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The long road to progress

The fishing community in Moragaon village. Photo: Vivek Bendre

The fishing community in Moragaon village. Photo: Vivek Bendre  

Land-hungry Mumbai’s latest dream is a Rs. 8,000 crore, 35 km coastal road that goes over stilts and through tunnels. But the Koli communities it will swallow up are calling the project a nightmare. The Hindu visits one such village, Moragaon, and finds out just why the fishermen are up in arms.

When Mumbai sleeps, it dreams of land — to house its mushrooming population, to accommodate its cars, to ease the daily rush. Hemmed in by the sea and host to one of the densest human urban agglomerations in the world, India’s financial capital is looking seaward to find answers to its recurring and interrelated nightmare of space, traffic, congestion and commute. And it appears to have found it, in the form of a road over the sea.

The Mumbai coastal road is a Rs. 8,000 crore mega infrastructure project that seeks to finally bring the city into the new century, commensurate with its status as a historic business city of global repute. The road will run along the western coast, on stilts over the Arabian Sea, and through tunnels under land. The space between the new road and the existing shore will be reclaimed from the sea to make green open spaces and new promenades. According to government planners, the coastal road’s 35 kilometres starting from Nariman Point in South Mumbai will take you not just to the distant western suburb of Kandivali in the far north but even further — closer to Singapore and Hong Kong.

The road was first dreamt up by the Prithviraj Chavan government in 2011. But it only gathered steam when the Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power both at the Centre and in Maharashtra, fast-tracked environment clearances and made necessary policy changes. For Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, the road, if implemented in his tenure, could well prove to be his political legacy.

The village speaks

But the monumental task cannot be achieved so easily; the Mumbai of the future has still to deal with the Mumbai of the past. At the far end of Juhu Beach, at a place where an old creek emerges from the mangroves to meet the sea, lies a fishing village called Moragaon. In a small room that serves as the community’s political office, Rajesh Mangela, a slight, energetic man approaching middle age, stands in front of a large map of the village and tells me why he is angry with the government. “This,” he says, pointing to an empty space on the map, “is where they destroyed our houses — houses that we built with our own savings, our own hands. 160 of them. If you can’t do anything for us, at least don’t destroy what we do for ourselves.”

Rajesh was pursuing a postgraduate degree in law in the early 90s. He abandoned it midway when he realised that his village and the fishing community to which he belongs were under siege from the government and developers. “I asked myself, ‘What’s the point of a law degree if there is nothing left to build on?’ I didn’t want to finish my degree and then realise that everything was gone.” Rajesh spent all his time organising people and putting together a resistance to protect their land, or, as he puts it, “their natural right” as the original settlers of Mumbai. Over the years, he has been involved in many a fight with the government over policy and urban planning technicalities; nomenclature, demarcation and; marginalisation.

Over the years there have been a few wins and many losses. According to the villagers, Moragaon has existed at its present location for the past 80 years. As the population grew steadily, the village petitioned the government for more land to build houses, which the government provided under the protections afforded to villagers under government policy. But the site they chose lay in no man’s land: across the creek, in the middle of mangroves, cut off from the rest of the village. After numerous petitions failed to draw attention to the impracticality of the government plan, the village took over an adjoining piece of land earmarked for a playground. They lived there for 10 years until the government summarily arrived in 2005 and destroyed their homes. The incident still rankles with the villagers, especially when they see how building bylaws and regulations are bent and changed regularly for the affluent in Mumbai. In the last 10 years, the villagers have seen an engineering college, a hotel, a big residential colony and many villas come up all around them, in the very same places that were denied to them because they fell foul of regulations. One of those residential complexes, according to Rajesh, was built by judges and Indian Administrative Service officers. “Everybody wants to stay along the coastal area; why can’t we,” he asks. “It is our right. Like everyone, we also want clean air and a nice environment. Why should we move? Does the coast only belong to judges and ministers? You should ask them how they made their money. We live a life of dignity here.”

Now, the latest threat to the village is the Mumbai coastal road, which could snatch away the livelihoods of the villagers. In its present alignment, the road will run over a piece of land critical to the fishing community, the village commons on Juhu beach, which Moragaon uses to park boats, mend fishing nets and dry fish. Already under threat from an encroaching set of villas, supposedly built by wealthy diamond merchants, the coastal road threatens the village’s very access to the sea. Dinesh Mangela, Rajesh’s nephew and fellow organiser of the Maharashtra Machimar Kruti Sangh, a fisherman’s union, points to a couple of high-rise buildings in the distance. “You see those tall buildings over in Madh Island? That’s a Rahejas residential complex,” he says. “As soon as the coastal road was announced, they started putting big ads in newspapers saying the coastal road is coming and they will have free access. What they don’t know is that we are not going anywhere.”

Confidence in the government, already low due to years of neglect, was shaken in 2005, and dipped further when the villagers saw how ‘progress’ had affected other fishing villages in Mumbai. Says Dinesh, “Sion Koliwada has had it worse than us. They were settled elsewhere when the railway was being built. The old 150-year-old settlement that the government had made for them has been demolished for development, and the village forcibly moved into a multi-storied building.”

Rajesh wonders why every government project since independence has always affected fishing communities. “Despite assurances from the government over the years, nothing has changed,” he says. “The government even destroys the houses that we build for ourselves.”

Growth is relentless

But does Moragaon want to stand in the way of progress? “The road is a bogus plan,” says Ashok Datar, economist and chairman of the Mumbai Environmental Social Network. Mr. Datar, who has been studying the Mumbai transport system for the last 20 years and has been routinely lobbying the government to intervene in ‘governance and maintenance issues’ that would ease traffic in the city, adds, “There is no one glorious solution to solve Mumbai’s traffic problem, or any other major city’s; a thousand different and smaller interventions are needed, which are easier and cheaper but far less glamorous. But the government does not want to listen because when there is a Rs. 19,000 crore project, why would they be interested in projects that cost Rs. 10-15 crore?”

He points out curious lacunae in the government’s plan which will clearly undermine the stated goal of the project — that of reducing traffic congestion. For instance, the plan does not mention how the project envisages solving the problem of parking. The coastal road, in reducing commute time by road from the standard two hours to half an hour, will bring an additional influx of cars into South Mumbai, which already struggles for parking space. 

“We take it as a natural right in this country for motorists to park wherever they like, for however long they want. A car is a private use of a public space and so is parking. But we don’t have a semblance of a policy for parking,” points out Mr. Datar.

Then there is the question of how the 20-odd feeder roads connecting Western Mumbai with the coastal road will deal with the additional traffic given that many of these roads are already spilling over. Says Mr. Datar: “People will speed through the coastal road only to get stuck in worse traffic snarls where the coastal road meets with the city.” As he points out, the sustainable way to manage traffic, as the world is increasingly discovering, including the very cities the government is trying to emulate, is through demand side management. 

In other words, reduce the traffic. This can be done, for instance, by modernising public transport to attract car users and disincentivising private cars by imposing a congestion tax. Mumbai, of all Indian cities, is the most wedded to its public transport system, especially its local trains and busses. 

The transport system may be old and neglected, but it remains robust and forms the city’s lifeline. Compared to this, the number of people who use their own cars is barely 10 per cent. So, who is this Rs. 8,000 crore project really for?

Hussain Indorewala, faculty member in the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies, gives a broader perspective on the issue. He points out that urban planning in its genesis was strongly linked with the welfare state. Early planners were concerned with public health, hygiene and public goods, which grew to embrace other ideas such as environmental protection and public participation. “Now urban planning, in the earlier welfare state sense, is dead,” he says. “What you now have is a model of development based on creating avenues and opportunities for private investment in urban infrastructure development. Which means the more perks you give developers and financial agencies, the better it works. The coastal road is simply a waterfront regeneration project. It is supposed to create infrastructure that will regenerate the western coast.”

Urban planning as private investment

If this is indeed the case, it would explain how such an expensive project was envisaged without addressing the needs of over 90 per cent of Mumbaikars who walk, take the bus, use the train, and ride motorbikes. Mr. Indorewala says that at the heart of this approach is a bourgeois dream built around status and aspiration, like that associated with owning a car, rather than about the real and plural needs of a city. “The city’s economy is being transformed and with it, its cultural base. This is not a dream that can create enough employment, or affordable homes, or institutions. It is not going to be a city that is going to be cosmopolitan and inclusive, but one that is polarised and extremely iniquitous. This is why the bourgeois dream is a problem. It is unrealistic but, if achieved, it will be a nightmare.” 

Back in Moragaon, the villagers understand that the little leverage they have over the government comes from its great inclination to build this coastal road. “By hook or by crook the government wants this coastal road. Until our demands are satisfied, how can we say yes?” asks Rajesh. Among the villagers’ demands is the critical re-recognition of the village as a fishing village, as the government had done in 1981, rather than as a slum. This will give the villagers legal protection over their land. 

Also, a realignment of the coastal road will protect their commons. Moragaon is only one among several other fishing villages along the western coast of Mumbai that faces this predicament. 

The fishing folk of Mumbai are highly organised, have a strong union, and are battle-hardened. A major agitation is in the works. When asked why they don’t just seek a different livelihood that won’t bring them in conflict with these Goliathan forces, Rajesh replies, “You spoilt our creeks; you don’t support us like you support big industrialists; and now you turn around and say do something else! The sea does not discriminate. We’ve been fishing here since childhood. If I don’t have a job tomorrow, I can fish and feed my family. And this beautiful beach and this sea breeze that everybody else wants, what price do you put on that?”

 

The transport system in mumbai may be old, but it forms the city’s lifeline. the number of people who use their own cars is barely 10 per cent. So, who is this Rs. 8,000 crore project really for?

The coastal road, in reducing commute time from two hours to half an hour, will bring an additional influx of cars into South Mumbai, which already struggles for parking space.

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 2:16:40 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/the-long-road-to-progress/article7411612.ece

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