Opinion

Mumbai's coastal road plan is a welfare scheme for the well-to-do

The freeway won't achieve its stated aim: to reduce the city's traffic congestion.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Maharashtra has been on a building overdrive. In the five months it has been in power, the dispensation has taken several decisions to construct infrastructure in the state without paying any heed to the impact it will have on communities and ecology. Few projects perhaps capture the government’s callousness as perfectly as the proposed Rs 8,000-crore coastal freeway in Mumbai, from Nariman Point in the city’s south to Kandivali in the western suburbs.

Though it is not a new idea, the coastal freeway has received an impetus under the BJP-led government, which feels that the 34-kilometre road is desperately needed to improve Mumbai’s traffic. This thinking echoes the recommendations of a technical committee set up by the government whose report, submitted in 2011, had advanced two incredibly counterintuitive arguments for building a coastal freeway.

The first said that a freeway would “take away traffic from internal roads”, reduce Mumbai’s notorious congestion and cut down the pollution levels, thus diminishing public “health hazards”. The second said the coastal road would supply “significant green space” to the city by reclaiming 160 hectares of land from the sea. It would also beautify the city’s western edge by creating recreational spaces, such as jogging and cycling tracks, waterfronts, promenades, gardens and landscapes. On the whole, the committee’s report claimed, the freeway will result in a “quantum leap” towards enhancing the “quality of life” of its citizens.

Both arguments are misleading.

Coastal communities and ecology

The western coast of Mumbai is rich in its productive uses as well as ecological diversity. There are at least 12 fishing villages on this coast that depend on the coastal ecosystem for their livelihood. They use the beaches to park their boats, dry fish, and repair their nets and vessels.

To these communities, the coastal areas constitute their “commons”, since they collectively manage, use and protect these shared resources. However, the government-appointed technical committee characterises these activities in terms that suggest lawlessness (“encroachments”), uncivility (“commonplace abuse”) and squalor (“eyesores”).

The efforts to “beautify” and “landscape” the coast are attempts to transform its productive functions into leisure and recreational functions to suit the lifestyle needs of middle and upper income groups. They render the coast unusable for the livelihood needs of coastal communities. As the city is reorganised for tourism, leisure and entertainment sectors, the communities and their activities get pushed out to be replaced by monumental waterfronts, recreation zones and tourist attractions.

Conscious of the impact of the coastal freeway on the ecology, the technical committee recommends “compensatory mangrove plantation” to address environmental concerns. But mangroves are just one component of a biologically productive system: the coastline includes a range of natural features such as rocky headlands, bays with sandy beaches, estuaries, mudflats and more, all of which offer a diversity of habitats forming a fragile coastal ecosystem. Far from suggesting ways of conservation, the committee reduces these geomorphic features to “sharp kinks” in the coastline that must be replaced through reclamation into “gentle curves” to smoothen traffic flow.

It was precisely for the protection of coastal ecology and the livelihoods of coastal communities that the Union government had introduced the Coastal Regulation Zone in 1992. But in the case of the coastal freeway, the Union Environment Ministry has waived off the CRZ regulation, despite the obvious consequences.

The problem of traffic

Furthermore, much of the coast already offers a variety of usable public spaces that the city’s residents benefit from. What then is the value in effacing these for gardens, jogging tracks and promenades? It will be more effective and less expensive to refurbish and maintain Mumbai's beachfronts as they exist today. It will be less expensive to improve access to the existing open spaces – more than half of which are inaccessible – rather than to reclaim land to create more.

The city’s municipal corporation ignores the larger problem of inequities and focuses exclusively on inadequacies – assuming, falsely, that addressing the latter will automatically remove the former.

Freeways by design are not for a diversity of users or origin and destination points. They are meant to dump cars from one general area to another, and generally end up choking these areas further – in turn laying the ground for new demands for newer and wider roads. The most effective way to reduce congestion is by reducing road space, making private transport costly through taxation and pricing, and by diverting this revenue for improving and augmenting public transport. These measures deter car users and encourage a switch to public modes of transport. People do not choose private transport simply because they can afford cars, but because they seem more convenient, especially since there are few disincentives to use them.

The real problem of traffic is not how to build more infrastructure that encourages vehicle travel – it is how to cut down private automobiles by discouraging their use. Apart from devouring land, cars notoriously guzzle oil and warm the planet. Despite this, the government, in its eagerness to emulate “metropolises around the world”, wants to transform the dense city of Mumbai, where 78% of non-walking trips are on public transport systems, one of the highest in the world, into a sprawling, energy-hungry urban agglomeration infested with cars.

Who pays? Who gains?

It is obvious that the technical committee’s “green” and “health” arguments for the Mumbai coastal road are flimsy crutches that buckle instantly when scrutinised. Eventually, the real aims of the coastal road have more to do with the interests of investors, developers, wealthy homeowners and middle-class commuters. The net benefits of the freeway will predictably accrue to lenders and financiers, for whom big infrastructure projects ensure public guarantees on investments; to car manufacturers, for whom road construction is an indirect subsidy; to real-estate developers, for whom the freeway represents increased realty values along the coast and in the suburbs; and to car owners, who desire to leapfrog the “undesirable” parts of a complicated city.

But the net costs of this project will be borne by others. The disruption of neighbourhoods and livelihoods of coastal communities will be costs that are suffered by the poor, while the environmental impact, pollution and the need for more parking facilities and infrastructure will be costs endured by the city. Apart from these, there will be other impacts that are difficult to predict or quantify.

The benefit to a small fraction of Mumbai’s population will be largely financed by the public, as Mumbai’s civic body plans to divert Rs 3,500 crore raised through the sale of compensatory floor space index (or fungible FSI) for the project. If anything, the project represents a massive transfer of wealth to the rich, and imposes costs on the rest. The Mumbai coastal road is welfare for the well-to-do.

Hussain Indorewala and Shweta Wagh teach at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and Environmental Studies in Mumbai. They are also members of the Hamara Shehar Vikas Niyojan.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.