Infrastructure and environment battle it out in the maximum city

Several infrastructure projects are coming up in Mumbai, that could irrevocably damage the city's coastline and green spaces. While environmentalists allege that projects were announced without public discussion and ignoring the environmental impact, political parties brush aside these concerns

Mumbai’s coastline and green spaces are under threat from a series of infrastructure projects that could impact the marine ecology, flora, fauna and the last remaining green lungs of the polluted megapolis.

Over the past five years, large-scale road, highway, metro and other infrastructure projects have been sanctioned to keep up with the growth of India’s booming financial capital. However, as these markers of development criss-cross through the city and nearby areas, the forests, coastline and ecology faces collateral damage.

Currently in the spotlight is the Mumbai coastal road project, a 30-kilometre long road connecting the south and north of Mumbai, along the western coastline. Ever since the project was announced, it has faced opposition, especially from the fishing community of Mumbai. The fishing community claims that the coastal road will eat into traditional fishing colonies and disturb the marine life in the area, which will affect their livelihood.

Environmentalists too have opposed this project as it will require reclamation of land from the ecologically-sensitive coast of Mumbai and could lead to the destruction of the mangroves and impact marine wildlife that thrives along the coastline. A total of 164 hectares of land is expected to be reclaimed for the project and will require relaxation of Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms.

Mumbai’s coastal road project could impact the city’s delicate coastline and marine ecology. Pic: Shaunak Modi

Work began on the project in late 2018, at a connector to the Bandra Worli sealink. Shweta Wagh, member of the Collective for Spatial Alternatives, filed a petition in the Bombay High Court (HC) to put a stay on the work.  The affidavit filed by Wagh in the HC states that “the extensive reclamation work is being undertaken on the land abutting the connector to the Bandra Worli Sealink which is not provided in the detailed project report.”

The HC is also hearing a petition filed by fishing communities Koliwada Nakhawa Fisheries and Worli Machhimar Sarvoday Co-operative Society, who are also opposed to the project fearing it will destroy their livelihood. According to the fisherfolk, the maximum damage is expected to be on the oyster beds along the coast. Oysters found along Mumbai’s coast are a source of earning for the local fishing communities.

On April 16, the Bombay High Court had put a stay on any work on the coastal road until there is clarity on the process of how land is going to be allotted for the project.

Work on the coastal road project near Girgaon Chowpatty. Pic: Shaunak Modi

Announced by the municipal corporation of Mumbai, which is led by Shiv Sena, an ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the project is expected to cost Rs 150 billion (Rs 15,000 crore) and is scheduled to be completed by 2022.

Meanwhile, the BJP has defended the project, emphasising that it will not impact fishing communities. “Fishermen’s concerns regarding environment protection are unfounded. The BJP is in favour of the resettlement of project-affected people. If the coastal road is found to be harmful to the fishermen community, we will rehabilitate them and will take care of their livelihood. We will provide alternative means of livelihood. I can assure you that the fishermen will not lose their livelihood,” Madhav Bhandari, spokesperson of BJP’s Maharashtra unit and also the vice president of the Maharashtra State Rehabilitation Authority (MSRA), told Mongabay-India.

Six parliamentary constituencies of Mumbai – Mumbai North, Mumbai Northwest, Mumbai Northeast, Mumbai North Central, Mumbai South Central and Mumbai South – and Thane go to polls on April 29th, in the fourth phase of the 2019 elections to India’s parliament.

Many more projects in the pipeline

In addition to the coastal road, a slew of upcoming projects are expected to be operational in the coming five years. Earlier this month, an expert panel of the Indian government’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) informed the Bombay High Court that it had given a go-ahead to a proposal of the National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL) to remove mangroves in the Mumbai Metropolitan Regions (MMR) for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project. About 1,50,000 mangrove trees spread over 19 hectares will be cleared for the project.

According to the NHSRCL’s petition filed in the Bombay High Court, the bullet train project is likely to affect 131.3 hectares of forest area spread across Maharashtra and the neighbouring state of Gujarat, including mangroves spread over an area of 32.43 hectares. Maharashtra has mangrove cover spread over 22,200 hectares while Gujarat has 1,107 sq km of mangrove cover, as of 2015 data.

In another case, on April 15, the Supreme Court of India dismissed a petition filed by various environmental groups of Mumbai regarding stopping the construction of the Metro car-shed in Aarey Milk Colony, a green area adjoining the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in northwest Mumbai.

When the Mumbai Metro’s line 3 connecting south and north of the city (Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ line) was sanctioned in January 2014, the Mumbai Metropolitan Rail Corporation (MMRC), the implementing agency formed by the state government, decided to set up car shed in Aarey colony, ignoring its importance as one of the last remaining green lungs of the city. The MMRC proposed to cut 2,228 trees in Aarey Colony to make space for the shed.

Stalin Dayanand, a conservationist and activist with environmental NGO Vanashakti, alleged that the MMRC misrepresented data to justify their decision to have a car shed in Aarey. Originally, four sites were proposed in MMRC’s detailed project report from which Aarey was selected. Petitioners challenging project alleged that selecting Aarey is an effort to open up the last green space in Mumbai, for real estate. “We are very disappointed as the city’s only green lung is falling prey to land sharks and predators of the environment. Not a single political party is speaking about the great loss to Mumbaikars. This is the longest battle fought by any urban group to save its last green lung, but we lost the case to the land sharks,” Stalin said.

“The SC has dismissed the petition considering all factors. We should respect the apex court order. The court has accepted the stand presented by the state government to acquire the land for the Metro-3 car shed. Moreover, there are several green patches in the city and the BJP-Shiv Sena government is committed to protecting the environment,” said BJP’s Madhav Bhandari.

“We have to strike a fine balance between destruction and development. The government is already working on protecting the environment. But there are certain issues where environmentalists have taken a very aggressive stand without any substance in the case,” Bhandari said.

Mumbai has a coastline of around 150 kilometres which is home to diverse marine flora, fauna and wildlife. Pic: Shaunak Modi.

Other projects in the pipeline include a statue of Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in the middle of the Arabian Sea  at a site which is traditionally where fishing is done; the Virar-Alibaug multi-modal corridor, which would be a single corridor for multiple modes of transport as well as for water, sewage and gas pipelines for which the state plans to acquire 38 hectares of forest land in Thane and Raigad districts; and the Mumbai-Nagpur Sammruddhi Mahamarg, a proposed 700-km highway which has already been allotted more than 220 hectares of forest land in Thane, adjacent to Mumbai city.

Touted to be the longest road-bridge in India once built, another project, the Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link (MTHL) project will connect Mumbai to Navi Mumbai and is estimated to cost more than Rs 150 billion (Rs 15,000 crore). Environmentalists fear that this project will disturb the resting ground of flamingos and other migratory birds, which come to the Sewri mudflats during the winters.

Garbage is a ticking time bomb

While large-scale infrastructure projects in Mumbai are usually in the limelight, the financial capital is sitting on a ticking time bomb – its intense garbage disposal problem. After two of its biggest dumping grounds at Mulund and Gorai were shut down, the authorities had decided to shut down the city’s oldest and biggest dumping ground in Deonar as well. But currently, it continues to be used for the city’s garbage, bringing in its wake enormous health and environment-related problems. A new dumping ground with higher capacity is already operational in Kanjurmarg, but it already struggling to keep up with the daily garbage generated in Mumbai.

The Deonar dumping ground is a large and live cauldron of health and environment hazards in Mumbai. When a massive fire broke out at Deonar in January 2016, its fumes were visible from space and captured by the National Aeronautics Space Agency (NASA)’s Earth Observatory.

Satellite image of the smoke from the fire that broke out at Deonar dumping ground in January 2016. Credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

Suraiya Shaikh, founder of Udaan Foundation, an NGO working for the slum residents of Govandi, adjoining the dumping ground, is fighting to shift the dumping ground which is emitting poisonous gases. “I was born and brought up in Govandi. I have seen how many residents are suffering from cancer, Tuberculosis (TB) and other lung-related diseases due to proximity to the dumping ground,” laments Shaikh.

“All politicians promise us before elections that they will shift the dumping ground, but they forget to keep up their promises,” she added.

BJP’s Madhav Bhandari said he is very concerned with the issues plaguing Deonar, Mahul and Govandi. “I personally visit the area regularly. I have seen how people are suffering from terminal diseases due to the poisonous air and contaminated water. This is all because of the Deonar dumping ground. This issue cannot be solved as shifting or closing it is not immediately possible. So, instead of shifting the ground, we can use innovative ways to treat waste,” he said.

General secretary and spokesperson of the Indian National Congress Maharashtra, Sachin Sawant stressed that environment is top on their agenda. Recently, the Maharashtra Congress released an environment specific manifesto. Even though not specific to Mumbai, the manifesto says, “Forests, wildlife, water bodies, rivers, clean air and coastal zones are precious natural resources that belong to the people and we will protect them. We will set up an independent, empowered and transparent Environment Protection Authority, redefine the role of the forest departments and increase our forest cover.”

[This article was originally published at Mongabay, as has been republished here with permission]

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