The devastating floods in Jammu and Kashmir this month, which left at least 277 dead and hundreds more stranded, were not just a natural calamity. Experts have attributed the destruction to unauthorised development in the region over several years, particularly along river banks.

A similar fate could face Mumbai, which has been consistently flouting environmental norms for development despite suffering from unprecedented floods in July 2005 that left around 400 people dead.

According to researchers at the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, the devastation caused in the recent Jammu floods was compounded by the increasing construction of buildings and roads that have been rapidly encroaching on wetlands, lakes, ponds and the banks of the Jhelum river. Such construction reduces the drainage capacity of the water bodies and leaves little room for water to overflow.

In Mumbai and its neighbouring cities of Thane and Navi Mumbai, whose waterfronts fall under the central government’s Coastal Regulation Zones, there are strict norms for the kind of development activity allowed close to the coast. But city and state authorities have been shown a blatant disregard for those rules over the years.

Amended rules

These regulations have been the subject of debate in recent months when the Maharashtra government in May scotched a decision by the Coastal Zone Management Authority to reclassify the the shore along the city's Mahim section as a bay. This controversial decision by the coastal authority would have cleared the way for a rash of building near the coast. 

But other buildings have come up close to the shore in recent years, thanks to  amendment to the CRZ rules in 2011 that allows the redevelopment of slum clusters by the shore. In addition, at last count, there were at least 500 illegal coastal buildings across Greater Mumbai.

The Coastal Regulation Zone was notified in 1991 with the aim of keeping coasts free from construction, to protect traditional livelihoods of coastal inhabitants and to preserve the fragile marine ecology.

As per CRZ rules, all states have to map their coastlines, conduct a ground survey of inter-tidal areas, demarcate the "high tide line" up to which sea water reaches on the shore during high tides, and formulate a coastal zone management plan. The norms also mandate the involvement of local fishing communities in CRZ committees.

Spaces that are closest to the coast and most ecologically sensitive – such as open seafronts, wetlands, mudflats, or mangroves – are classified as CRZ-I, and no new constructions are permitted within 500 metres of the high tide line in these areas. CRZ-II refers to areas that have already been developed close to the shore, like fishing villages, and the norms restrict development only up to 100 metres of the high tide line.

“In Mumbai, not only are CRZ norms being flouted, but authorities have also not yet released the required maps that demarcate high tide lines and no-development zones,” said Dayanand Stalin, an environmental activist at the city-based non-profit group Vanashakti.

Playing with definitions

In March, the  Coastal Zone Management Authority almost got away with  demarcating the Mahim shoreline on Mumbai’s western coast as a bay instead of an open shore, which would have opened up the area to all kinds of construction and development.

Since coastal regulations were amended in 2011, different rules apply to open seafronts and cove-like bays. Along seafronts, constructions have to maintain a 500-metres distance from the high tide line, but in the case of a bay, the 100-metre norm of CRZ-II would apply.

In the case of Mahim, the redefinition allowed for the approval of a slum redevelopment project that had been stalled due to the old CRZ rules since 1991. It also came as good news for Hubtown, a real- estate company that wants to build a high-end residential complex on a 5.3-acre plot at Prabhadevi off Mahim.

In July, however, the state government put a stay on the order, calling it a “reckless decision” that would adversely affect town planning.

A history of unmapped geography

It took Maharashtra seven years to submit a map of its coastal zone to the union government. Through the 2000s, several construction projects in coastal zones were approved by the state's coastal management authority. “In many cases, the Authority claimed that there were errors in the map and the plots where projects were approved were wrongly shown as falling in coastal zones,” said Stalin.

In 2009, the environment minister questioned these errors on the map and directed the state to make final map of coastal zones in Maharashtra. Even though Chennai’s Institute of Remote Sensing was appointed for the task, this new map has been in preparation for almost five years, with the state government asking the Centre for repeated extensions on the deadline.

Even though the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority is supposed to be in charge of this map, an official from the Authority claims that a draft of the map is currently with the Mumbai municipal corporation.

“The corporation is verifying certain errors that have come up in the map,” said AT Fulmali, a member secretary of the coastal management authority. “After that we will be doing a public consultation and taking the views of stakeholders, such as the departments of industry, urban development and town planning, before submitting the map.”

Activists, however, find this suspicious. “Why do they need to consult these departments on a matter of science and ecology?” asked Stalin.

Disaster waiting to happen?

The state government may have put one reckless environmental decision on hold, but experts feel the city is already buckling under the pressure of decades of reclamation and irresponsible constructions. This year, at the start of the monsoon in June, high tide waves lashed the coast and inundated the broad promenades around the Gateway of India and Marine Drive.

“We already saw what happened when the Mithi river overflowed in 2005, but if we keep playing with nature, we are likely to suffer the same consequences as Kashmir or Uttarakhand,” said Arvind Untawale, the executive secretary of the Mangroves Society of India, a non-profit organisation that studies and aims to protect mangroves.

Mangroves, which surround the marshy shores of greater Mumbai, act as a buffer against high tides and floods, so choking and destroying them leaves the city vulnerable to frequent inundation.

“It is extremely important to keep natural drains and channels open because in case of heavy rains, water needs to be able to flow out smoothly,” said Rakesh Kumar, chief scientist and head of the Mumbai-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute. “The city cannot afford to ignore CRZ norms.”