmute into reality, just like imagination doesn't compensate for infrastructure. The eight-lane Mumbai Coastal Road is just this dream that is being sold to the citizens of Mumbai. Touted as a panacea for the traffic ills, the road project is envisaged along the north-south axis, connecting Marine Drive to Kandivali. The 29-km road will have tunnels, roads on stilts and fancy interchange bridges, and will run on land 'reclaimed' from the sea. The project is estimated to cost Rs 15,000 crore, making it one of the costliest roads constructed in India. For comparison, the 94-km Mumbai-Pune Expressway was constructed at a cost of Rs 1,630 crore back in 2002. The coastal road is one-third in length and will cost 10 times more than the expressway!
The coastal road has been a pet project of the BJP-Shiv Sena government and has been mired in controversies ever since it was announced. Numerous environmentalists and activists have raised a protest banner against the project, citing the potential environmental degradation and loss of livelihood for local fishing community. On the other hand, we have a battery of people who are all for the construction of the road, as it will ease traffic in an unprecedented way. For now, the activists seem to be winning, as the Mumbai High Court has stalled the construction work, declaring that environmental clearance for the project was necessary, while also quashing the coastal regulation zone (CRZ) clearance that was given to the project.
Mumbaikars seem to be divided on the coastal road, weighing its impact on traffic against that on the environment.
The proponents of the project argue that projects like these are common around the world, citing examples of cities like Singapore and Shanghai that have built infrastructure like this. It’s about the future, it’s about the image, they cry. A global city like Mumbai deserves a project like this. While the construction might impact the environment, there will be an abundance of greenery that will more than compensate for the loss.
On the other hand, the environmentalists point out that coastal ecology will be devastated, including large tracts of mangroves and corals along the coastline. Also, the road will have a severe impact on the Koli fishermen, who have been the original inhabitants of the city for centuries. But beyond the environmental-versus-infrastructure debate, there are two important aspects of the project that seem to be missed at the moment. Do we really need the north-south connect?
Unlike other cities, Mumbai is linear rather than circular. The southern part, comprising areas like Colaba, Worli and Nariman Point, are high-brow districts compared to the northern side (colloquially known as ‘the suburbs’), which has more residential areas like Andheri, Goregaon and Kandivali. The overwhelming majority of working professionals commute from north to south on a daily basis, leading to traffic and congestion that has made the Suburban Railways the city’s lifeline.
Yet, over the past decade, the equation seems to be changing steadily. Thanks to the exorbitant rents, a significant number of corporates have moved out of South Mumbai, shifting to places like Bandra-Kurla Complex or Andheri. Also, a slew of residential projects have been launched in Southern Mumbai, turning it into an HNI hub. So, while the trains still seem crowded, a bulk of the passengers now commute on the Bandra-Virar axis. What is required urgently is a mass-transit project that interconnects the East-West axis, something that the upcoming Metro projects will do.
The fact of the matter is that only 3 percent of the city commutes through private cars. Should we be building such costly infrastructure catering to this 3 percent or looking at how the 97 percent manage?
Also, one of the main reasons for traffic congestion is the abysmal conditions of Mumbai’s roads. Patchy and riddled with potholes, the roads in the city are a stark reminder of the inefficiency of the BMC, which boasts of being the richest municipal corporation in the world. Now, can a corporation that hasn't built a decent road within the city be trusted to build and manage a high-stakes project like the coastal road?
Where is the urban plan?
The trouble with the infrastructure build-up in Mumbai is that much of it seems ad-hoc and devoid of any proper planning. For instance, the city is home to Metro, Monorail, Suburban Rail, Buses and Taxis, but there is no broad plan that looks at the holistic picture. Everything seems to be running in a silo; where are the inter-connects?
Last year, Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis had launched the Mumbai Development Plan 2034, but had to cancel it after an uproar from the citizens. The problem with Mumbai stems from the fact that the city is not run like one. Being a commercial capital, the local governance is all but a customary one. For instance, the Mayor of Mumbai is like a figure-head with little or no power. And then, there's the constant political tussle. The Shiv Sena lords over local bodies like the BMC, while the BJP runs the state. Despite being partners, these parties are often at loggerheads, blaming each other for flaws.
It is estimated that over 60 percent of the 20 million denizens of the city live in squalid conditions. The solid-waste management is in disarray. There's an insane build-up of cars on the roads. Skyscrapers seem to be popping up all over without any consider of their impact on the infrastructure.
Rather than focusing and setting right what we already have, the government seems eager to splurge money on a fancy project. And don't forget, the Rs 15000 crore is an estimated cost. We have seen in the case of Bandra-Worli Sea Link and the Mumbai Metro, how projects get delayed by years leading to absurd cost escalations. It won't be a surprise if the project gets delayed by 5-10 years, and the cost is blown up by 100 percent. Once we start, there's no going back on this one.
Thus, more than the Environmental Assessment and the Social Impact Assessment, we need an honest Need Assessment of this project. Will this road truly help citizens at all?
To be honest, the Arabian Sea is the saviour of the Mumbai city. It takes away the sewage, and brings in the fresh breeze. It is because of the sea that the air pollution levels in Mumbai are not as bad as they should be. Rather than treasuring this natural resource, we are hell-bent on polluting it.
Won’t that count as bad
karma? Shashwat DC is Features Editor at CNBC-TV18. He is closet-activist for sustainability and CSR, when not pondering over the future of humanity or contemplating the launch of the new Android phone. Read Shashwat's columns