The Bandra Worli Sea Link is an ubiquitous symbol of 21st century Mumbai. The 5.6-kilometre cable-stayed bridge is a remarkable technical feat, the first of its kind built over open seas in India. To Mumbai’s elite, the Sea Link epitomises connectivity and a jet-setting lifestyle. To the city’s aspiring classes, it is bound up with dreams of dignity and escaping the crushing commute of overcrowded local trains and buses.
Visuals of its towering pylons have become staples for photographers, Bollywood films and even some of the city’s design iconography.
But while the Sea Link has become a prominent architectural landmark, it caters almost exclusively to Mumbai’s privileged car-owners. It was not designed for travelling by foot, two-wheelers, three-wheelers or public transport – modes of transit that encompass the majority of trips in the city every day.
It is worth examining how the Sea Link has become such a defining feature of the city, its spatial and social impact, and whether similar infrastructure projects should be prioritised in the future.
The Sea Link is the first major operational part of the planned 36-km Western Freeway from Nariman Point to Mumbai’s Western suburbs. Its eight lanes of well-paved tarmac offer a temporary reprieve from Mumbai’s potholes and crawling traffic. Many Mumbaikars have grown used to speeding along the Sea Link, only to spend anywhere between 15 and 45 minutes stuck in traffic at Haji Ali while heading south, or idling at interchanges near Lilavati Hospital and Swami Vivekananda Road in Bandra while heading north.
As of 2017, data from the toll-collecting entity, MEP Infrastructure Developers, reflects that in contrast to the expected daily traffic of 1.2 lakh vehicles, 37,336 use the Sea Link each day. The Mumbai Mobility Forum notes that traffic growth on the Bandra Worli Sea Link is only 1% per year. Increases in the toll, the lack of complementary infrastructure and poorly-planned approaches at both ends could explain why the Sea Link caters to less than one-third of the original estimate of the daily average users.
This has important financial implications. After initially being estimated at Rs 400 crore, the project cost escalated to more than four times that amount. The Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation is yet to recover the Rs 1,634-crore cost for building the Sea Link and will need to continue charging toll for the next 40 years.
Perhaps this planning and accounting failure has prompted the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai to make the Mumbai Coastal Road, for which the southern section alone will cost Rs 12,700 crores, toll-free. Instead of following a users-pay principle, the cost of the coastal freeway will be incumbent on all of Mumbai’s taxpayers while catering to one out of 50 citizens – those who own a car and commute along the city’s western coast.
Over the past year, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai and its contractors, Larsen & Toubro and Hindustan Construction Company, have been irrevocably transforming the city’s western waterfront to build the 9.8-kilometre Coastal Road from the Princess Street Flyover on Marine Drive to Worli Sea Face, where it will connect with the Sea Link.
This plan has been contingent on controversial recommendations from a 2006 transportation study. The report’s suggestion to invest in more roads was questioned by several transportation experts and urban planners. In the time that has elapsed since, the nature of mobility in Mumbai has also changed dramatically. In spite of investments in a series of flyovers and freeways, the city’s roads have grown even more congested.
According to a 2018 study by TomTom, drivers in Mumbai expected to spend an average of 65% extra time stuck in traffic, making it the most congested city in the world. The pattern of land use has also altered considerably as commercial zones are no longer concentrated in the southern business district.
This has presented the opportunity to combat the housing and spatial inequalities along Mumbai’s North-South axis and invest in East-West connectivity. Most significantly, the city has commissioned 12 Metro lines to reduce traffic congestion and supplement the network of local trains. Metro Line 3, connecting Colaba–Bandra-SEEPZ, in particular, has an expected daily ridership of nearly 14 lakh passengers.
Beyond the glamour
The Sea Link quite literally dwarfs what is being left behind and looms large over considerations about what constitutes progress. The bridge is the pride of the city, and to visitors, reflects the idea of Mumbai being modern and developed.
Some view its neighbouring fishing village and Grade-I heritage listed Worli Fort as a hindrance to “development”. With the sea on three sides, a medieval bastion, and residents who continue to practice artisanal fishing, the Worli Koliwada has much to say about the city’s past.
The Sea Link has transformed the Kolis’ relationship with the sea. Unlike large-scale, commercial trawling, the Kolis’ limited resources and sustainable, small-scale practices make them entirely dependent on the tide to harvest catch from the shallow seas.
According to urban researchers Shweta Wagh and Hussain Indorewala, in addition to siltation from the project’s construction, the narrow width between pillars of the Sea Link’s southern viaduct have made it dangerous for fishermen to navigate their boats. This has considerably decreased the window in which they can make safe passage to their nets just beyond the Sea Link, as there is the danger of crashing into submerged rocks or the bridge’s supporting pillars.
To add to the fishermen’s woes, the dumping of debris for the Coastal Road could entirely decimate their livelihood by destroying the rocky intertidal shore that fish use as their breeding grounds.
In the last decade, marine biologists and enthusiasts have paid closer attention to Mumbai’s coastal ecology, which supports a range of aquatic species including corals. It would be a grave injustice to destroy these social practices and marine life to facilitate a car-centric model of urban development. No after-thoughts, such as compensation to the Kolis or transplanting of corals, would make up for the damage to Mumbai’s social and environmental fabric.
The Mahim Bay has also been collateral damage. According to some scientists, alteration in tidal patterns because of reclamation for the Sea Link has led to the erosion of beaches at Mahim and Dadar. Largely out of sight to the city’s elite and tourists, the beach lies strewn with trash. Recently, citizen groups such as Mahim Beach Clean Up have taken it upon themselves to sort, separate and clean the waste that washes up on the shores.
Perhaps Mahim Fort will also need similar attention from citizens in order to battle the forces of tide and time. Built in the 16th century, the fort was established as a strategic stronghold to protect the city from pirates and invaders. But its foundations are crumbling and after years of willful neglect, the structure is imperiled by the misplaced priorities of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai.
For decades, concrete tetrapods have served as rudimentary barriers against coastal erosion, particularly in the monsoons. Coastal Road contractors have also employed tetrapods in an attempt to forestall the sea from washing away sections of the 90 hectares of “reclaimed” land.
While tetrapods may have been makeshift solutions in holding the forces of nature at bay, they are unlikely to be of much use against rising sea levels.
Projections suggest that by 2050, large swathes of Mumbai’s landmass could be inundated due to a combination of storm surges, heavy rainfall and the ever-rising tide. As Mumbai faces this existential threat, its coastal ecosystem will play a vital role in protection against floods and storms. Research suggests that mangroves, wetlands and other natural ecosystems are more important and less expensive than artificial barriers like sea walls in mitigating the impact of a changing climate.
Protecting these natural barriers and restoring coastal ecosystems also has economic significance: The devastating floods of July 2005 cost Mumbai an estimated $1.7 billion in damages. At current levels of flood risk and with minimal protections in place, Mumbai is estimated to lose $6.4 billion per year over the next few decades.
Ironically, one need not look further than the Coastal Road Detailed Project Report commissioned by the city municipality to understand the importance of mangroves and other natural barriers. “By trapping silt, mangroves maintain the integrity of Mumbai’s shoreline,” it states. “This is an integral service to the city of Mumbai as it is very prone to erosion, having been built on reclaimed land that is battered by the sea on all three sides. The recent rains in Mumbai and the disaster that followed demonstrated the consequence of tampering with the ecology of fragile ecosystems like mangroves. Had Mumbai’s Mithi River and Mahim Creek mangroves not been destroyed by builders, fewer people would have died and the property damage would have been dramatically less.”
However, the report also refers to the protected mangrove forest as a “constraint” at some points.
The Bombay High Court’s July 2019 order on the Coastal Road offers direction on how to resolve this conflict: “the traditional concept that development and ecology are opposed to each other is no longer acceptable”. The order suggests that instead of this false dichotomy, “sustainable development is the answer”.
Car-based transportation networks are increasingly viewed as antiquated and hazardous. The negative economic, environmental and social externalities associated with car dependence are well documented. Over the last few years, many Mumbaikars have been afflicted by smoky skies and have begun paying close attention to the air quality index to track pollutants from heavy industries and vehicles.
With cars off the roads, the improvement in air quality during the Covid-19-induced lockdown has been distinct. According to a study by the System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research, transportation pollution levels in Mumbai decreased by three-fourths, compared to the period just before the lockdown.
In particular, there was a drastic reduction in the most hazardous forms of particulate matter. PM2.5 and NO2 levels dropped by 49% and 69%, respectively. Said Gufran Beig, the programme director of SAFAR, “Drastic NO2 decline in Mumbai and Pune indicate that vehicular emissions play a major role in contributing to overall air pollution.”
The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai can take cues from cities like London that are encouraging pedestrian and cycle-based access as they ease lockdown restrictions. Such solutions can play a crucial role in reducing respiratory disorders and improving citizens’ quality of life.
Mumbai’s viability as a home to its millions of residents and financial engine for the country is inextricably bound up with how the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai approaches ecological balance, and providing essential infrastructure and services. In addition to pressing public health concerns, the city could invest in public transportation through adding bus lanes on major arterial roads, increasing the fleet of BEST buses and enhancing the local train network through signaling systems.
Mumbai can prepare for the future by protecting its mangroves and wetlands, and upgrading its stormwater drainage system with pumps and overflow chambers to deal with flooding.
Investing in exclusive, car-based investments is quite clearly a road to nowhere. Authorities could pursue environmentally destructive projects with reckless abandon and risk sinking the city and its millions. Or they could prioritise development that sensitively protects nature and affords access, connectivity and safety to all citizens. If Mumbai chooses this equitable paradigm, it will also need to replace the Sea Link with a more progressive symbol.
Aaran Patel is a Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
The photographs and text in this photo-essay are copyright and exclusive property of Aaran Patel. The artist reserves moral rights to credit for the photographs and they cannot be tampered or edited in any way.