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Are Mumbai’s new infra projects struggling to balance development with sustainability?

Many projects that have been on paper for several decades have been given the go-ahead now

“Bursting at the seams” has been the most popular phrase to describe Mumbai for more than 20 years now. As the population of the city has grown exponentially, there have been few corresponding infrastructure projects to meet the demands of its 20 million residents.

Now, all of a sudden, there is a surfeit of projects competing for attention. ‘Mumbai is upgrading,’ proclaim slogans on barricades. There’s Mumbai Metro 3 plus five other Metro corridors. There’s a new airport coming up — the Navi Mumbai International Airport (NMIA). There’s the Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link (MTHL), the Coastal Road, the Versova-Bandra Sea Link (VBSL), and the Eastern Waterfront Project. Put together, the slew of projects costs ₹1.22 lakh crore, with each one in various stages of execution. If you add to these the Centre’s ambitious High Speed Rail Corridor between Ahmedabad and Mumbai or the bullet train (route), then the expenditure crosses ₹2 lakh crore.

Many of these projects have been on paper for several decades, but they have been given the go-ahead only in the last few years. A classic example is NMIA, the bhoomi pooja of which was done in 1997. The Metro is another example of the time it has taken for plans to get off the ground, with the original concept dating back at least 20 years and having seen several iterations. The idea for MTHL goes as far back as 2004; the contracts were signed in 2017, after several changes in executing agency and funding model.

R.A. Rajeev, in his 50s, with a salt-and-pepper moustache, has been in the administrative service for over 30 years now. He heads the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA). He says the current government is displaying a political will to execute infrastructure projects that wasn’t seen earlier. “Once you get political backing, you must be ready to execute the project swiftly, as you don’t normally get such opportunities,” he says.

It is not all smooth sailing though. There has been stiff opposition to several of the projects from environmentalists. A few weeks ago, the Bombay High Court quashed the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) approval for the Coastal Road, and the Supreme Court has upheld the order. The Bombay High Court order said that the project needed environmental impact assessment (EIA) and noted not only that there were “serious lacunae” in the decision-making process but also a lack of proper scientific study.

The Mumbai ‘locals’ ferry over 80 lakh people a day.

The Mumbai ‘locals’ ferry over 80 lakh people a day.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

Not just the Coastal Road, the Bombay High Court has also quashed the CRZ clearance for a casting yard at Juhu set up for VBSL. And the Supreme Court is presently hearing a petition on whether a car shed for Metro Line 3 can come up in Aarey Milk Colony. With its thick vegetation, Aarey Colony in Goregaon is considered a green oasis. Sewri, where MTHL is coming up, is famous for the flamingos that migrate here every winter. There is a forest reserve north of the city and mudflats along the Thane Creek, and the bullet train will pass underground through this area.

Overnight changes

Stalin Dayanand, director of the non-profit Vanashakti, has a different opinion on the way the infrastructure projects have been fast-tracked. He was among the petitioners challenging the Coastal Road project in Bombay High Court and says the key difference between the present government and its predecessors is that this government changes rules and laws overnight to fit the needs of the project. “Aarey was declared a no-development zone (NDZ) under the previous government. This government removed the NDZ. If the project is stalled today, it is only because of vigorous opposition by citizens.”

The 33.5 km Metro Line 3 will be the city’s only underground Metro line. Last month, when the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) was reviewing a proposal to cut some 2,000 trees for a car depot for Line 3, it received over 82,000 objections from Mumbaikars.

Rajeev objects to this. Environmental activists should understand the problems of project authorities, he says. “Considerable time is spent planning these projects and a lot of time goes in obtaining the clearances. If anyone has an issue with the project, they should go to court before the tenders are awarded. After the tender is awarded, it only delays the project and there is a loss of public money.”

Rajeev chafes at the petitions and court cases. “The Metro lines should have been operational by now, but the projects didn’t take off. The first Metro line took nearly 10 years to complete. If we implement one line at a time, completing the entire network will take considerable time, which the city does not have. We are essentially making up for lost time,” he says. MMRDA plans to build 14 corridors in all, of which three got the State government nod earlier this month while six are under construction.

There is no denying the crying need for infrastructure upgradation in booming Mumbai. Its population is mushrooming and its suburban train service is stretched to the limit. The locals, as they are popularly known, ferry over 80 lakh people a day. And it is this statistic the administration uses to justify the environmental damage caused by projects.

Urban planners, however, say that the projects are being executed without understanding the present needs of the city.

For instance, nearly all the Metro lines are being built within the city and its suburbs, whereas the real demand for new infrastructure is in the satellite towns that are part of the larger Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), which has exploded in population but is served only by the suburban trains.

According to the 2011 census, Mumbai City district saw its population shrink by 7.6% from the previous decade with people crowding to areas around it. Thus, in the same period, the population of Mumbai Suburban district grew 8.3% while that of Panvel and Alibaug in Raigad district grew by over 100%. Thane district increased by 36%, while Vasai in Palghar district also nearly doubled.

Deep inside the belly of South Mumbai rumbles this massive tunnel boring machine working on the upcoming Metro 3 line.

Deep inside the belly of South Mumbai rumbles this massive tunnel boring machine working on the upcoming Metro 3 line.   | Photo Credit: Vivek Bendre

As city planner and architect P.K. Das says, “Around 30-40 years ago, South Mumbai was the magnet. It was the centre and nearly all major offices across sectors and industries were located there. Today, that’s no longer the case. There has been a visible decentralisation of business districts and travel patterns have therefore changed.” There has, however, been no corresponding change in planning. Das pointed to the absence of a single comprehensive transport plan. “Each agency seems to be executing projects individually without considering other projects and, more importantly, without understanding the needs of the city today.”

Metro vs. roads

In fact, experts are also divided on whether Mumbai should focus on the Metro or on more roads. Rajeev defends the decision to build the Metros first; there’s a more urgent need for it, he says, pointing to the 11.4 km Metro Line 1, which ferries 4.5 lakh people daily. It’s a classic example, he says, of how starved the city is for new infrastructure.

Engineers like the famous E. Sreedharan have always maintained that Metros are cheaper than roads and can carry more people. Hussain Indorewala, planner and activist, points to the high cost of the Coastal Road, a 10 km road costing nearly ₹12,000 crore, compared to Mumbai Metro 3, which has a project cost of around ₹23,000 crore but is nearly three times as long. But focussing on roads could have got the city a better bus rapid system for a fraction of the cost.

As Indorewala says, “It would have been cheaper and more flexible in terms of planning routes to meet the changing patterns in the city in the future.” If, however, the idea is to reduce private cars on the road, then too many roads achieve the opposite. As Uwe Brandes, urban design expert and associate professor at Georgetown University, points out, building more roads and highways seems to create a demand for vehicles even where there were was none before.

The administration itself seems a bit muddled, using contradictory arguments to justify its Metro and road projects. Says Indorewala, “Coastal Road is justified by the assumptions of increasing car ownerships in the city.

On the other hand, Metro Line 3, which runs nearly parallel to Coastal Road, is also justified saying it will reduce road congestion. Similarly, VBSL will run parallel to Metro Line 2B.” On its website, the Mumbai Metro 3 project says it will reduce 4,56,000 vehicle trips, even as the Coastal Road project says it will cater to 1.2 lakh cars every day.

Tackling congestion

Rajeev, however, says the Metro and road projects complement each other. “The city’s congestion is around 70% at present. Once you implement the Metro, the congestion will reduce by 25% at least. But with the road projects implemented, the average speed on the road will increase, and we can expect another 10% reduction, thus reducing overall congestion to around 35%,” he says.

This is not entirely convincing. Experts point to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link (BWSL). Built in 2009, the 6 km long BWSL was expected to carry nearly 1 lakh vehicles daily. The figure is not even close to half of that even after 10 years. The proposed VBSL, 17.17 km long, projects that it will carry 39,334 vehicles over the entire length every day; it projects a toll fee for 2023 that’s nearly 3.5 times the current toll for BWSL.

Sewri, where work on the Trans-Harbour Link is ongoing, is famous for the flocks of flamingos that migrate there every winter.

Sewri, where work on the Trans-Harbour Link is ongoing, is famous for the flocks of flamingos that migrate there every winter.   | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

Both the sea links and the Coastal Road are planned as part of a single coastal road on the city’s western waterfront, and once complete, these numbers might be achieved, but the damage to the coastline ecosystem seems to have been left out of consideration. Instead of the Coastal Road, says Das, the government could have used the money to build all the Metro lines underground. Except Mumbai Metro Line 3, all other lines under construction are elevated. “Elevated lines leave little scope for road expansion,” says Das, and Indorewala points out that after completion, the elevated Metros will permanently eat up road space on arterial roads.

Into this heady mixture, a new ingredient has been thrown in: water transport. Can this be the magic mantra with the potential to change the way people commute in Mumbai? Despite being an island city with a natural harbour, Mumbai has a very poor water transport network, with only a few slow jetties in some parts. Now, that could change, with Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT) developing a 1 km waterfront on the city’s eastern front.

This, says Sanjay Bhatia, chairman of MbPT, will become the hub. “We are bringing in cruise tourism and water transport.” MbPT is acquiring fast boats that can navigate shallow waters. And it is planning routes from the hub at Ferry Wharf to parts of Navi Mumbai such as Belapur, Nerul, and even to the new airport, as well as Ro-Ro ferries to Alibaug and Nerul that will allow people to take their cars on the boats. “Things will be different,” says Bhatia. “We are even testing to see if it’s possible to have boats travelling up the creek to Thane, Airoli and even Vasai.”

Are these plans relevant or sustainable?

“If all cities build infrastructure to meet peak demand then, by definition, there’s too much infrastructure,” says Brandes. Instead, technological interventions such as congestion pricing and dynamic toll rates must be used to manage demand and regulate congestion. The integration of multiple transport systems is important for sustainable infrastructure, he says.

Das points out that the two key questions of ‘relevance’ and ‘sustainability’ seem to be missing. The projects under way are seen by the government as ‘contracts’ rather than part of a comprehensive plan for the city, he says. Such ad hoc measures cannot be considered ‘infrastructure’, he says, as the term represents a holistic view of planned development, and that must include a strong housing policy.

Dayanand agrees. “For the Coastal Road, 90 hectares is being reclaimed, of which less than 20 hectares will be used for the road. BMC is saying we are going to give Mumbai more open spaces. You don’t have to reclaim from the sea to give the city more open spaces. You need a robust housing policy to successfully rehabilitate the slums that occupy nearly 40% of Mumbai’s area.”

The administration, it would seem, has kept the focus firmly on mobility, putting that at the centre of its infrastructure strategy. But, as Brandes points out, mobility itself is going through a disruption and it’s impossible to anticipate all the dynamics associated with it. This is why a holistic vision for the city is required, one that integrates mobility with a long-sighted understanding of housing and sustainability issues. Is Mumbai listening?

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 2:28:39 PM |

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