Mumbai coastal road project: Photographers document marine life, fishermen who stand to lose

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe

Five years and countless protests and petitions later, Mumbai's widely contested coastal road project has hit the pause button, albeit tentatively. Earlier in April this year, the Bombay High Court ordered a stay on the reclamation of the coastline by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), thereby stopping the construction of the 10-kilometre-long section of the planned coastal road until 3 June.

For the first phase of the project alone, involving the construction of the south section €" from Nariman Point to Worli €" the BMC will have to shell out Rs 12, 700 crores. The enterprise is said to be one of the largest ever undertaken by the civic body. It aims to divert the congestion on the city's roads and provide an alternative for the bustling Western Express Highway by erecting a 35-kilometre-long arterial road.

Overshadowed by the needs of a thriving metropolis, the vibrant aquatic life found within this shoreline is threatened by the encroaching concrete jungle.

Its fauna includes rare varieties of corals, sea slugs, and fish, among other creatures. It is also the sole source of livelihood for a community of artisanal fishermen, whose catch largely comprises fish and crabs found in the intertidal pools.

Sarang3

Photograph © Sarang Naik

Several activists have noted that the project could potentially alter the coastal morphology of Mumbai, as it aims to cover much of the intertidal zone, that is visible during low tide and submerged during high tide. From the sandy beaches of Juhu to the rocky terrains near Haji Ali, the 'developmental' venture threatens to 'bury all the animals' under it, and endanger the livelihoods of the fishing communities too.

For the city of dreams, development comes at the price of its marine life.

On 24 April, 2019, The Indian Express reported that an affidavit issued by the BMC states that since "most of the fishing activity takes place beyond the alignment of the coastal road, navigational bridges will be provided to ensure that there is no adverse impact on ongoing fishing activities and that adequate compensation will be provided for traditional fishing."

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Photograph © Sejal Mehta

In order to document the changing face of the city, several photographers have been capturing the work-in-progress along the coastal strip of Mumbai. The alarming pace of the construction prompted them to urgently highlight the species flourishing in the city's seabed.

Sejal Mehta

"Wildlife safaris usually come with tickets to national parks, not a stroll on the beach minutes from your home.

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Photograph © Sejal Mehta

There are millions of stories sitting right on our shores that have never been told. The marine life along the city's coast is in effect a snapshot of the city that we never got to know well. For instance, the coral found along Mumbai's coast is a Schedule 1 species falling under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

Cities reveal their histories in so many different ways. And we seem to be missing a big chunk.

Now, with the looming threat of the coastal road, it's vital that all the data that exists on the shore be collected, and a baseline (which does not exist) be made. I reckon photographers across the city are working twice as fast to make this happen. The narrative that is being built points out the overlaps, not the differences in how everyone uses the shore €" fisher folk, creatures and other citizens €" in a bid to show that what affects one will affect the other.

When I was a child, my father taught me to always orient myself to the sea so that I wouldn't get lost easily. Taking and sharing photos is just a way to remind myself and others what it means to be in a coastal city."

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SeaFan_Sejal

Photograph © Sejal Mehta

Mehta joined the founders of Marine Life of Mumbai (MLOM) €" Pradip Patade, Siddharth Chakravarty and Abhishek Jamalabad €" for a shore walk, and has since found herself drawn to the diverse coastline of the city, whose existence she was previously unaware of.

Gaurav Patil

"When I came to know about Mumbai's coastal road project, I thought it would be a bridge like the earlier Bandra-Worli Sea Link. But when I read more and visited the place myself, it was devastating. The JCBs (cranes) around were dumping rocks and red soil about 100 meters away from the shore (inside the sea), creating a wall which is going to be the base for the road.

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Photograph © Gaurav Patil

Not only that, the area between the present shore's edge and the upcoming coastal road will be filled up to create parking areas, a new bus depot (though Worli already has one), and other open spaces.

The situation the artisanal fishermen are in, is no better. Conversations with them revealed that they did not know the exact route on which the road is planned. The old fishermen were also under the impression that the bridge would be like the sea link, whose pillars today act like fish aggregating devices (FADs).

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Reclamation_Gaurav

Photograph © Gaurav Patil

These fishers know every nook and cranny of the coastal zone €" where fish and lobsters aggregate, how their abundance changes seasonally, where they breed, how to put up nets and target a particular fish, how the fish behave under different circumstances. This information is seldom found in textbooks.

And if developmental projects like the coastal road one continue to get sanctioned, we might not be able to see these original 'Mumbaikars' after a few years."

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BrittleStar_Gaurav

Photograph © Gaurav Patil

A marine biologist and photography enthusiast, Patil joined MLOM two years ago. While exploring the shores of Mumbai, he was introduced to an indispensable part of the city's coastline €" the fishermen's community. Since then, he has engaged in an active dialogue with the artisanal fishers to understand the ecosystem better.

Sarang Naik

"The fishermen themselves have been calling people to come and see the kind of marine life found here. So one day, I decided to join them when they went fishing.

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Photograph © Sarang Naik

The intertidal zone is abundant in its diversity; some of the catch at Worli Seaface included the common grouper, spotted scat, butterfly ray, maroon rock crabs, and octopus, among others. While many of these are found in deeper waters, the intertidal zone is crucial because it is here that they come to breed and raise their young.

The intertidal zone was always left untouched, but now even that is being reclaimed.

And the fishers have been at this for several generations, they don't know anything else.

A Bandra-Worli Sea Link is still fine, but if their entire fishing zone is reclaimed, they will lose their livelihood forever. Furthermore, the fishermen are worried about the possibility of the displaced seawater entering the Worli Koliwada during high tides.

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Photograph © Sarang Naik

Mirroring the opinions of a lot of protesters, the fisher folk said this coastal road is more of a real estate project than an infrastructure project. Moreover, the fishermen haven't been displaced or relocated yet, but they fear they will have to do so soon, due to the rising seawater levels and loss of livelihood due to this project.

The younger generations are better educated and have a good chance at finding other jobs. But the older ones will be hit the hardest.

An entire habitat will be permanently destroyed. Corals, beautiful sea slugs, octopuses €" things that people pay a fortune to go see in other countries can be observed for free on our shores. We are set to lose all these treasures for good."

Naik is a freelance photographer and cinematographer who joins MLOM regularly to document their shore walks.

Shaunak Modi

"Mumbai's coastline is irreversibly changing. I'm documenting all her shores as I'd like to remember them, with the animals that live there and the people that live around them.

But now, the corals that should be the pride of our shores, are being constructed over. In Haji Ali, a part of the coastal road is proposed to be built on a colony of false pillow corals (Pseudosiderastrea tayamai, animals that are not only protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, but also classified globally as 'near threatened' in IUCN's Red List). This a recurring theme across Mumbai's western shoreline.

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Photograph © Shaunak Modi

Work has already begun at Scandal Point, Haji Ali and Worli. These rocky shores will cease to exist on being reclaimed with mud and rocks, burying all the animals under it.

Shores not being 'reclaimed' will face medium to long-term impacts, from the siltation that will occur as a result of the Sea Link's construction. This is evident in the Environmental Impact Assessment of the project.

Based on how Dadar's beach has been permanently changed after the construction of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, it can be assumed that there will be long lasting effects of the coastal road construction all along the city's coastline.

Despite how difficult the conditions are, Mumbai's marine life thrives on her shores.

Sea anemones, sea stars (starfish), crabs and zoanthids, a few of the animals I photograph often, have each adapted differently to living outside the water for a few hours when the tide recedes.

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Photograph © Shaunak Modi

Yet, an entire ecosystem has not found any mention in an infrastructure project that threatens its very existence."

Modi, a member of MLOM, has photographed about a hundred species of intertidal marine life in a span of two years, spotting fauna that isn't conventionally associated with a metropolis.

With inputs from Nitya Atmakur

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