Bombay High Court stays work on Mumbai's coastal road, which could be more boondoggle than 'development'

Written by Sabrang India | Published on: April 24, 2019

On Tuesday, April 23, the Bombay High Court ordered that all reclamation work for Mumbai's coastal road be paused and that the status quo be maintained until June 3. The bench, which comprised Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog and Justice NM Jamdar "followed the Supreme Court's lead in environmental jurisprudence and the precautionary principle which flows from the maxim: in dubio pro natura that is 'In case of doubt, in favour of the nature,'" Live Law noted. The bench was hearing public interest litigations filed by Society for Improvement, Greenery and Nature, an NGO, and activist Shweta Wagh.


Stop All Reclamation Work For Coastal Road Project, Says Bombay HC; Directs BMC To Maintain Status Quo [Read Order]
Image Courtesy: livelaw.in

The Independent People’s Tribunal (IPT) on Mumbai’s Coast Road had previously released an exhaustive report regarding the proposed Rs. 12,000-crore road and its many, many pitfalls and potential adverse effects. The report paints a grim picture of a project that has no clear purpose, will serve only a small fraction of an increasingly crowded city, and could have disastrous effects on Mumbai’s ecology and coastline. 

The tribunal’s Commissioners include V. Subramanyan, former professor of geology at IIT-Bombay, Meenakshi Menon, founder and managing trustee of the NGO Vanashakti, D. T. Joseph, retired secretary, Urban Development Ministry, Maharashtra, Justice (retd.) Hosbet Suresh, former Bombay High Court judge, among others. 

Overview

The introduction, penned by Darryl D’Monte, who was involved with the Forum of Environmental Journalists in India, briefly summarises the many flaws that may be found in the coastal road project, including in the process for its approval. The introduction notes, "It is a serious lapse in urban governance that at no stage has the public been informed of the objectives of this project, much less the alignment and how it would impact the city as a whole, as well as certain areas adjoining the seafront." It emphasises that while many countries are demolishing roads along coastlines, "Mumbai is forging ahead with a major infrastructure project on these obsolete lines." Moreover, D’Monte highlights moves towards "a low-carbon development path in the face of imminent and catastrophic climate change," adding that "Mumbai is proceeding in reverse gear to encourage means of transport which emit more toxic fumes." The introduction notes that in spite multiple attempts to get someone from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to inform the public about the road, this did not happen, and finally, in frustration, citizens decided to hold their own Independent People’s Tribunal (IPT) on October 9, 2015, where experts testified before the Commissioners regarding five different subjects related to the coastal road: planning, concerns of fisherfolk, governance, environment, and transport. The report contains both summaries of the oral depositions, which were also filmed, as well as written depositions from the experts. It also contains reports from the Commissioners. 

Commissioners’ reports 

In his report, D. M. Sukhthankar, former Municipal Commissioner, Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai notes that the "manner in which the project has been conceived and is being relentlessly pushed ahead as if it is a fait accompli, is a classic example of bad governance – manifested by failure or reluctance to share relevant information…with the public/stakeholders; lack of transparency; total absence of prior public consultation; giving unjustified precedence to the interests of well-off private car owners (who constitute a relatively small minority) over those of vast multitudes who have limited means and who use public transport; making a pretence of soliciting suggestions and objections from the public only after, as is commonly believed, the decision to implement the project has already been made at the highest level." He also criticises the project’s plan, saying it "implies defective urban planning in every way" since "it does not even open up any large land mass for planned development." 

One overarching theme that emerges in the report is questioning the purpose of constructing the coastal road. Major General (retd.) Sudhir Jatar from Pune, formerly of the Indian Army, writes that the "aim of making this road is not quantified and the objective shows that the GoM or BMC has already made up its mind to make" it. Moreover, he notes that the Origin-Destination survey lacks "willingness to use the road" as a question, and that the surveys "have not been conducted as per the Indian Roads Congress codes and mandates." 

Meenakshi Menon of Vanashakti echoes Major General Jatar, stating that the "fundamental problem is that there is no clarity about the purpose of the proposed Coastal road," questioning if it is supposed to be "a system for efficient transport of people from Nariman point to Kandivali/Malad," or a "new 'icon' for Mumbai replacing the Bandra Worli Sea link, or if it is "a means to unlock valuable CRZ hampered real estate on the western coast." She argues that Mumbai needs public transport, stating that "Efficient, economical and easily accessible transport is a fundamental right which today is not available to the vast majority." Of the coastal road, Menon says that it is not efficient, not economical, and not easily accessible. In particular, she notes that the 18 planned interchanges for the road are "located in extremely congested areas which already have serious traffic clogging," and explains that given the estimated toll of Rs. 100 to Rs. 400, the coastal road is "unlikely to be used by more than 80,000 vehicles per day," later adding that the road entails "a huge outlay of money for just a small group of car commuters." Menon emphasises that unless transport "benefits the public (over 50% of the city’s population) you cannot call it public," adding, "If only a small fraction of car owners in the city will benefit from the coastal road, then it should then be called Premium Private Transport in recognition of what it is meant to be!" Menon also details how the road would negatively impact the mangroves along the western coast, which she says are "critical" because they lower ambient temperature, serve as fish hatcheries, bird feeding and breeding grounds, and as a "protective barrier from the winds and the tides." Ominously, she states, "The very real cost of the environmental damage unleashed by the coastal road will be more than the budgeted Rs. 12,000 crore when the first tsunami hits Mumbai." Menon also sharply criticises the overlooking of the Kolis, saying the coastal road "will be the final death blow" for the community. "Free access to the sea, space for drying fish, space for net repair, boat anchorage and community activities will all be lost," she writes. 

V. Subramanyan also notes how one participant in the presentations that were made to the IPT Commissioners "pointed out that the proposal is silent on why a CR." He explains that he himself had noted that "reclamation is an exercise that goes against Nature’s operation along the coasts in which the shoreline acts as the 'Line of Control' between land and sea," adding that if the "'marine cycle' is interfered with by manmade activities, there are bound to be repercussions." 

D. T. Joseph’s argument reiterates the lack of purpose for the coastal road, stating that "it appears that it has been decided to have the CR, and then merely bring up reasons and justification to do the project." Joseph highlights that key heritage areas, including the Mahalakshmi Temple, Bandra  Fort, and Haji Ali dargah will be impacted, saying the project should not be implemented without providing details about the nature of the impact. 

Civil engineer and urban planner Shirish B. Patel writes blisteringly that Mumbai’s government is now "of builders, by builders and for builders." In his opinion, while car owners may back a policy that "promises easier traffic flow," the "driving force" behind the coastal road is, in fact, "real estate, and the promise of gigantic future profits." Patel paints the scenario of Mumbai’s Marine Drive being "replicated many times over, all along the western coast," noting that these could be lined with "high-value residential properties, with unobstructed sea views…interspersed with office buildings, hotels and restaurants, gyms and perhaps a club or two." Patel says residents wouldn’t even need to go east into the city for their daily needs, so wouldn’t be concerned "congestion of cross-city connections". He concludes that the coastal road would give the builders’ lobby "what it really wants: land for high value construction, opened up by infrastructure built at public cost," calling this "As clear a case of government and a particular interest group working in tandem as anyone could ever hope to find." 

Experts’ views 

Multiple experts presented on five main topics related to the coastal road. These depositions have been summarised in the report; key points from these summaries have been highlighted below. The report also contains longer, written depositions relating to the same subjects. 

Planning 

For planning, the experts included Hussain Indorewala, faculty at KRVIA, and Ratan Batliboi of Ratan J. Batliboi Consultants. A summary of these depositions highlights that "transport planning ought to be concerned with the movement of people, not vehicles," noting that the coastal road is "designed for moving vehicles, especially those privately owned." By even the "most generous projections," the coastal road is expected to move 300,000 people daily; meanwhile, an upgraded bus system and adding two additional railway tracks could provide 800,000 and 660,000 additional daily trips respectively. Moreover, the road would serve as a "massive barrier" when accessing the sea for the city’s residents. The planning depositions also covered the opportunity costs of building a Rs. 12,000-crore road, particularly when Mumbai needs major improvements in sanitation, drainage, public transport, healthcare, education, and other facilities. The report notes that despite the fact that 546 people were killed in the floods in 2005, "the new drainage system lies incomplete, under construction for almost 20 years." The report says the coastal road will "increase the risk of floods due to massive reclamation of mangroves and wetlands, and hard construction along the coast," questioning, "How much will it cost to not build the stormwater system?" The report also refutes the argument that the coastal road would improve the "quality of life," saying that the "artificial link between car ownership and quality of life is mistaken as well as dangerous," with cars engulfing space for roads and parking, their use of oil, and their warming of the planet. "Quality of life…is a function of the city’s vibrant and inclusive public sphere, not an indication of private luxury or consumption," the report states. 

Fishing Community 

Kiran Koli of the Machhimar Sarvoday Sahakari Society, Cuffe Parade and Rajesh Manghela, secretary, Maharashtra Machhimar Kruti Samiti were part of the team who spoke on fishing communities. The report noted that per the 2003 Census of Marine Fisheries, there are 23 active fishing villages in the city, and more than 35,000 people rely on fishing and associated activities for their livelihood, making it "an important economic activity in the city." The coastal road, thus, would hamper fishing communities’ access to the sea and result in the loss of fish-drying areas. It would reportedly also cause the loss of "coastal resources, habitats and fish-breeding areas," beach erosion, water-logging, and leave fishing communities increasingly vulnerable to climate change. The report also highlighted the coastal road’s project’s impact on Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) and coastal protection legislations that were secured after countrywide agitations by fishing communities under the auspices of the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF). "The stilt road, tunnels and reclamation proposed in the CR are a violation of the CRZ," the report states, adding, "By exempting the project from CRZ regulations the MoEF and Government is undermining existing coastal protection laws which have been won due to a long and sustained struggle by the fishing community." 

Governance 

Bittu Sehgal, who is editor of Sanctuary magazine and serves on the National Board for Wildlife for the Ministry of Environment and Forests was among the team who spoke about governance. The report says that the coastal road project involved "a failure to consult with the stakeholders/public and a complete lack of transparency," adding that they were simply "informed that the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEFCC) has already given most of the environmental clearances needed," and reiterates that there are "no well-understood credible objectives" for the road. The summary of the experts’ presentations states that the coastal road is "not participatory, responsive, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, effective and most importantly not efficient, equitable and inclusive," all qualities of 'Good Governance' "as defined by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)." Notably, it suggests that the road would "create a huge physical barrier that will disconnect Mumbaikars from the coastline," and "irretrievably change the face of the city. The special identity of the Mumbaikar, who lives by the sea, is threatened," it warns. 

Environment 

D. Stalin of Vanashakti and Sumaira Abdulali of Awaaz Foundation were among the team that testified regarding the environment. The report summarises the experts’ depositions and notes that no "comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA has been carried out" for the coastal road, a measure that "is a pre-requisite for any project of this type." It adds that potential "alternative remedial measures" have not been "seriously considered, leave alone objectively evaluated" to consider "their comparative effectiveness, efficiency, environmental impact, cost-benefit ratio, opportunity costs, etc." It goes onto emphasise that "the destruction of mangroves will rob the city of its natural protection against cyclones and tsunamis and will make the city flood prone." It explains that the proposed underground tunnels will change "existing geomorphology" and "the hydrological pattern" which will lead to "erosions, inundations, and water logging." Moreover, the coastal road project could also raise pollution levels. The report states that water pollution "will increase due to blockages of natural drainage system and the consequent risk of flooding," and that the "additional reclamation, quarrying of hills and illegal sand mining for construction material will cause severe air pollution in different areas." Also, traffic on the road will raise noise pollution and contribute to air pollution, in a city that is already one of the most polluted in the world. 

Transport 

Ashok Data of the Mumbai Environmental Social Network, Shashank Rao, union leader, BEST and others testified regarding transport. The presentation summary calls the coastal road "economically unviable," and notes that it "will not be financed through tolls". It argues that "energy costs per passenger per kilometre on the CR – which is essentially costs to the passenger as well as the environment – will be about 15 times that of the suburban rail, or 7.5 times that of the metro." Notably, the report cites Rs. 5,000 crores have been spent on flyovers in the city over two decades. However, just 6-8% of passengers using these roads travel by bus, while 92% travel by private cars, indicating "that car owners have been the major beneficiaries." A similar trend is seen for the Bandra-Worli Sea Link and the Eastern Freeway. The report also reiterates how the coastal road will block access to the sea, and says that the proposed underpasses "are usually a deterrent and provide poor accessibility". The presenters seem to have proposed alternatives to the coastal road, which have been summarised in the report. It calls for the need to address the parking situation, saying it needs to be made more expensive to disincentivise car use. It also proposes an improved bus system, including dedicated bus lanes on the Western Express Highway, Link Road, and SV Road, as well as additional railway lines for the suburban railway network. 

Commissioners’ recommendations

In their recommendations, the Commissioners sharply criticise the road, saying it violates Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which states, "No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law." The Commissioners call the road "anti-people" because it caters to a small proportion of private car users, and because it disrupts the livelihood of the fishing community. They also call it "anti-environment because it deprives the common people of that most precious asset in a congested and polluted city – the open vista of the ocean and the clean air along the seafront." Moreover, it fails to address citizens’ fundamental right to know how they could be affected by the project. They note that the BMC has not held a single public hearing, causing "a deficit in public trust," and that the public is frequently informed regarding "major changes in alignment…technology and even the route itself. This smacks of arbitrariness which hardly befits the status of 'the urbs prima in indis.'" The Commissioners have called for the project to be "scrapped forthwith."

The complete report may be read here: