Mumbai: That sinking feeling on road to government can't be ignored

In what must ring alarm bells for the political class, the bureaucracy, opinion-makers and the citizenry as a whole, new research has predicted that large parts of Mumbai could be flooded by a global warming-induced rise in sea levels by the middle of this century.

The study by a US research institute, Climate Central, recently published in the journal, 'Nature Communications', states that by 2050, the Arabian Sea could flood most of Mumbai at least once every year. The study predicts that a large part of Mumbai, including the tony neighbourhoods of south Mumbai, could be at risk.

While previous studies, including those commissioned by government agencies have predicted similar bleak scenarios, the response at the policy level has been largely that of disbelief, denial, or worse, plain apathy.

Mumbai, originally an archipelago of seven islands with a cluster of fishing villages, evolved into a city and metropolis through multiple waves of reclamation. The reclamations include those at Umerkhadi in the 1700s to control malaria, the construction of Colaba (1838) and Mahim-Sion Causeways for building railways and the port and business districts like Ballard Estate. Recent reclamations include those for the creation of Backbay and the Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC). Slums and housing have also come up on illegally reclaimed land.

A study commissioned by the now-disbanded state government think tank Mumbai Transformation Support Unit (MTSU) revealed that Mumbai’s geographical area increased from 437.37 sq km, as recognised in the 1991 development plan (DP) to the current 482 sq km due to reclamations and years of silting by the sea. Land was added largely on the eastern coast and at Manori in the western suburbs.

Importantly, it also revealed how infrastructure projects which did not factor in the environmental impact, could affect Mumbai. The MTSU study, which was conducted by the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), noted that reclamation for the Bandra-Worli Sea Link (BWSL), had eroded the Mahim-Dadar beach by changing wave and current patterns.

The study suggested that measures be taken to ensure the state government's ambitious 35.6km coastal road between Nariman Point and Kandivli, did not have a similar effect.

Though much angst has been directed over diversion of land in Aarey Milk Colony for the construction of a metro carshed, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC)'s coastal road project may change the way people commute in Mumbai, while also impacting the fragile coastal ecology. The 29.2km road will have eight-lanes and run from the Princess Street flyover to Kandivli. The 9.96km-long first phase, running from Princess Street flyover to the Worli-end of the BWSL, at a cost of Rs 12,000 crore, was originally scheduled to be completed in mid-2022.

The Maharashtra Maritime Board (MMB) planned to undertake work on extending the iconic Girgaum Chowpatty beach further on Marine Drive, till the Princess Street flyover, and nourish the existing beach. This project, to be executed under the larger Asian Development Bank (ADB)-funded Sustainable Coastal Protection and Management Investment Program (SCPMIP), will control erosion at the site, which is lashed by torrential waves during the monsoon.

This is aimed at controlling erosion at vulnerable spots like beaches and seashores due to tidal waves and currents. Around 60-70% of the cost was to be met through the ADB loan.

The Marine Drive project will also create a 1km long and 200m wide beach, with a sand retention structure and an offshore reef, covering a third of Marine Drive. Apart from the beach nourishment, a groyne to hold the sand and an artificial reef were to be installed. It also aimed at creating open spaces in a city which is starved of these (just 2.48 sq km is available per capita), and many of the existing open spaces have restricted entry.

However, MMB sources admit they may have to shelve this work at the Marine Drive until the time the coast is clear for the coastal road. As of now, around 6.25 per cent work on the coastal road, which began in December 2018, has been completed. However, construction has been stopped since July after a stay by the Bombay High Court (HC), which in turn, has been challenged in the Supreme Court (SC). Despite this, the project remains a top priority for the government and civic body.

Policymakers need to revisit this project, which will largely cater to motorists, and result in scarcer resources for public transport systems and initiatives, which focus on more equitable outcomes. The state may also want to focus on infrastructure creation in Mumbai’s extended suburbs like Vasai, Virar, Ambarnath and Badlapur, from where people make long and arduous trips to Mumbai daily, for work.

As the German-British statistician and economist E F Schumacher noted, modern man “does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side,” the economist had said.

This is the perhaps the most prescient warning for our times.