Natural habitat of Gorai, Manori and Uttan being opened up for construction

It’s considered one of the last natural habitats in Mumbai — the coastal belt of Gorai, Manori and Uttan which accounts for a whopping ten per cent of the city’s land.

The coastal belt is an ecologically rich zone with beaches, hills, mangroves and mudflats.

But now, the Maharashtra government is in the process of opening up this 10,750 acre stretch of virtually pristine land for construction. A move that is raising serious concerns about whether it is subverting environmental norms and exposing this region to land sharks.

This belt is located on the outskirts of Mumbai, a city where real estate prices are among the highest in the world. It is virtually cut off from the mainland and is home to fishermen and farmers mainly from the East-Indian community. Its only claim to tourist fame — the Esselworld amusement park and the Global Vipassana Pagoda.

In early September, the State presented its plan for Gorai, Manori and Uttan, which aims to improve its connectivity to the city and open large swathes for development. Once it receives feedback from locals by early October, the State could move ahead to implement it.

Till now, just about ten per cent of this area has been developed. Nearly 90 per cent comes under a No Development Zone (NDZ), where construction is restricted. The only activities allowed are agriculture, amusement parks, golf courses, IT parks and entertainment studios. Seventy-one per cent of this falls in the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), where development is further curbed. Two-thirds of the CRZ land is covered with mangroves where the law allows barely any construction.

The new plan carves out large swathes of land from the NDZ and frees it for construction by simply changing its zoning. In the new plan, the NDZ has shrunk to half its original size. Thirty-seven per cent of NDZ land or 3,587 acres will be designated into a Green Zone which allows a host of activities including residential and commercial construction, hospitality and entertainment. For instance, it allows the construction of bungalows, farmhouses, shopping centres, cinema theatres, resorts, hotels and theme parks.

The NDZ will also lose 20 per cent of its land or 1,962 acres to a Tourism Zone and two Development Zones, in the plan. These will also allow activities similar to the Green Zone, with one key addition. They will also allow “special commercial” activities like shopping complexes and malls.

‘Will destroy livelihoods’

Local residents have risen in opposition. “This will destroy our ecology and livelihoods,” says Neville D Souza from the Dharavi Beth Bachao Sangharsh Samiti. “There will be a rush of construction here from the mainland because land prices will be cheaper. The State plans to build two bridges to connect the city to this belt. This will increase the influx to Gorai,” he added.

Not only does the plan scuttle half the NDZ, it also unleashes massive building rights. Within the NDZ, the FSI was just 0.05 for most construction. But the building rights within the Green Zone can go up to five times higher. In the Tourism Zone, building rights are 6 times higher. Within the newly designated Development Zone I building rights can be 10 times higher.

‘Backdoor entry for builders’

“The green zone is a misnomer. It is a backdoor entry for builders. Large tracts of land have already been purchased by film makers and industrialists in anticipation of the plan being cleared,” alleges architect Pankaj Joshi of the Urban Design Research Institute.

“This new plan will destroy the natural ecosystem and turn this area into another concrete jungle,” said green activist Debi Goenka of the Conservation Action Trust. He also objected to the plan to build a coastal road along the shore.

“This will fall in the CRZ area, so how can it be allowed?” he asked. In fact, he points out that most development in this region could impact the fragile mangrove cover.

The State’s planning body, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) claims its proposal has taken environmental factors into consideration.

“Mangroves cover 45 per cent of the area. These will remain in the NDZ and no construction will be allowed there,” says its chief planner Uma Adusimilli.

“In fact, the earlier NDZ permitted quite a lot of development. In the Green Zone there will be more regulation,” she claims.

The MMRDA says its earlier draft of the same plan in 2012 had less development potential but locals wanted more.