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Will Mumbai’s new coastal road destroy an entire village?

  • The ecological fallout of Mumbai’s new coastal road threatens to destroy the livelihood of the fisherfolk of Worli fishing village
  • This Rs12000 crore coastal road project will reclaim land from the sea to build an eight-lane highway that will connect South Mumbai to the suburbs

The barricades for the Coastal Road Project have been erected all along the Worli Seaface promenade.
The barricades for the Coastal Road Project have been erected all along the Worli Seaface promenade.

Alife-size sculpture of R.K. Laxman’s Common Man is perched on a bench on Mumbai’s Worli Seaface, overlooking the Arabian Sea, a benevolent reminder that this stretch of land and sea belongs to everyone. But what used to be an uninterrupted view across the sea, to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link and beyond, is now blocked by barricades advertising the Mumbai Coastal Road Project promising to “connect people and places". This is one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC), and a ground for political one-upmanship between the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

It is hard to miss the irony that just beyond the cheery yellow barricades juts the curved peninsula of Worli Koliwada, a centuries-old fishing village whose socio-economic and cultural identity is under threat from the project. So, who are the people and places that are being connected—and at whose cost?

The proposed eight-lane freeway from Nariman Point to the Worli Sea Link will traverse both land and sea and is estimated to cost 12,000 crore. Work started in October and the project is expected to be completed within four years. And since space is a scarce resource in Mumbai, the land for the road will have to be reclaimed from the sea. The direct environmental fallout of this will be faced by all the urban fishing communities of Mumbai, many of whom have come out to protest the imminent threat to their livelihood. A 15 March report in the Hindustan Times reported that as a result of the lack of adequate rehabilitation measures by the government, the protesting fisherfolk threatened to boycott the forthcoming Lok Sabha election.

 A fisherman with his catch at Mumbai’s Worli fishing village
 A fisherman with his catch at Mumbai’s Worli fishing village

But continuing protests by citizen groups, environmentalists and fishermen have failed to stop the work. A petition was filed in early February by the Worli Macchimar Sarvoday Society and the Worli Koliwada Nakhwa Matsya Vyavsay Sahakari Society, two fishing societies that operate in the village and enable fishermen to get subsidies from the government. At a hearing on 19 March, the Bombay high court reprimanded the state government and the BMC for not conducting a proper survey to determine how the proposed road would affect the livelihood of the fishing communities. It directed the BMC to submit details of the fishing areas and breeding grounds that are likely to come under the project’s ambit. The BMC had earlier presented an affidavit saying that no fishing villages would be affected. Lounge reached out to Himangi Worlikar, deputy mayor, BMC, about whether there was a rehabilitation plan for the fisher community. Her office refused to comment, saying the matter was sub judice.

The Sea Link, which connects the western suburbs to south Mumbai, offers the best view of Worli Koliwada. Small boats are parked on the rocky shore while others bob at the water’s edge. Just behind the tiny multicoloured buildings and huts rise the rest of the Worli and Parel neighbourhoods where real estate behemoths lay claim to the sky with vertiginous skyscrapers. Two skinny roads curve through the village. Hindu and Christian shrines nestle snugly in between grocery and mobile repair shops, local men’s salons and houses of varied sizes. This village is home to artisanal fishermen (those who practise traditional fishing using non-mechanized or small motor-driven boats). Over 11,000 members of this community could potentially be affected by the ecological damages set in motion.

Fishing boats parked along the water’s edge at Worli Koliwada
Fishing boats parked along the water’s edge at Worli Koliwada

According to Social Ecology Of The Shallow Seas, an 8 March report detailing the impact of coastal reclamation on the Worli fishing area by Shweta Wagh, Hussain Indorewala and Mihir Desai of Collective for Spatial Alternatives (CSA), “Coastal infrastructure projects that necessitate reclamation or intensive construction activity in the foreshore and nearshore areas of this region will irreversibly damage the coastal ecosystem."

The Worli fisherfolk claim their lineage goes back over three centuries, to when Mumbai was a collection of seven islands. A 16th century Portuguese fort stands like a dark sentinel guarding the village from the ravages of the sea. The reclamation due to the construction of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link has removed the natural barriers of sand and also changed the current patterns. As a result, the sea and its tides are not as predictable as they used to be. The tetrapods and embankments that have replaced the natural beach that existed here even up to the late 1990s (the sand was cleared when construction for the Sea Link began) do not prevent the water from entering the village during high tide. And this isn’t just a monsoon phenomenon.

The artisanal fishing activity carried out by over 700 small-scale fishermen of the Worli Koliwada is largely concentrated in the shallow waters. According to the CSA report, “Artisan fishing is a labour-intensive, low-intensity and passive method, in contrast to the technology-intensive, high-intensity and active method of commercial fishing."This obviously means that natural coastal formation, tidal movements and the overall environment have a much larger impact on these fishermen. The problems caused due to the earlier reclamation have been compounded by Metro construction and the proposed reclamation is tipped to only aggravate the situation.

Nitesh Patil, 33, is a fisherman and the director of the Worli Koliwada Nakhwa Matsya Vyavsay Sahakari Society. He has been active in opposing the new road, taking part in protest marches and approaching everyone from local political parties to the BMC—to no avail. “Fishing is our tradition and our right. We know exactly what kind of fish is available at what time and in which part of the sea. The rocky shore that they are reclaiming for this road is the most fertile breeding zone. This rocky coastal area is a hub for the expensive lobsters and black tiger prawns. Now these people are bringing trucks and are dumping the mud and cement rocks from Metro construction sites at this area and killing the marine life as well asdestroying our livelihood," says Patil.

His concerns are echoed by Ashar Worlikar, another generational fisherman, who started fishing around 1992. “From then to now, there has been a clear drop in the yield of fish. The change in the tidal patterns hindered the movement of the fish and pushed them deeper into the sea. This obviously cut into our revenue. We are the farmers of the sea but no one seems to really care about us," says Worlikar.

Advocate and environmentalist Girish Raut says the coastal reclamation of Bandra (due to the construction of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link) created both an ecological and socio-economic disaster—a portent of things to come. “The reclamation at Bandra has affected the whole relation of water with Mumbai and has destroyed a diverse ecosystem," he says. When the reclamation happened, the current patterns changed and the natural filtration channels were destroyed, which led to toxic levels of pollutants in the Mithi river and Mahim creek. He says the reclamation has also changed the angle at which the sea strikes the land, leading to erosion, coastal instability and salt-water intrusion inland through storm-water drains. The prognosis, he says, is grim.

Stalin D., director, Vanashakti, a Mumbai-based NGO that works to protect forest forests, mangroves and wetlands, adds: “Reclamation on the coastal line was definitely not at all acceptable due to present geographical challenges faced because of climate change in Mumbai. Scientists at (US space agency) Nasahave predicted that this is one of the first Indian cities that will witness increased inundation by the sea." Both Raut and he believe that adequate research and environmental studies have not been undertaken. According to them, the simulation models that have been used to test different parameters are not enough to ascertain the feasibility of the proposed coastal road.

The ravages of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link are evident in the daily catch that comes into this village, barely justifying the labour or the diesel costs for the motor. As we walk through the village, we pass a small shop where the fish is brought in, weighed and sold. Three smallish lobsters move sluggishly on an oversized weighing scale.The device seems straight out of another time when these farmers of the sea actually had a crop they could call their own.

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