On July 16, the Bombay High Court stopped work on the Rs 14,000-crore Coastal Road Project and quashed environmental clearances granted by state and central governments for the 29.2-km, eight-lane freeway along the city’s western shore. This isn’t the first time Mumbai has embarked on an infrastructure project that has attempted to connect people and places. Some of these initiatives have genuinely intended to serve the public; others have had more sinister undercurrents.

Among these projects, it is worth contrasting the Mahim Causeway, which was opened in 1845, and the Coastal Road, which aims to link South Mumbai with the city’s western suburbs.

Before the Mahim Causeway was built, individuals and goods were transported between the northern islands of Salsette (on which Bandra is located) and Mahim by ferry. Passage between the two islands could be quite treacherous, and dozens of people lost their lives to roaring currents during the monsoon of 1841. Although the British East India Company that administered the islands had commissioned a plan for a causeway between Salsette and Mahim, they refused to fund the project.
The nineteenth-century merchant-prince Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy stepped forward.

Jejeebhoy, who made his fortune from trading opium and cotton, was one of the early participants in the effort to transform the archipelago of seven islands into a contiguous peninsula. He wrote to the government 1842 making an offer “on behalf of [his wife] Lady Jamsetjee, to contribute the sum of Rupees Forty Five Thousand towards the construction of the proposed Causeway”.

A plaque commemorating the opening of Lady Jamsetjee Road in 1846, which formed the approach from Mahim to the causeway. Credit: Aaran Patel

The cost of the project increased significantly over the subsequent year as engineers were baffled by the technical difficulties of constructing a causeway over a creek. But Jejeebhoy stepped forward with a large donation to ensure the work would continue.

Over the last 150 years, the causeway has remained a key link between the Island City in the south and Salsette, where Bandra and Mumbai’s northern suburbs are located. The causeway remains, as two Catholic priests, Fathers Mendonca and Rodriguez told Jejeebhoy in a letter of gratitude after the project was completed, “a benefit to both the rich and the poor of our island”.

Today, as the Mumbai municipal corporation is making similar claims about the value of the Mumbai Coastal Road Project, it is worth examining both those assertions and the key differences between the projects.

While Jejeebhoy’s private money was used for the public good in the 19th-century, for the 21st-century Coastal Road, thousands of crores of public money have currently been allocated for the benefit of a small minority of Mumbaikars who own private vehicles. Jejeebhoy stipulated a critical rider for his funding: “The Causeway, when finished, will be then open to the public free of all toll.”

The Coastal Road Project is also being presented as a toll-free initiative. But according to data compiled by urban transportation expert Ashok Datar, it is likely to be used by only 2% of the city’s population that travels by car and lives and works along the western edge of Mumbai. The lack of a toll therefore represents a subsidy for the privileged few that will be paid for by all taxpayers. For the majority of Mumbaikars, the only impact the road will have on their lives is a destruction of their relationship with the Arabian Sea and access to the shore.

A section of the Coastal Road in South Mumbai. Credit: Aaran Patel

The second major difference between the Mahim Causeway and the Coastal Road is the extent to which authorities have now become aware about the environmental impact of such projects. In colonial Bombay, individuals involved in land reclamation had limited knowledge about the ecological transformation this would cause. This resulted in rampant bunding, damming and dumping to make a city out of a swamp. The inconsistent manner in which land between the seven islands of Bombay was reclaimed causes flooding in some areas every monsoon 250 years later.

Today, however, as our scientific knowledge has expanded, the authorities are bound to adhere to environmental regulations – the Coastal Regulation Zone, the Environmental Impact Assessment notifications and the Wildlife Protection Act among them. These laws reflect the value of conserving nature rather than mindlessly tampering with it. With its judgement last week, the Bombay High Court has halted the Coastal Road Project as it has not received its environmental or wildlife clearances, and because the Coastal Regulation Zone clearance was granted without adequate scientific assessment.

“The Courts have to strike a balance and, thus have to approach the issue of conservation and human development as not an either/or proposition,” Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog and Justice Nitin Jamdar noted, underscoring the fact that economic activity and ecological protection must be balanced.

Outmoded ideas

While progressive cities around the world are investing in public transportation and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, the Mumbai Coastal Road proposes an outdated model as a solution to a twenty-first century problem. Although it is being built on the promise of commerce and connectivity, the project actually foregrounds the interests of a limited population, mainly that of an elite. There are also allegations that the land generated by the Coastal Road reclamation will benefit builders, in a larger nexus with politicians.

While for now, the law has intervened in favour of sustainable development, Mumbaikars ought to heed the lessons of their past. Jejeebhoy’s nineteenth-century diaries are preserved in the University Library, a stone’s throw away from the Bombay High Court. His exchanges with colonial officials reflect how a private individual could flourish through balancing the public good with his own self-interest.

The city needs a new citizens’ movement, one that can work with the government to foster development that benefits all. Rather than land, we must reclaim Mumbai’s spirit of public-mindedness, and ensure that we safeguard the environment for future generations in the process.

Aaran Patel is an educator and photographer who has worked with Teach For India for the last four years.