When a new government came into power in Maharashtra in 1995, and changed the name of India’s financial capital, we were told that the city was going to get 80 new flyovers to solve its traffic woes. The flyovers did come up, but we all know how the dreams of lesser traffic turned out.
Sixteen years later, Mumbai is being promised a mega infrastructure project with the exact same promise! The Rs 12,000-crore Coastal Road Project that is reclaiming land from the Arabian Sea promises a smooth and effortless commute from the southern part of the city to its northern suburbs.
The concerns of fishermen who fear losing their livelihoods, environmentalists who warn of the city’s active marine life being decimated and residents of the western coast who stand to not just lose their sea views, but end up breathing the toxic fumes from an influx of new vehicles, are being ignored.
Social media attacks
Since this project has the blessing of almost all political parties, social media trolls have been hired to abuse anyone who speaks out against it.
According to these keyboard warriors, anyone who objects to the coastal road is a rich leftist or champagne socialist who drives his or her own car but opposes a smooth commute for the poor who use public transport. But how exactly does this work? When the expressway is ready, will buses skip the normal routes and head from north to south via the sea and not halt at important commercial areas that are many kilometres away from the coast? Will the poor and working class of this city somehow abandon the local trains and be using this 8-lane road in private cars?
What’s even more ironic about the rhetoric from those backing this expensive project is that the coastal road will be a case of the poor subsidising the rich if it becomes a toll-free road. The municipal authorities in Mumbai are not investing private capital to build these roads, after all.
Environmental concerns are also being brushed aside, so let’s look at what happened during the 2020 monsoons, when the southern parts of the city began to resemble Venice.
South Mumbai is relatively new to the world of monsoon flooding, with its well-heeled residents never understanding what those living in the suburbs have to go through year after year when heavy rains team up with high tide. But for some, the fact that the southern parts of the city only began getting flooded in the monsoons after work began on the coastal road is nothing but a pure coincidence or propaganda (Take your pick)!
Devoid of public spaces
Mumbai is one of the most densely populated cities on the planet, with 20,000 people packed in per square kilometre. It goes without say that the city does not have close to enough parks and other open public spaces. The seaside promenades starting from Marine Drive to Worli Sea Face and Carter Road are changing beyond recognition.
While Mumbai slept during the lockdown, the municipal authorities and their contractors awoke to a new dawn of construction and land reclamation that has virtually ruined Breach Candy, Haji Ali and large parts of the three above-mentioned promenades.
Juhu Beach is next. Instead of joggers, walkers and those on family picnics admiring a crimson sunset by the Arabian Sea, they’ll see an ugly and choking flyover that ruins the vista of one of the world’s finest inner city beaches.
And that’s not all. This kind of construction makes the entire coastline susceptible to tidal waves that will wreck havoc, especially during the monsoons. Those who are sceptical should try asking a resident of the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo about how the city’s iconic Mount Lavinia beach is getting battered by the rough waves caused by the nearby Port City project being built by the Chinese.
Mumbai’s charm lies in its coastline. Instead of a coast with open seas, the city is going to get a series of ugly flyovers and bridges that benefit a miniscule minority of commuters and actually worsen the traffic problem across the city.
Studies conducted in the United States have proved that the construction of new roads actually leads to more traffic- a phenomenon that is called induced demand. Mumbai’s own decades-long emphasis on more flyovers instead of dedicated bus lanes and an upgraded suburban railway system is proof of this.
Losing its west coast will turn Mumbai into just another soulless city in the country. Distracted by the restrictions in movement on account of the pandemic, Mumbaikars have absolutely no idea what awaits them when a large degree of normalcy returns.
Developing alternative options
The best way to ease the commuting woes of the average resident of Mumbai is to upgrade and modernise its suburban railway lines. If the trains run faster, and are more frequent, safer and comfortable, the working class that toils to make the city what it is would feel a big burden lifted off their backs.
Even the various metro lines coming in the city will benefit a large number of middle class residents. The first metro line has severely eased east to west commutes in the city and is a major connecter for those who rely on the suburban railway network.
Another much talked about but not used option is water transport. Hong Kong, one of the world’s greatest cities, has an extensive and reliable network of air- conditioned ferries that are both efficient and environment-friendly. Hovercraft services were operational in Mumbai in the 1990s, but failed on account of sheer mismanagement. They would be a quicker and cost effective way of north-south connectivity in the city.
The average commuter would also benefit from good quality air-conditioned buses, including double deckers. The new air-conditioned minibuses that are running across the city have their takers. Cities that cope with traffic conditions similar to Mumbai, such as Bangkok and Jakarta, have both air-conditioned and non air-conditioned buses. Why should public facilities in a rich city like Mumbai be of such poor quality?
Gustavo Petro, who transformed the public transportation system of Bogota, Colombia, once remarked famously: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” Cities like Stockholm, London, Shanghai and Berlin are proof of this.
Time is running out for Mumbaikars. With each passing day, the municipal authorities that can neither devise a decent garbage-collection system nor build ordinary roads without potholes, is working at breakneck speed to build this road, so that when the case against it comes up for hearing in the Supreme Court, they can use the excuse of so much of it being ready and so much money already being spent.
Mumbaikars need to show the same kind of determination they demonstrated against the proposed metro depot in Aarey to stop this project. The cause is still not lost.