Mumbai’s fishers relieved after courts pause the coastal road project

  • In July 2019, the Bombay High Court ordered a stop on all activities related to the coastal road project in Mumbai.
  • It highlighted the ecological dangers and asked the authorities to take the environment and wildlife clearance afresh.
  • The order has provided temporary relief to the Koli community of Mumbai, a traditional fishing community living in constant fear that the project would wipe away their livelihood.

Fifty-two-year-old Moreshwar Namdeo Koli is a fisherman whose family has been fishing in the Arabian sea off the Mumbai coast for the past three generations. His is among the 15,000 families of the Koli community, considered the original inhabitants of Mumbai, who stay along the coast of western Mumbai and are living with the sword of the upcoming coastal road project hanging over their necks.

The 35-kilometre-long road along Mumbai’s western coast threatens the livelihood of the fishermen as it would block their access to the sea and deplete the fish stock that they have been dependent on for decades.

A temporary relief of sorts for the community, however, came on July 16, when the Bombay High Court passed an order to stop the ongoing work on the coastal road with immediate effect as the environment clearances taken were not in accordance with the requisite procedures. The court directed the project authorities to seek appropriate environment clearance along with wildlife clearance. The state government and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) have appealed in the Supreme Court against the high court’s order. The case is now pending in the apex court.

“We are happy that the court has stayed the work on this project. Now, we are hoping that proper justice is done to us and our only means of livelihood for generations is not taken away from us,” said Moreshwar Namdeo Koli.

The Koli community is angry and upset, claiming that they were not consulted before the project was started. “There was a clear direction from the fisheries director that fishermen should be taken into confidence before the project starts, but, no one bothered to even come and tell us what was going on,” Harishchandra Keroba Nakhwa, a fisherman and president of the Worli Koliwada Nakhwa Matsya Vyavasaay Sahakari Society Ltd, told Mongabay-India.

“We are not against development, but the way it is being planned and built, it is clear that it will destroy the fishing areas in the sea. The access to the sea will be stopped permanently and the natural course of the water will be altered forever,” said 72-year-old Nakhwa while adding that they are ready to cooperate with the government but not at such a high cost to their lives.

The order of the high court was a result of several petitions which were clubbed together. The Worli Koliwada Nakhwa Matsya Vyavasaay Sahakari Society Ltd was one of the petitioners.

The Mumbai coastal road project, which will connect Nariman Point in south Mumbai to Kandivali in northwest Mumbai, will be a 35-km long road and will be built on reclaimed land. It is expected to cost Rs. 150 billion (Rs. 15,000 crore) and is expected to be completed by 2022.

Fishermen fear their livelihood is at stake

The main concern of the fishermen community is about their livelihood. Harishchandra Keroba Nakhwa explained that the project would uproot them from their traditional livelihood and even the one-time compensation offered by the government is unacceptable as it is not sufficient.

“How can an entire family and the coming generations survive on a one-time compensation when their only means of earning is being permanently taken away,” Nakhwa questioned.

Nakhwa also complained that when the Bandra-Worli Sealink was built connecting the western suburb to southern Mumbai, the fishermen community in Worli was not taken into confidence and without their knowledge massive pillars were erected right in the middle of the sea, which massively changed the fishing pattern.

“The pillars were erected in the path of our fishing boats and even the fish which used to come near the shore stopped coming, this resulted in massive losses to the fishermen in Worli area,” Nakhwa said.

A fisherman looking for crabs and seashells near Worli, Mumbai. Photo by Nikhil S. Dixit.

Director of Vanashakti, a Mumbai-based non-governmental organisation working on environmental issues, Stalin D emphasised that there is one segment of the fishing community that has been completely neglected by the government.

“The fishermen that are spoken about are the ones who have boats and those who take their boats in the sea for fishing. However, there is a sizeable number of fishermen, almost 30 percent, who are the poorest of the poor and don’t have boats. They fish near the shore and depend entirely on the seawater for their livelihood,” Stalin, who was also of the petitioners,  told Mongabay-India.

“These poor fishermen wait for the high tide to bring in fish near the shore and then they lay their nets and catch the fish. And when there is low tide, they scavenge for crabs and shells which are left behind by the receding tide. No one is talking about these fishermen and how will they earn their livelihood after the coastal road is built,” Stalin said.

This is not the first time that the Koli community is facing neglect. In January 2019, the Indian government’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) came out with the Coastal Regulation Zone notification 2018 replacing the 2011 version. This notification governs and regulates the activities in ecologically sensitive coastal areas. But the 2018 version makes no mention about Koliwadas, which are the fishing settlement areas in Mumbai, and had special protection in the 2011 notification.

Read more: India changes coastal rules, bonanza for the industry

Coastal road project threatens marine ecology

With state elections in Maharashtra scheduled within the next two-three months, the issue is bound to stay in focus. In the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year, the community under the Mumbai South constituency boycotted the elections in protest of the coastal road. But the fishermen know that their numbers are not big enough to threaten politicians into listening to them and a likely solution would only come from the court.

In its order on July 16, 2019, the Bombay High Court noted several reports which have highlighted that the project will have serious consequences on marine ecology.

Mumbai has a coastline of 149-km with thriving marine biodiversity that has often faced the brunt of the growing concrete jungle.

Read more: Creatures from Mumbai’s shore and their housing stories

The order highlighted the report of CSIR-NIO (Council of Scientific & Industrial Research – National Institute of Oceanography) that looked at the impact of the project on the sea-shore and held there could be a long term degradation of sensitive and essential breeding and nursery habitats of coastal and marine organisms which would lead to a long term reduction in commercially important species of fish.

“The living habitats and microhabitats of the marine flora and fauna will be destroyed,” the report had said.

Harishchandra Keroba Nakhwa of the fishermen organisation that filed the court case against the project. Photo by Nikhil S. Dixit.

A total of 90 hectares of land would be reclaimed for the project but of that only 20 hectares – just over 20 percent – would be actually utilised for the road and the rest would be for recreational purposes like a promenade, butterfly park, joggers track and other facilities like bus depots and cycle lanes.

The court order also observed the results of another expert report that held that reclamation required for the project may have indirect effects on the environment and ecology as it may cause an increase in the concentration of suspended solids in the water and reduce light penetration, thereby hampering photosynthesis of marine vegetation, decrease in dissolved oxygen levels which may then result in mortality of organisms, nutrient imbalance and result in algal blooms. This report by STUP (Societe Technique pour l’Utilisation de la Precontrainte) and Consultants Private Limited and Ernst & Young Private Limited also noted that during construction there will be an increase in trampling on rocky shores which will directly affect the intertidal organisms.

According to the court order, species of corals (having the highest protection under India’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972) were observed in the intra-tidal zone where the coastal road project has been proposed. “Notwithstanding the fact that corals presence is minuscule the same shows that the ecosystem in the area in question is conducive to the corals. It establishes that the area is ecologically sensitive having geo-morphological features which play a role in maintaining the integrity of the species,” the court order noted.

Vanashakti’s Stalin D said the project would result in the permanent loss of marine flora and fauna and the inter-tidal marine life form near the Mumbai coast.

“The main threat is to the coast of Mumbai and inland flooding. Even this year we experience inland flooding which was never experienced earlier. If the coastal road comes up on reclaimed land then there will be disastrous inland flooding. The Mumbai coastline is already under tremendous stress this project will increase that stress manifold,” cautioned Stalin.

“The sea will not give up its space. The quantum of water that will be displaced by the coastal road will find someplace on land to hit. The same water will hit some different landmass of the city and cause immense damage. Eventually, all the beaches in Mumbai  – Girgaum Chowpatty, Dadar Chowpatty, Juhu Beach, all of them will go underwater. Citizens of Mumbai will lose all the access they have to the seashore, once the coastal road is built,” Stalin warned.

Activists also anticipate that the major part of the reclaimed land for the project, 70 hectares, which will not be used for the construction of road, will eventually be taken over on one or the other pretext and given to developers to build residential and commercial complexes.

Is there an alternative?

Many of those opposing the project stated that the work on the road shouldn’t have begun in the first place.

According to environmentalist and executive trustee of Conservation Action Trust (CAT) Debi Goenka, when the coastal road was first proposed it was decided that it would be a road over stilts or road on pillars, so that the marine flora and fauna is not destroyed or affected. But, over the years, politicians and the BMC changed the plan and decided to build the road on reclaimed land.

The seashore near the Napean sea road where work had started before court stopped it. Photo by Nikhil S. Dixit.

“Across the world, it has been an experience that a new road has never helped improve the city transport situation because, within a few months, more cars are added to the roads and eventually leads to more traffic jams. In fact, governments across the world are discouraging people from using cars and encouraging them to use public transport. Whereas, we are building roads which will encourage people to buy cars and further congest the city,” Goenka, another petitioner in the case, told Mongabay-India.

Goenka stressed that authorities don’t seem to have learned any lessons from the Bandra Worli Sealink Project. “After it became fully functional, the Sealink was supposed to carry at least 120,000 cars daily but a mere 32,000 cars are plying on it every day. A similar fate may fall upon the coastal road because the fundamentals that it is being built upon are flawed,” Goenka said.

He highlighted that when first planned, the coastal road was expected to cost around one billion rupees (Rs 100 crores) for every kilometre but this cost was calculated for a road on stilt or road on pillars plan. “But now with the government planning to reclaim land and build the road, the cost has already sky-rocketed to approximately Rs 13 billion (Rs 1,300 crore) per kilometre,” Goenka said.

Another transport infrastructure in the offing — the metro rail project of Mumbai – is planned to run parallel to the proposed coastal road, an issue raised in the Bombay High Court’s order.  Environmentalists point out that this highlights the poor planning of the state government and BMC because as per Maharashtra government’s own admission all the metro projects that are currently under construction in Mumbai, especially the Metro 3 (Colaba-SEEPZ line which will run parallel to coastal road) are being undertaken to reduce the number of cars on the roads and encourage people to take public transport.

“If that is really the case, then, why to build the coastal road and bring more cars on the roads?” questioned Goenka.

Authorities reinforce the need for the coastal road

The coastal road project is considered to be the pet project of Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, who launched the project with much fanfare at the end of 2018, a few months before the Lok Sabha elections this year. The Shiv Sena is currently in power in the BMC, the elections for which are scheduled in 2022.

Shiv Sena’s chief spokesperson Harshal Pradhan said that they are not against the environment or do not aim to destroy anything. “The entire project has been studied and planned by experts and all things have been taken into consideration before starting the project,” Pradhan told Mongabay-India.

While respecting the views of environmentalists, Pradhan questioned why no objections were raised when the project was being planned.

The project involves reclamation of about 90 hectares of land. Photo by Nikhil S. Dixit.

“Everything was in the public domain. All the tenders were open tenders. So why didn’t anyone come forward then? What is the reason for coming forward now, when the project has been started and a huge amount of money has already been spent,” said Pradhan while stressing that the delay in project would lead to an escalation of project’s cost putting further burden on the exchequer.

“We have made it clear that this is going to be a toll-free road, so why is there an objection. It will be immensely useful for the public and they will be able to commute smoothly and save up on time and fuel,” Pradhan said.

He said a similar thing had happened with the sealink project as well, whose initial cost of the project was Rs 4.65 billion (Rs 465 crores), but after the BJP-Shiv Sena government lost power in 1999, the project was stopped when a group of environmentalists raised an objection with the new government.

He explained when the project finally saw the light of the day the cost had escalated from 4.65 billion to Rs 17 billion (Rs 1,700 crores).


Banner image: The coastal road project is the pet project of Shiv Sena led BMC. Photo by Nikhil S. Dixit.

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